The Games People Play Before, During and After the Game

A team of sociologists takes a “tongue in cheek” look at the ritual of a football weekend at Notre Dame.

Only a small portion of the action at a Notre Dame football game takes place on the field, says Prof. John Koval, chairman of DePaul University’s sociology department. To prove his point, the former Notre Dame faculty member and four students observed the antics of the crowd during several football weekends last year. This is what they learned.

For five weekends each fall approximately 60,000 people go to South Bend to watch the Fighting Irish. For five weekends in the fall of 1974 we went to South Bend to watch the 60,000 people play. And how they play.

They arrive on foot, by car, camper and bus; train, plane and mobile home. Feasting on hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled steaks; ham, turkey and cold cuts. Prepared by self, friends, wives and caterers. Washed down by beer, bourbon and champagne.

This is Notre Dame football, and the festival that has come to surround football in America. And what a universal American festival it is. We’ve talked to Harvard fans, U.S.C. fans, Viking fans and L.S.U. fans in South Bend. While many admit they’ve “always wanted to come to a Notre Dame football game,” they also make it clear that, except for the details, they knew what to expect at the football festivities.

Woody Hayes usually has over 81,000 people attend his pre-game festivals in Columbus, Ohio; John McKay has more like 93,000 at his festivals around Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum. Darrell Royal has over 80,000 join him in Austin, Tex., and Bo Schembechler attracts a whopping 101,000 to his blasts in Ann Arbor.

Indeed, on any given Saturday in the fall you can find over three million people attending one of the more than 300 scheduled college games. In 1973 alone, more than 31 million people went to over 3,000 college football games in this country. Football freaks all? We think not. It’s a genuine, serialized American fall fest.

What goes on at a typical football weekend? Why do people go to such lengths to attend them? If you’re one of Notre Dame’s toll road alumni from Chicago, it might go something like this.

Things can start simply enough. A picnic hamper prepared the night before, some blankets, a cooler of beer and soda and, perhaps, some booze and an assortment of mixers. Lay them to rest in the back of the wagon on Saturday morning and you’re off.

At 10 a.m., you pull off the toll road at Exit 8, South Bend. The traffic is only moderately backed up—thanks to the opening of eight auxiliary toll booths. On Saturday South Bend becomes a world of one-way streets. As a result, the trip to “Green” parking lot is swift and uneventful. Tailgate picnics are already under way. It’s still early so you decide to do the campus. As you walk up Notre Dame Avenue toward the main quad you notice the campus hotel is already overflowing. It takes two or three years’ advance reservations—or connections—to get a room there on football weekends. Across the street the University Club is filling up for the big bash, too.

The main quad in the heart of the campus is just getting set up. The student vendors, like opera singers, are warming up their best barker’s voices. “Hot Dogs.” “Get your best Notre Dame hot dogs.” Just testing. Big business is still about an hour off.

The Golden Dome, that famous old Administration Building, beckons you. So you join the pilgrimage; everyone does—at least once. Some shrines are religious—the grotto replica of Lourdes, Sacred Heart Church; some are athletic—the Rockne Memorial Gymnasium, the $8 million Athletic and Convocation Center; some are historical/educational—the Golden Dome, the University library. Tourists and pilgrims alike hold John Huarte’s Heisman Trophy in as much awe as a religious relic. They are both, after all, sacred.

As you leave Sacred Heart Church you notice the tempo has quickened. People are moving faster. The vendors are louder. A line six wide and 20 deep is waiting to get inside the bookstore. No Notre Dame T-shirts or football helmets for you today. No matter. You’ve got a tailgate to get to.

It’s no easy task getting back to the parking lot. You wonder if some of the students are going to fall off their precarious third-floor perches as they watch the parade below; or, perhaps, be blown off by the blare of “The Victory March” from their stereos. Fluttering banners proclaim the virtues of the Fighting Irish and the low moral character of the Trojans—or Spartans—or Boilermakers.

