“Nick, do you think we’ll be able to see Touchdown Jesus from our seats?” I ask my brother about the infamous mural overlooking the football field.
“I dunno. I hope so.”
Nick and I sat in the back seat of our 1984 white-with-wood-paneling station wagon as Michael Jackson’s Bad played on our cassette player. We normally knew the words, but in our excitement we couldn’t remember them all. Or maybe we were too anxious to sing. We hadn’t slept the night before; our anticipation kept us awake through most of the night. Our matching blue-and-gold nylon windbreaker jump suits—I now shudder at the fashion faux pas our parents were subjecting us to—made swishing noises against the seats. We thought we looked good. We thought we were cool. We were wrong, but it didn’t matter because it was the ‘80s and we were on our way to watch our first Notre Dame football game.
My brother, Nick, and I have always been close. But when we were young we were inseparable. I was lucky enough to be included on some of the sailing trips he and his friends would take even though they were designated “Boys Only.” I was even allowed to join my brother and his friends when they would play homerun derby at a park near our house. And I almost always got invited to play in the pick-up hockey, baseball, basketball or football games in our neighborhood even though I didn’t know all the rules and, to be honest, wasn’t very good. My brother made it a point to make me feel like I was welcome—for the most part—and never made me feel like a “tagalong.”
While playing football in the backyard with some kids from the neighborhood, Nick would always pretend to be Rick Mirer, the quarterback of the Notre Dame football team when we were younger. He’d hold out his hand in the huddle pointing out different plays for us. “Shannon, you run a flea-flicker left, slant right, and then look for the throw. Understand?” I’d just nod my head even though I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about. When I ran straight up the middle, caused an interception and lost the game for us, Nick would give me a high-five and said nothing of it.
Nick was obsessed with Notre Dame football. His best friend, JB, and he made up a song to the tune of “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” that had something to do with Notre Dame football. We, to this day, have the infamous “Play like a Champion Today” sign hanging in our basement along with about 20 pictures of Notre Dame Stadium. Nick even painted his football helmet gold to match the teams. Rudy_, the story of an underdog getting into Notre Dame and playing football, was a video we kept in constant rotation on movie night. We were a Notre Dame family through and through.
As we grew older, we began to drift apart. In high school we began taking separate paths in life. During those years the only time we spent together was the daily morning ride to school. And most of the time we were too tired to even speak. We still got along, but things were different than when we were younger. I was no longer allowed to tag along with his jock friends—I probably wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. And he definitely didn’t want to hang out with my rock-and-roll listening, dyed hair, artsy friends. In high school, Nick spent time in the athletic office; I spent time in the dean’s office. Nick hung out with the jocks; I hung out with the kids who smoked cigarettes between classes in the parking lot. He got the book smarts; I got the street smarts. He planned from day one to go to Notre Dame to become a doctor; I barely have a plan now.
Nick’s class load in high school reflected his dedication to achieving this dream: Honors Anatomy, Honors Chemistry, Advanced Placement Biology and Advanced Experimental Methods. He achieved all the academic requirements to attend Notre Dame through hard work; he had more heart than anyone.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when I came home from school one afternoon and found an envelope lying on our kitchen table. The Notre Dame emblem suggested this was what Nick had been waiting for. Now that I look back at it, the huge envelope that was busting at the seams should have been an indication of his acceptance, but as he carefully tore it open, I held my breath. Not that I should have been nervous. My brother has worked toward every dream he’s ever had. And going to Notre Dame was my brother’s first goal. I was the first person Nick told when he got into Notre Dame. Even though we hadn’t shared much in the years we were in high school together, I was there to share that moment with him.
I can’t remember who played against Notre Dame in that first game we went to. I can’t even remember if Notre Dame won. But I remember those atrocious blue and gold jump suits—what were our parents thinking?—and the way the grass seemed greener inside the stadium and how the gold helmets sparkled in the sun and how the players looked so tiny from our seats. Mostly I remember my brother and how excited he was just to be there. Here’s my brother, umpteen years later, graduating from Notre Dame. He’s all grownup now; he’s ready to face the world. In the movie, Rudy says “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.” Nick’s first dream of graduating from Notre Dame has become a reality. But another dream will surely come along that will make life tolerable again.
_Shannon Reifstack is a student at DePaul University. Her brother received a degree from Notre Dame in 2004. Their father, William Reifsteck, is a 1978 graduate of the University.