I'm not quite sure when I became a Notre Dame fan, but it was early enough in my childhood that I've known no other love in the football world. Growing up an Irish Catholic in Chautauqua, the western most county in New York State, I lived seven-plus hours from South Bend, but I was always close in spirit.
As a young child I have three distinct memories about Notre Dame football. The first was walking across Route 20 to my grandparent’s house and visiting with my grandpa while he watched the Irish on television. This may have occurred only two or three times, but the impression was vivid.
Secondly, the image of the golden helmets and deep blue uniforms seemed so regal and majestic when combined with the up-tempo option attack offense utilized under Lou Holtz. And the last memory is that of Raghib Ismail, "The Rocket", and his No.25 jersey flying down the field appearing as the fastest human ever to wear football pads.
As I grew older the hectic life full of sports and friends prevented me from watching more than a few games a year, but the passion still existed. I read up on the history of the university and its storied football program, amazed at the fortitude and level of winning that had been built in the small Indiana town.
Only by the time I reached college in 2001 was I able to watch all Notre Dame games. I'd shamefully missed the bulk of a dozen years of Irish football, but at the start of this new century I vowed to never miss another game as long as I could help it.
Fast forward to the summer of 2008 when my job brought in workers from my company's other branches across the country to help with our increased workload. In all, twenty people showed up from Washington, South Carolina and....South Bend, Indiana.
Immediately the thought popped into my head: Maybe one of these people could get me tickets to a Notre Dame game? However, after a few moments the idea was tucked away deep into the recesses of my brain; ultimately I was afraid of raising expectations and being let down if I asked.
So, summer ended and the football season began. The workers left after a few weeks visit to Western New York. I thought about the missed opportunity, but shrugged it off. "It would have been nice though," I said to myself.
Then one evening I was sitting in my living room as I often do, mostly reading a book, but watching television whenever it caught my attention. From the other room my girlfriend sat down in the beige leather chair to my left. A few moments passed as I kept my head down reading, before finally looking up and seeing her in a striking yellow Notre Dame t-shirt.
"Hey! Where did you get that!?!?" I exclaimed, never before seeing her in any Notre Dame apparel.
"I bought it," she said matter-of-factly with a slight smile on her face.
"Where?" I asked.
"Online," she said.
"Did you get me anything?" I asked slightly puzzled.
"Nope," she said with a straight face.
"Are you serious?" I asked again.
"Yeah. Don't you like this shirt though?" she said.
"Yeah I do," I said hiding my anger and jealousy.
I returned to reading my book absolutely baffled as to why she would go out of her way to buy a Notre Dame shirt, not get me anything, or even tell me she had wanted something in the first place. Yet, I found it very attractive that she was wearing the shirt anyway.
After five minutes of silence I looked up at her with confused and saddened eyes, trying to make sense of what she had done.
"I'm just kidding," she blurted excitedly. "I bought you something!"
"You did!" I said relieved. "What did you get me?"
"I got you a t-shirt too," she said walking to the bedroom as I anxiously followed.
She took the shirt, folded and wrapped in plastic, out of a large bag and handed it to me. It was a deep green color and I flipped it over looking at the front with two helmets facing each other.
"You got me a game day shirt for the Stanford game?" I said puzzled once again.
"Yeah it was the only shirt they had in your size," she said.
Feeling as if my emotions were being tossed around like a fish in a Seattle market, I walked back into the living room holding the t-shirt in the bag. I sat down and ripped the shirt out of the bag taking a look at the full logo on the front. Underneath the shirt still inside the plastic a white envelope lay bent slightly in its corner.
"What's this?" I asked her.
She just smiled as I opened the envelope and found myself staring straight into the face of Ara Parseghian. They were two tickets to the Notre Dame-Stanford game in October!
Suffice to say, it is very hard to explain how I felt at that moment. I never really thought I'd be able to go to a Notre Dame game and certainly not at this young of an age. I had talked with friends about buying tickets years in advance, but it always seemed like a distant dream.
But here I was holding two tickets to a Notre Dame home game in only a few weeks time. My girlfriend had worked at my job for some time before leaving to pursue her engineering career, but she had secretly asked one of the South Bend workers to get tickets to an Irish game if they could. And the rest is history.
We left the Thursday before the game driving all the to the Indiana border before finally giving up for the night. To save money we decided to sleep in her Chevy Aveo at a rest stop off of the highway. I would not recommend this. Barely able to move or stretch my legs out I didn’t get much sleep but it didn’t matter.
On Friday we arrived at the house of the friend that had given us the tickets. We stayed in a small lake house of his friend's across the street. After dropping our belongings off we made our way back down south and toward Notre Dame. Even the day before the game I was anxious and nervous.
After a half hour ride the golden dome appeared on the horizon as we slowly rolled into South Bend. Following our directions we made our way to the main entrance and turned onto campus. Driving down a road cut between a row of trees on both sides, the golden dome shimmered directly in front of us in the afternoon sun.
It became one of those life defining moments where a dream so special, yet so simple in a way, became reality. Much more than a college or a football program, I felt a sense of welcome and comfort that is difficult to explain.
We parked near the football stadium and made our way around to the back following the crowds of people. It was a strange feeling walking along the side of the stadium as you make it to the back as it meets the proper part of campus.
There's such a rich history of greatness surrounding you and it's overwhelming at times. Yet the campus feels discernibly modern and you're surrounded by people so many people that you feel very in the moment. Yet, you feel the ghosts of all those legends that once walked that same ground.
