There are people who hear the talk about the Notre Dame mystique—the Four Horsemen, the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus—and want to…how to put this…vomit.
This is almost understandable. From afar, Notre Dame appears to get way more attention and plays entirely too often on national TV than its failures against ranked teams in recent years would seem to merit.
But if you’ve ever been to Notre Dame on a football Saturday you know there’s no more wholesome and uplifting place to experience college football—at least not big-time, BCS-grade college football—than this scenic campus near the Indiana-Michigan border about 90 miles east of Chicago.
It’s the Mayberry of college sports.
Here are six reasons why:
1. Football Saturday on campus
You don’t just go to a game at Notre Dame, at least not if you’re smart.You spend all day on campus, which is really just all morning and early afternoon because Notre Dame doesn’t play night games at home.
Many people come to campus with no ticket or intention of buying one. They’ll tailgate in the large grass field a mile north of the stadium that serves as the largest parking lot and then watch the game on a portable TV.
On campus you’ll see the clichéd fathers and sons tossing footballs on one of the wide quadrangles. Smoke ascends from humble food stands set up in front of the dorms. Students grill burgers and brats for sale to make money not for themselves but their dorm’s charity.
Young boys wander the campus hawking game programs like newsboys from the 1930s. Many visitors light a candle in the Grotto or half-cave near the shore of St. Mary’s Lake. Notre Dame’s grotto is a scaled-down replica of the famous grotto at Lourdes, France, where the spirit of Mary (“Our Lady” or, in French, “Notre Dame”) is said to have appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl in the 1800s.
At around K-(kickoff)minus 45 minutes the military-style Band of the Fighting Irish lines up on a walkway in front of the golden-domed Main Building. The walkway isn’t very wide, so when this huge band divides into rows of five or six abreast, it stretches for what seems like a quarter-mile.
At a whistled signal, the band strikes up the world’s most famous fight song, the “Notre Dame Victory March.” Then, led by the leprechaun, cheerleaders and the towering, kilted Irish Guard, they “step off” or begin their march to Notre Dame Stadium. Hundreds of fans lining the walkway clap in rhythm, and as the last row of instrumentalists passes, the fans close ranks and follow in their wake.
2. Unlikely hospitality
“Welcome to Notre Dame” the smiling ticket taker says as you pass through the turnstiles. It doesn’t matter if you’re dressed from head to toe in the opposing team’s regalia. And it’s not just the hundreds upon hundreds of ushers who treat visitors as honored guests. Most fans are polite as well.
If the people taking your order at the concession stand seem unusually personable and non-scuzzy, that’s probably because Notre Dame lets local groups like Catholic schools staff the stands for a share of the profits.
During the pregame ceremonies, the Notre Dame band actually salutes the opposing team and their fans by playing its fight song.
A number of years ago Notre Dame discontinued the practice of announcing the starting lineups because students were engaging in an impolite practice. After each visiting player’s name was read, such as “At quarterback, Tim Tebow,” the students would reply “Sucks!”
Can’t have that.
3. Blessed relief from commercialism
The typical football stadium, college or pro, is covered with advertisements. Heck, the stadium names themselves are advertisements for airlines and cell-phone companies.
Astonishingly, you won’t find a single advertisement on the inside or outside of Notre Dame Stadium.
You won’t be subjected to commercials on the Jumbotron during timeouts either. Because there is no Jumbotron, just a conventional scoreboard with a relatively non-intrusive NBC Sports logo in one corner.
That logo and the overlong TV timeouts permitted to the NBC broadcast are about the only evidence of commercialism in the House that Rockne Built.
4. Egalitarian seating
There are no loges or skyboxes in Notre Dame Stadium. Almost everyone sits on aluminum or, in the original, lower ring of seats, wooden planks with no seat backs. Your ticket entitles you to a position on a plank marked by a number. Onto this number you may plant your butt.
The planks and numbers are slightly closer together in the lower bowl. During cold-weather games you will find yourself huddled hip to hip with parka’ed strangers. You can only hope that obese people are not overrepresented in your row or your space could cease to exist.
The stadium was expanded from about 60,000 to about 80,000 in capacity in 1997 with the addition of the upper ring. Before that, there was a joke that the university had already expanded the stadium one offseason.
They painted the numbers closer together.
5. A football Mass
A game in Notre Dame Stadium resembles, in some ways, a Catholic Mass. As with a Mass, lots of the same things are said and done every time, and it can be disorienting if you’re not familiar with the routine.
When the defense has the opponent in a third-down, students rattle their keys, signifying that this is a “key play.”
The intensely patriotic pre-game liturgy includes a solemn recitation of a mish-mash of verses from the Declaration of Independence and, I think, the Constitution, all to the tune of “American the Beautiful.”
There’s also the long-running tradition of the playing of “1812 Overture” and waving arms at the end of the third quarter, originally a salute to Lou Holtz.
The least pious of the practices has got to be when the Irish go on defense and the band strikes up the angry “Emperor’s Theme” from Star Wars. Students pump their fists in time to the music and chant, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
6. Fitting endings
Win or lose—and there have been plenty of humiliating home losses in recent years—every game day in Notre Dame Stadium ends the same way.
Students link arms and sway to the alma mater, “Notre Dame, Our Mother.”
The players amble over to the student section and salute their classmates by raising their golden helmets in the air. The ones in the stands really are their peers because unlike at the typical football factory, Notre Dame doesn’t cage its athletes in separate dorms.
At some point in the fourth quarter a retired Indiana State Police trooper, Tim McCarthy, will read a traffic safety reminder with his trademark word play at the end. (His original, from almost 50 years ago, was “The automobile replaced the horse, but the driver should stay on the wagon.”)
There will also be the announcement that 30 minutes after the game, fans can attend Mass in their choice of the beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart, catty-corner to the Main Building, or the utilitarian geodesic-domed Stepan Center on the path to the grass parking lot.
A fitting way to end what, for many, will have been a pilgrimage and religious experience.
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