The First Saturday in Ordinary Time

He didn’t even know they were playing, but finding the Fighting Irish on TV eased the strain of the moment and offered a restorative flight of memory.

Author: Brian C. Mahon ’04

It’s Saturday, September 12, about six months into this pandemic-driven lockdown. I’m home, safe, where the pleasant weather and soft breeze carries the humming tones of homeowners tending yards and pressure washing concrete. The decline in humidity and mild sun take me back to college in Indiana, where I first encountered the hints of changing seasons, real changing seasons.

Because of the COVID-19 disruption, I had forgotten about the college football season. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I gave up on it, rather than forgot. I thought it was abandoned after hearing that the Big Ten was foregoing the season. I didn’t question it, since the pandemic has gutted many other facets of the former “everyday life.” The week’s major priority was just getting the children started with elementary e-learning; sports was relegated to an afterthought for 2021.

But then my wife, ever more connected, said to me, “Are you going to watch the game?”

When she asked, I was planning my afternoon: mow the front lawn while laundry dried on the line, then on to the back yard.

“What game?”

“Duke versus No. 10 Notre Dame. What does that mean?”

I was stunned at first. What was she talking about? Was it a classic game? Those air those sometimes. Once I understood her question, a giddiness came over me and I hovered in the kitchen, mentally negotiating the conflict between household priorities and an unconfirmed athletic event. There they were on my TV, the coaches and players, masks on, social distancing, in a stadium with fewer fans than it has held in almost a century.

I watch the Fighting Irish every season, but I’ve never been a huge football fan. I never had the dedication to know individual players’ strengths and weaknesses or the relative power of the different conferences. Well, except the SEC. I’m not blind — they are hard to avoid.

Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

But today, it is happiness to see those players on the field, to see Brian Kelly marshal the forces at the onset of another season. In the moments before kickoff, I’m sensitive to the crowd, to the players on the sidelines, watching their faces, verifying that they’re being careful so that no post-facto analysis could determine that this single game led to some future outbreak. I’m sure that the following months will judge how well the team controlled its exposure. But today becomes a suspension of reality, a suspension of the constant stress from the pandemic and a break from the litany of responsibility, a return to a simpler snippet of life.

Football, with Notre Dame athletes on the field, restored a little normalcy. In my joy, I came to a new understanding of why sports can be such a necessary and cathartic relief. It isn’t just the spectator’s thrill of never knowing what will happen once the play starts. It isn’t just the pride in seeing your collegiate heirs climb the national rankings. Football (yes, football) provides a restoration of spirit, the recollection of sensations that can temporarily remove one’s self from the problems of right now and transport them to the good times “back then.”

This year has taken its toll on the nation’s mental health, our physical and psychological infrastructure besieged by the pandemic, fires in California, hurricanes in the Gulf, protests against injustice, riots born of pain and panic, and what seems to be further schisms in the national fabric along a partisan hemline. A momentary reprieve is no shame if it revitalizes the spirit.

On this day, I can forget the list of menial chores I drafted for myself. I can be back at the North Dining Hall, having my “two plate special” (random main course plus heaping plate of crinkle fries), then walking to the stadium with the boys, our clique flowing with the crowds, watching the sister and brother halls march in clapping, cheering, painted columns. I’m brought back to chilly days and biting winds, taking refuge in O’Shaughnessy, DeBartolo or Galvin, of postgame celebrations with the “Notre Dame Victory March” blaring through open windows and echoing across the quads. It also reminds me of the days the dorms were quiet, muted by another loss.

I don’t long so much for yesteryear that I think of the University that often, but this happy distraction has me mentally tracing my steps through snow-laden winters and the beautiful blossoming of spring. Football. Who knew that football could be such a catalyst?

Reaching deep to the emotions that animate memory, I’m amazed at the perspective 16 years provides, how immutable truths and beliefs shift over time, how a young life’s worst worries and biggest calamities become embarrassing blips, laughable and sweet. Exam performance as the big terror is replaced with actual employment performance, where it’s not just a letter grade on the line, but a paycheck, a mortgage, what one can provide for their family. Once upon a time, the drunken antics propagated by movies like Animal House, Old School, and Van Wilder seemed fun. Now those indulgences seem like a way to make short work of all efforts to excel.

That was youth. Despite all the responsibilities and new selves adulthood grants — those of employee, partner, doctor, husband and father, wife and mother — there was a period in all our development when all those selves were just “me.” The psychological links we have to those days may be few, spontaneously found in yearbooks or the occasional alumni club email. But days like this, like today, which pair the turning weather with the A/V stimulation of gameday, provide a palpable tow line that pulls memories, good memories, from the mental recesses. For just a few hours, it strips the layers of selves away and exposes the core youth who once left home to learn who they were. In just a simple football game, there is communion of former and present aspiration, rekindling an inner fire.

It is catharsis.

The game was close initially. Sometimes I’d rather witness total domination, even if excitement is inversely proportional to certainty. In the end, we won, Notre Dame won.

A pleasant day of peace and temporary wholeness.

Brian Mahon is a former Keenanite now living in Virginia with his wife and two sons. He received his B.S. in biological sciences, has a background in nuclear power and is a writer in his free time.