Maybe you hate Notre Dame, but I love it — and you would, too, had you ever been there.
I’m not talking about the football team, I’m talking about the football feel on the campus of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary.
BYU, which travels to South Bend to play the Irish on Saturday, has the words — Tradition. Honor. Spirit. — written on its football field. Notre Dame has them etched into its pigskin-covered soul.
It is a place so rich in tradition, you can’t kick autumn’s leaves across its sidewalks without looking up at the blue-gray October sky, without hearing the Four Horsemen thunder by, without gawking at Touchdown Jesus, without stopping by the Sports Heritage Hall, where all those national championship and Heisman trophies sit on display next to a piece of the wing extracted from the wreckage in which Knute Rockne died.
They lay it on thick there. But, man, if you like college football and have any sense of history, ND is a place that has to sit near the top of your bucket list. I’ve been to a hundred football palaces, but there are only two where the first time I walked on the fields within them, I actually leaned over and touched the ground, trying to connect with a storied past. One was at the Rose Bowl in 1983. The other was at Notre Dame Stadium in 1994.
Yeah, there are a lot of Irish haters out there, but most of them haven’t made the trek to the spot that is, even in leaner times, on any given Saturday, the epicenter of college football. They, too, would be impressed. They might understand why Manti Te’o fell hard for the place. They might even find themselves tripping over to the school’s bookstore, which in the hours before a game is as crowded as a Manhattan Macy’s three days before Christmas. I went in just to look around and ended up with a bagful of footballs, hats and sweatshirts for the kids and a bowser bowl, with a faux Ara Parseghian signature, for the dog.
Anybody who’s been there knows exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t have to be a fan to pull out the American Express. I swear, it just happens. Before you turn around twice, you’re a shopping fool who owns a bunch of blue-and-gold junk you know you don’t want or need.
That’s the high power of Notre Dame football.
Speaking of higher powers, the two things that are everywhere on campus are God and football, not necessarily in that order. The holiest places: two cathedrals. The first is called the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the second is where Notre Dame football is played. On Saturdays, before games, the team, decked out in ties and sports coats, makes the walk from a student worship service inside the basilica to its locker room at the stadium. It’s one of many cool traditions so prevalent there.
I’ll never forget the first time I visited the basilica, on a bright, sunny October day, almost 20 years ago. Colorful maple and oak leaves framed the scene as a priest walked in front of the chapel’s door as two boys in Irish jerseys tossed a football back and forth on the lawn. Sure enough, a wayward spiral drilled the priest in the forehead, snapping his glasses. He just smiled and granted forgiveness.
ND Stadium’s appearance was changed during renovations a few years back, the functionality forever altered. The old press box had been dark and antiquated. The day I was there, it had a trail of rat droppings on the work counter. The new press box is a state-of-the-art amphitheater, top drawer all the way. The stadium’s low-slung outer brick walls are now surrounded by modern supports for expanded seats around the building’s upper edges. It’s kind of a head-on between the days of raccoon coats, when Rockne ruled, and the here-and-now, when Brian Kelly is trying to re-establish the success of the past, ever under the watchful eye of the school’s famous mosaic, on the wall of the adjacent library, that lords over everything.
Touchdown Jesus is a depiction of Christ, his arms lifted overhead, signaling a touchdown. OK, not really, but that’s what it looks like. There’s also an on-campus statue of an Old Testament prophet with his index finger pointing forward called … First-down Moses. At another place is an image of Father Corby, an honored past president of Notre Dame, with his hand raised skyward. He’s known as … Fair-catch Corby.
It’s all in good fun. Nobody with a brain around there connects competitive success with Deity’s good favor. God, after all, is not a rooting fan. But, alongside Catholicism, the obvious main force at Notre Dame, football is a kind of secondary religion.
That’s the backdrop against which BYU, also no stranger to the faith-and-football mix, comes to the school on Saturday, for its fifth visit.
The Cougars shocked Notre Dame in 1994, winning 21-14. Overall, they are 1-3 in South Bend. In order for them to have any shot this time around, they will have to remember the words of former BYU receiver Tim Nowatzke, who characterized the key to victory in ’94 this way:
“We talked about it all week. We’re not playing the Four Horsemen, we’re not playing Joe Montana, we’re not playing ghosts or history. We’re just playing football. That’s what we did. We believed in ourselves and played the game.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.