Standing at the back of the stadium a few Cardinal players walked up the tunnel and into the visiting locker rooms. “There’s the enemy,” I thought. But I had too much respect for Stanford and everything around me to harbor ill feelings. I was so happy to be there that nothing was going to upset me.
A few moments later head coach Jim Harbaugh stepped out of the tunnel and spoke with a few people at the stadium gates. “He’s a lot taller in person,” I said to my girlfriend explaining to her that he was a former NFL quarterback.
I finally got close enough to the gates and through the small crowd of people to get a good look inside the stadium. Straight ahead through the lingering darkness and cement, the green turf of Notre Dame Stadium stood awaiting tomorrow’s battle.
We toured the campus, marveling at its beauty and taking dozens of pictures. We spent a long time outside Hesburgh Library taking pictures of Touchdown Jesus and reading the story behind the painting. All around us the campus was expertly sculpted and all the people seemed happy as they too took in the whole scene. This is how I always pictured Notre Dame.
We then headed into the heart of campus, stopping to take pictures of the golden dome and other statues and buildings that seemed so clean and polished. “I bet those sand blasting companies that we passed coming down get a lot of work here,” I remarked.
Our last stop of the day was at the Notre Dame bookstore. Never before has a store nearly brought me to my knees. “I want one of everything please,” I thought to myself. After more than an hour of enjoying the store I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything.
“You’re not going to get anything?” my girlfriend asked.
“There’s just too much stuff here, I can’t make a decision after only an hour,” I said.
We left the store emptied handed and get into the line for the pep rally already snaking its way along the main parking lot. All around us people were clothed in Notre Dame apparel and it felt like Heaven to me. I’d never met any of these people but I felt like our common bond made us the closest of friends.
I bought a program to pass the time as we waited for the line to begin shuffling into the arena. Less than an hour later we found ourselves sitting on the top row inside the Joyce Center looking down at the basketball court below.
We cheered and we cheered listening to the players' and Charlie Weis’ speeches. When it was all over my hands were numb from all the clapping, but I was too excited for tomorrow’s game to notice it much.
On Saturday morning we woke up early and headed back to campus ready to experience the main event. We parked on the far side of campus and walked back to the stadium parking lot only to find it relatively empty. It was still six hours before game time so we happily walked through the campus once more.
Within an hour the campus was flooded with people and the excitement and anticipation of the game filled the air. Little kids played football across the vast lawns, students sold food and drinks, and thousands of people huddled near the administration building and its golden dome waiting for the Band of the Fighting Irish to arrive.
After a brief journey inside the ornate Basilica of the Sacred Heart we headed to the grotto in what is one of the most exquisite and magnificent scenes in the whole country. It is here, tucked away in a corner below the church and near the lake, that the spirit of Notre Dame is most embodied. Whatever it may be or whatever you want to call it, the truth remains, you feel it at the grotto.
We made our way back to the front of the golden dome and the entire campus was jammed full of people. Waiting near the church we hoped to see the players make the walk to the stadium but we learned from overhearing others that they had left a long time ago (our only disappointment of the trip).
After enjoying some food we made our way back to the stadium parking lot to find it filled with Irish fans and their tailgating regalia. We mingled with a group for a while sharing a few drinks before deciding to head into the stadium.
Entering the front gate another feeling of history smacks you in the face as you view the inner walls of Notre Dame Stadium. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Holtz, Hornung, Montana, and Brown all called this home. It sent shivers down my spine thinking of the special coaches and athletes who had played here.
Walking up the first tunnel we could find, my first glimpse of the field made me think of how big the stadium looked once you get inside it. The field was so green and looked as if it had been primed for months as both teams stood stretching over its entire span. My first look at the Notre Dame football team in person was something I’ll never forget.
We moved relatively quickly to find our seats and they were very nice indeed. Sitting about twenty rows up in the middle of the southern end zone I couldn't have been happier. The field was so close I wanted to run onto it whenever the Irish scored.
The best part of the game itself is experiencing all the things you don't see or hear on television. Instead of a snippet of the team's run on the field that you see on television, you get to experience the entire build up to that moment. You hear the band playing the entire game and the student body cheers and it’s all so much better in person.
The game itself was decent enough from the viewpoint of a fan. Notre Dame played pretty well but could not run the ball for the life of them. Of course I wanted the Irish to win, but I don't think a loss could have spoiled the entire experience that much. No matter what this was one of the best days of my life.
What was interesting to me was how quiet the game seemed at times. For the most part the fans around me were very tame and made little noise except in key situations. Without any music blaring from the PA system it was a marked difference from an NFL game.
Yet, however quiet it seemed to be, there was a feeling that this is the way it should be. There is the sense that this was how the game was played when Knute Rockne coached and that tradition and aura of winning in that atmosphere permeates the whole stadium. There are just the players, the fans, the stadium and little else. Less is more is a good way to describe a game at Notre Dame Stadium.
The game went down to the wire, although it shouldn't have, and a brawl nearly erupted as the game ended. Cooler heads prevailed and the Fighting Irish escaped with a 28-21 victory over the Cardinal. Waiting for everyone to file out of the stadium we sat in our seats for a while soaking in the atmosphere as much as we could.
I turned around and decided to take a picture of the scoreboard so that I could always remember this game in case I never made it back. I was sad that the game and our trip was over but I was eternally grateful for having the opportunity to make one of me life’s dreams come true.
Much to my surprise, I recently found out that I would be getting tickets to another game in 2009 and I'll be able to relive the experience all over again when the Midshipmen from Annapolis come to South Bend in November.
It might be a little colder than last year's game but I expect the trip to be every bit as amazing as it was last year. Go Irish!