Everything and everyone is alive. A rock band attacks your ears from one side; the marching band, warming up, from the other. A leprechaun appears from out of nowhere (but from where else?), a brass pot in hand, a shillelagh in the other. Since you’re going the same way you follow him (it?) into a parking lot where he’s besieged by photo buffs, well-wishers and offers of too many free drinks.

The parking lot is now jumping. A familiar face with a forgotten name offers you a drink you can’t refuse. More tailgates. Some are simple two-to-four person affairs. Other seem to string on for yards or simply blend into the next. Your eye catches a sign proclaiming “World Tailgate Record Set Here Last Weekend: 53 hours, 5 minutes.” Play is hard work for some.

Finally, you spot your college classmate and his wife, like always, parked right next to you—even the parking lot attendants know the rules. The charcoal is hot and your food and drink are ready. It’s football all right. The foliage looks like football. It feels like football. Damnit. It smells like football.

Many people in this country may identify “tailgating” with a particular form of bad driving but to any self-respecting spectator of football, tailgating only means a picnic eaten before a football game. It can be as simple as peanut butter and jelly or as lavish as prime rib cooked on an outdoor spit. You can eat by yourself or with every friend you have to your name. It can be served from your glove compartment or catered from a $30,000 mobile home. If it’s at a football game, it’s a tailgate.

For the purist, however, it must be from the tailgate of a station wagon—even if you didn’t bring your own. Take the case of the father who flew to South Bend from the East to visit his daughter at Saint Mary’s College and planned to take her and her friends to the game on Saturday. Since he wanted to do it up right, he called a local car rental agency to order a station wagon. They didn’t have any . . . and neither di any other agency in town. Fearless Father, knowing that style counts a great deal at such events, simply called Chicago and had his tailgate driven down to him. Costly but effective.

You also meet interesting people at a tailgate. One Saturday several years ago Jay Berwanger, the former All-American from the University of Chicago (and something less than a devoted follower of Notre Dame) was irritated and angry with himself for getting wrangled into attending a Notre Dame game, tailgating, the whole bit. A couple of tailgates down the way from him there appeared to be another Irish-hater, steaming and fussing. Berwanger walked over and tried to calm him down. “Look, I’m no lover of Notre Dame either,” he explained, “but why don’t we both settle down and try to enjoy the game.”

“Enjoy the game! Enjoy the game!” came the frustrated response. “Hell, I was on my way to Cleveland! I got routed by the state police from my lane on the toll road into this parking lot with the rest of the pack. I even had to pay a dollar to park. I’ve been here for over an hour and can’t get out until the @**/$c=# game starts.”

“If you’ve seen one, you seen them all” doesn’t apply when it comes to tailgating. Imagine 35-40 people descending the steps of a large bus that brought them to the game. They’re walking over to a huge camper parked parallel to it. Now you see two six-foot tables spread with white linen table cloths, candelabra, lazy susans, chin and silver service. Behind the tables are two caterers—dressed in what else but traditional long white chef’s aprons with jaunty white hats. The first is resting a huge slab of roast beef on a silver cutting platter and carving off slices that would do Tom Jones proud. The second is serving small brown potatoes from a silver chafing dish and pouring wine taken from one of several cases resting on the ground. If you’re brave enough, you can probably walk up and join in. For, if anything, tailgaters are exuberant and selfless. Everyone’s a friend at the game (unless you’re wearing an enemy sweat shirt).

For some, part of the fun of football games is “dress-up” or is it “dress-down”? Kids, in their version of play “dress up” like adults. In this case, many adults “dress down” like kids. What else would you call it when you see small groups of 45-55-yearold men parading through the parking lots and dormitory quads sporting green and white Notre Dame beanies (like any other freshman) with the white numeral from their football jerseys conspicuously showing through their blue windbreaker jackets?

Then there are others who make their own “dress down” costumes. Remember when you were a kid and pried the cork from the back of pop bottles and then stuck them to your shirt as a kind of badge? It is popular to spell out in beer caps the initials of the team on “football vests.” Others collect Notre Dame badges, pins or patches by the score and decorate their hats, the seats of their pants or whatever seems right.

