Notre Dame is #1
It's a question I get asked rather frequently: "Hey man, why are you a Notre Dame fan?"
And the truth is I don't really have a great answer. I wasn't born into Fighting Irish fandom. I'm not tied to the Gold and Blue by anything familial, regional or religious in nature. The best I can offer is that in a former life, I might have been Rudy. No, not this Rudy (more on her in a bit). This Rudy.
I can trace my love for all things Gipper back to the Fall of 1988. I was 10, the Irish were No. 1, and if I wasn't a full-fledged "Domer" quite yet, any doubt would officially be erased on Jan. 2.
Led by the likes of Lou Holtz, Tony Rice and Raghib Ismail, Notre Dame dominated West Virginia in what was then known as the "Sunkist Fiesta Bowl," winning by two scores, finishing undefeated and capturing the program's 11th National Championship. I had no idea at the time, but I would spend the next quarter of a century chasing that feeling, waiting for No. 12.
Seasons came and went, many featuring high hopes, all finishing short of an ultimate goal. But amidst it all—David Gordon's kick in 1993, the "Bush Push" of 2005, an embarrassing stretch of 13 straight seasons without a win in a Bowl game, including an NCAA record nine consecutive bowl losses—my love for Notre Dame football never waned. In fact, as the years went on, and my foundation of knowledge and history increased, I only fell deeper in love with that squad from Northern Indiana.
As a high school senior in the Fall of 1995, I traveled to South Bend with family friends, spending the weekend on campus. I bought a t-shirt and a sweatshirt from the famed Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, and I still have both today (the sweatshirt, in fact, was a favorite of every one of my girlfriends, and is now an essential part of my wife's personal wardrobe).
I walked alongside the band as the horns and woodwinds belted the Notre Dame Victory March en route to the Joyce Center prior to Friday night's pep rally. And on Saturday afternoon I stood in the stands (the student section never sits) as my beloved Fighting Irish handled Boston College, winning by 10, in front of nearly 60,000 fans.
The trip went exactly as I expected, except for one minor detail: I no longer wanted to attend Notre Dame as a student.
To that point, I had always assumed I'd become a member of the Fighting Irish, painting my chest half blue and half gold, freezing my tail off and screaming my brains out alongside the rest of the student body on game days. But as a Jewish kid from Massachusetts with eyes on a career in journalism, I suddenly realized that going to a Catholic university in Indiana that focused on theology and the sciences, didn't really make too much sense.
So off to Syracuse University I went, where I learned a ton, had at least as much fun, and never once regretted the decision. But even as a proud member of the Orange, my heart was always, and still is, with the Irish.
On fall Saturday's in Central New York, while my friends, roommates and fraternity brothers all flocked to the Carrier Dome to watch Donovan McNabb, Dwight Freeney and Keith Bulluck, I was holed up in my dorm room or apartment, glued to NBC. Why? Because "The Irish" were on.
I never missed a game, rarely missed a play and allowed the actions of 11 guys my age to dictate my mood for no less than 48 hours. Yes, as I've gotten older, I've managed to gain some perspective. My life has evolved—various jobs, commitments and responsibilities have caused me to miss various contests—and when ND loses I can handle it. But I still don't like it. And I still love it when they win.
Now married for five years, (Notre Dame lost to Purdue on my wedding day, yet I still managed to find my way under the chuppah) one of the best parts about loving Notre Dame is sharing it with the people I love even more.
My wife Erin (not a bad name for an Irish fan, huh?) has grown to appreciate my passion for the Gold and Blue. Sure, as recent season's have seen catastrophic collapses and unimaginable slip-ups, she's questioned why I put myself through such torture.
But when it was time to add to our family, it was her idea to call our chubby Chihuahua Rudy. And though she drew the line at naming our first born son Ara or Knute, for my first Father's Day Erin did secure us tickets for a forthcoming game, shelling out quite a few shillings for seats in the visitor's section at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
And as Notre Dame defeated Boston College by 15 last month, running its record to a perfect 10-0, there was Erin, standing beside me (it seems 30-something Irish fans in the visitor's section don't sit at games either,) wearing that same old, ratty sweatshirt I had bought at the Hammes Bookstore 17 years ago, also on the weekend of a "Holy War" game versus the Eagles.
We had hoped to bring Oscar along for the affair, as the tickets were technically his Father's Day idea. But the surprising success of the season had pushed the game into primetime, and an 8 p.m. kickoff is no place for an 8-month-old, even one with more Irish gear than Regis Philbin and Condoleezza Rice combined.
Two weeks after taking in the tilt with B.C., Oscar, Erin and I (as well as Rudy, and her brother Jack "Swarbrick" Kurtz) were back in Manhattan, having returned from Thanksgiving in Massachusetts a day early. Our aim was to beat the holiday travel.
The fact that Notre Dame, now ranked No. 1 and still undefeated, was to play their arch-rival, in a nationally televised game that would draw more than 16 million viewers, becoming the most-watched regular-season college football game since 2006—well, that didn't hurt.
Resting comfortably on my couch, during the first half of ND's game with arch-rival USC, I received a Twitter direct message from a good friend who makes his living writing for a well-known periodical called Sports Illustrated. It read: "Enjoy it tonight man. I know you stuck with ND through the lean years. Happy for folks like you."
Aside from the fact that I was deathly afraid his message would jinx the game, and destroy the perfect season, I appreciated the sentiment tremendously. Mostly because he was so very right. I had stuck with the squad, and many of the years had been pretty lean.
Between 1997 and 2009, four different men were tasked with keeping the "Fight" in the "Irish." One of them, George O'Leary, lasted a mere five days, and never coached a single game or practice.
As for the great triumvirate of Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis? In 13 seasons they combined to lose 67 contests and win a grand total of one bowl game, the 2008 Christmas Eve affair in Hawaii.
Sure there were trips to BCS Bowls in 2001, 2006 and 2007. But those games all ended in embarrassing losses, by an average of more than three touchdowns, cementing the harsh reality that save for name recognition and alumni influence, that era of Notre Dame football had no business being on the same field with the likes of powerhouse programs from the Pac-10, SEC and Big Ten.
So, today, I am enjoying it. I'm enjoying the fact that Notre Dame is relevant again. I'm enjoying that they're undefeated, in late November, again. And I'm enjoying that they're No. 1, again. Will Jan. 7, 2013 feel like Jan. 2, 1989?
Will my 35-year-old body shed layers like a Chinese nesting doll, by the fourth quarter revealing the 10-year-old boy who was smitten for life when the Irish bested West Virginia for their last National Title? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
After all, beating defending champion Alabama in this year's BCS National Championship Game, and ending a streak of dominance that has seen six straight SEC squads hoist the Waterford Crystal football, is a pretty tall order. Nearly as tall as asking a fan to sit patiently through the "lean years," waiting for the next time to stand. To stand for an entire game. To stand by a team.