The magic of Notre Dame football

Author: Dan Conboy

ND-Utah game photo by Matt Cashore

Rust-colored leaves crunched under my chubby 8-year-old body as I hit the ground and rolled over. Dirt in my mouth and leaves down my pants, I grimaced and shifted my Levis. I opened my eyes to the extended hand and toothy smile of Kev, my 5-year-old little brother. In disgust, I tossed him the ball. Nothing was said. It was just the two of us looking at each other with brotherly competitive stares. I realized that being the bigger brother wasn’t no longer enough to win our backyard football games.

As the sun set, we picked up our plastic football helmets and headed for the house. Anyone watching would have seen two young boys banged up and bruised wearing Notre Dame apparel and scuffed up Nikes, but to Kev and me, we were fully padded in the blue and gold of Notre Dame football gear after a tough game. To an 8-year-old, the crab-grassed and leaf-colored side yard of our southern New Hampshire home was more than just a long day of mowing and even longer day of raking. This was the most sacred place on the face of the earth: Notre Dame stadium.

Shockingly I did not stay 8 forever. Before I knew it I was a junior in high school, talking to my guidance counselor. She explained that I most likely did not have the grades to get into my dream school, Notre Dame, as my older sister had. Unphased by her analysis, I submitted the applications. On a breezy spring day I strolled to my mailbox and had my dreams crushed with a small envelope. Unlike my older sister, I would not be entering Notre Dame stadium every Saturday to cheer on my Irish. I would not be going for jogs around the lakes, walking by the reflection pool or praying at the Grotto. Instead, I stood on my cracked driveway thinking of the one thing in the world I wanted more than anything but could not have.

As any college denial story does, my life went on. Every Saturday I turned on channel 7 to watch the blue-and-gold break my heart or thrill me with victory. Unlike when I was 8, I did not have to sneak into my basement and tape the game over a Hallmark channel original movie VHS so I could watch later when Mom was not around. I was not sitting in my basement watching Rudy for the thousandth time. Nor was I wrestling my brother to the turf in our weekend injury-prone backyard games. I didn’t know it then, but holding the letter I never wanted to receive was the shotgun start to becoming a man.

My sister spent four year on the campus of Notre Dame, and I was privileged enough to visit her three times to see a football game. Our first 13-hour drive to South Bend, Indiana, felt like 15 minutes because I was so excited to see the game. Packed into our family’s Dodge, I sat next to my brother talking about the football team and the upcoming game.

Wearing my tattered #3 jersey, I stepped into beautiful Indiana sunshine along with thousands of fans. Walking with my father, I took in the sights and sounds of the campus and ate a hot bratwurst from a local vendor. Bagpipes sounded and people gathered to see the band before the game. Thousands walked the quads and tailgated with the same anticipation I could feel building in my chest.

On sensory overload, I walked into the stadium and sat on the old wooden benches. I could not take my eyes off the bright green grass and perfectly painted lines. I had spent my childhood sitting on the couch waiting to take this sight in, and it surpassed every expectation. Notre Dame had become an important aspect of my family’s life once my sister went there, and every one of us sat in awe of the stadium and game.

In a crushing defeat, however, the Irish fell, and we drove home disappointed. This team has a history of crushing defeats, and I was no stranger to that hollow, pit-of-my-stomach feeling I suffered as ND lost in overtime. Cramped in the car and leaning on my pillow, I thought about how much I wanted to go again. I would go to Notre Dame two more times, but I had no idea what kind of impact it would have on me or my family.

Scuffing my boots against the curb in Durham, New Hampshire, I waited for my father to pick me up. A year had passed, and once again I was headed to the Promised Land. Thoughts of Knute Rockne, Joe Montana and Lou Holtz jumped through my head. I was confident this trip meant victory and jubilation. We lost. I had spent another year waiting for my time to celebrate, and I spent another 13-hour drive home cursing myself for getting my hopes up.

By this time my family had become full-blown Irish fans, and my parents were as crushed as I was. I listened to my mother complain about defensive plays and turnovers, and I laughed at the irony. This was the same woman who would try to catch me watching Notre Dame games instead of doing homework when I was little. I shook my head and shook off the loss.

Eight months later my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everything changed.

On TV cancer is dramatic. Cancer is walks of hope, hopeful outlooks and a way of bringing a family closer. Cancer as I know it is none of that. It is improper diagnoses, teary nights, and genuine and uninhibited pain. My mom had multiple surgeries that were not successful, and I watched from afar as my parents’ love and patience were tested. Home was not home for a while, and it hurt me to see my mother in pain. It hurt me to see my father fight to get answers out of doctors and struggle to help my mom. As different as home and my mom losing her hair and dropping weight was, there was a constant. We loved each other, and we loved Notre Dame.

When it came time to drive to Notre Dame again, I knew my mom was exhausted and in pain. Yet even though she was hurting, she piled into the car with us on that Friday morning. The constant stress of the last few months was taking its toll, and I had not seen her smile in a long time. In my Dad’s typical fashion, he rounded us up with a smile and a loud, “Let’s go! GO IRISH!”

Of course the day of the game brought a cold breeze and plenty of rain. In the random lottery, we had won tickets right by the end zone and huddled in our blue parkas as rain patted down on us. My sister was a senior, and after four years of bad football teams, she was watching her last game in Notre Dame stadium as a student. Notre Dame was playing Utah, one of the top teams in the country, and I prayed we didn’t get embarrassed. Much like holding that letter on my driveway, I did not know the significance of the day.

Now as much as I love Notre Dame football, they can be pretty bad. I had seen two losses in the stadium, and I wanted my sister to spend her last game with a smile on her face. Shivering next to Kev, I wanted my beloved little brother to see a win because he almost loved them more than I did. I wanted my mom to finally smile, and I wanted my father to stop worrying about her for just a bit and actually have fun.

ND scored first, and I think I almost jumped on the field. I clutched Kev and jumped up and down in the puddles as 80,000 people screamed with us. The team then blocked a punt and ran it back to score again. Chaos engulfed the drenched stadium. Somehow we were winning. Kev and I were 8 and 5 again as we screamed at each other. Rain poured on us, wind cut through my jacket, and I could not have cared less. Halftime came, and we took a breather. I was accustomed to ND losing big leads, so I tried not to get my hopes up.

Cramped up on the soaked wood benches, I looked at the muddy field and prayed. To someone who does not have a true passion in life or has never put faith in something they cannot control, you could not understand why I sat and asked for help. It was not for football or winning or even Notre Dame. It was for my family, that I so desperately wanted to see be better.

I do not remember much of the rest of the game. I remember watching students rush the field in victory. I remember clinching Kev’s soaked jacket and tearing up in sheer joy. I remember looking for my sister in the crowd of jubilant, soaked students. I remember my father’s smile under his graying beard.

Most of all I remember how happy my mom looked. Drenched, in her wig and big ND poncho, she was the mom I had not seen in a long time. She looked happy.

My mother survived and beat her terrible disease. A lot of times I thank the doctors. Even more of the times I thank my dad. Most of the time, I thank Notre Dame football.

Dan Conboy lives in Windham, New Hampshire, with his parents, Bill and Beverly Conboy, brother Kevin, and sister MaryKate (ND class of 2011). He is a senior finance major at the University of New Hampshire.