Strange things happen at football games. People who toil with the rest of the world five days a week fighting traffic, crowded elevators and bosses seem to get bent out of shape. Picture this: You’re standing around the stadium waiting for ticket prices to go below a dollar, strains of “America the Beautiful” waft out of the stadium and then you hear sirens. Suddenly, two of the slickest looking motorcycle cops, astride absolutely the biggest choppers you’ve ever seen, screech to a halt 10 yards apart. A limousine pulls up between them, with a state police car completing the escort. Out jump an impeccably dressed young couple—pushing all of 30—and off roar the officers. The couple then melts into the crowd. You don’t even know if it all happened. Maybe you dreamed it—except your buddy saw it, too. You know by the look on his face.

Or how about that long, sleek, satiny black 1930 vintage Rolls Royce with Libyan license plates that’s around nearly every game? On this particular day it rolls up before the game in front of the VIP gate with two beautiful women sitting in the back—doing nothing. They just sit there until game time.

Not all is play, however. Americans usually find more than one (or even two) reasons for doing anything. Football is no exception; at Notre Dame, you’ll find:

— the geographically spread Notre Dame-educated family that uses one game each fall as a family reunion.

— the father, suffering from the American tradition of masking affection toward sons, who uses the game as an excuse to visit him—and misses the game because of an overly long personal talk during their walk around one of the campus lakes.

— the tourists who “have always wanted to come to a Notre Dame game” who are so busy looking through the lenses of their cameras that they can’t tell you what happened until the pictures are developed.

— the collectors who do tolerate that two-hour wait in line at the bookstore to buy Johnny a genuine Notre Dame football jersey to wear to school next Monday. What better way to advertise to the folks back in Altoona that you’ve been where the action is?

— the status seekers who, by dint of consorting at the Morris Inn, tailgating in their super-posh camper van in the VIP parking lot, or any one of a hundred other possibilities, make it clear that they are important and have clout.

— the pilgrims who admittedly practice the ritual of coming to the Mecca of football in American “at least once a year.”

— the adult groupies who hang around the outside of locker rooms before and after each game to see, talk to, touch or even smell the athletes.

If you arrive at Notre Dame on Saturday, you miss one of the more exotic events of the entire football weekend—the Friday night football rally. Part tribal ritual, part religious experience, part riot—it is unforgettable. Even the South Bend Chamber of Commerce recommends the rally to Friday arrivals as one of the more spectacular attractions of the big weekend.

“What though the odds be great or small . . .” The din of songs, chants, cheers and roars is trapped in the small geodesic-domed building along with 4,000 glassy-eyed, hoarse-voiced followers of the Blue and Gold. It’s a veritable sardine can, but totally alive. Singing and screaming. Clapping and pounding. And it’s suffocating. Shoulder to shoulder, front to back, the lights, the sweat, the horns, the drums, the screams all team up to first surround and then bombard one’s senses.

“Send a volley cheer on high . . .” Another refrain. The coach speaks. The words don’t matter. No one can hear. They’re all intoxicated in a natural non-chemical sort of way; just sheer enthusiasm, extreme sensitivity to moment and environment. They “let it all hang out.” The thunder is contagious. The sounds, the smells, the mass of scarcely moving people. Even the unknowing unfortunates who dropped in to watch are caught up in the hysteria. They’re all made you know—in a controlled sort of way.

Now that’s why we say there’s more than a football game going on out there. Want to try it? Well, it usually takes a couple of trips to get the hang of things but the following recipe should help contribute to beginners’ luck.


— Food? Any palatable sort that doesn’t strain the pocketbook.

—  Drink? Anything wet, cold or hot.

— Vehicles? Wagons preferred. Bicycles accepted.

—  Time? Get there early. (But if you decide to go to Cleveland, stay in the inside lane!”

— Company? Bring friends who know how to have a good time.

— Dress? Try something outlandish if you can handle it. Green or blue or gold helps, naturally.

— Tickets? Get them beforehand.


Liberally use all the ingredients to complement one another. Talk to strangers. Say you’re Irish. Make believe.