One of the things that has always been a mystery to me is the University Notre Dame’s (“ND”) and its fan base. Growing up in the mountains of Virginia most people cheered for one of three college football programs – Virginia Tech, Virginia, or Tennessee. Many people were fans because they or their family members attended those schools (I am a proud Cavalier Volunteer) and others because of their proximity to those schools. The proximity fans I can understand, it makes sense, they love the sport and they pick a Division I team that is nearby. Fair enough.
What I don’t understand is the large number of ND fans that exist in the world. All over the country. Seriously? How does a Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana become the favored team of people everywhere? And when I say favored I mean these people are tattooing the leprechaun on their bodies, flying flags on their cars, and doing all manner of crazy, committed-fan-things. It’s confusing especially when my conversations with these people go something like this:
Me: Did you go to Notre Dame?
ND Fan: No.
Me: Are you from Indiana?
ND Fan: No.
Me: Are you Catholic?
ND Fan: No.
Me: Are you Irish?
ND Fan: No.
Me: Have you been to South Bend?
ND Fan: No.
Me: Then why Notre Dame?
The answer to that last one ranges from “I just do” to talk of “traditions” that the fan has never experienced themselves or something related to the fact that they are always on television. I don’t understand it and I cannot deny that this odd loyalty to ND has, along with the fact that they are constantly on television and over-rated, caused me to dislike ND. I am not a fan.
But, because I pride myself on being fair and trying something before I say I don’t like it, I took myself to South Bend to watch the Fighting Irish play Michigan State. I committed myself to doing it right – seeing all the monuments, experiencing the traditions, and being open-minded about it all. This also allowed me to check another Big Ten stadium off my “to visit” list.
The game was a hot mess. There was not one sustained drive until Michigan State started the second half. The Irish won, but not impressively.
The experience, however, was far more impressive than the game. The ND fans are friendly, passionate, and interesting. For example, my neighbors by my seat were super friendly people. To my left was a Catholic couple who went to Michigan State, were cheering on the Irish because their son teaches there. The sweet wife immediately struck up a conversation and about religion in which she educated me on how the Catholic church marginalizes women and how Pope Francis’s admonishment of the church’s wrongs was too little too late. To my left was a large man who loves ND. He did not attend ND and he’s not Catholic or Irish, but he lives in Northeast Indiana so he gets a proximity pass. He loves ND so much that he has 5 tattoos celebrating his team, including a giant Leprechaun tattooed on his back (luckily, I did not see this but I believe him) and the college’s logo on his ankle (which I saw).
I was also the happy beneficiary of help with campus navigation by friendly ND fans and ND staff. There were lots of smiles and hellos all day.
The stadium, however, is not as nice as the fans. It seems that there isn’t a bad view in the stadium, but the bleachers aren’t much to sit on. The stadium bleachers are wooden 2x6s bolted to the risers. Not comfortable, not wide enough, and they have crammed too many “seats” into a row. I was shocked and disappointed to say the least. My high school’s bleachers are more comfortable. My other issue with the stadium is the score board. ND doesn’t have a jumbotron. Seriously? Can you really consider yourself a world-class Division I program without a jumbotron? I need to be able to watch replays. I am a spoiled UVA and Tennessee fan, both have jumbotrons. The athletic department, donors, and administration at ND need to step it up here and join the 21st century.
Then there is the matter of Touchdown Jesus. I have to say I was not fully comfortable with it. It is a beautiful piece of artwork, definitely, but calling it Touchdown Jesus doesn’t seem right. I mentioned this to my neighbor in the stadium, the Catholic feminist to my right, and she quickly responded “well it is no different then calling a pass a Hail Mary.” True, and I had not thought of that (I am very Protestant), but still, it seems somehow disrespectful coming from a religious school.
The ND band was definitely a high point. The band is only one fire baton short of being fabulous. Really. In the South the marching bands have fire batons and that is my standard for greatness, so, the Irish just missed it. The band’s performance was great. However, I was most intrigued by the Irish Guards. I had no idea theses guys existed in the world. I enjoyed their inspection drill and their halftime marching performance. Very neat. I also loved that the band sits on the field. Initially, I thought this was awful, because it appeared that they had to stand the entire game, but when I realized they could sit down I found the proximity better for hearing and somehow more collegiate than having them in the stands. I do love a marching bad.
The grand traditions are also worth loving. Visiting the dome, the basilica and the grotto were alone worth the trip. It must be lovely to have such grandeur on your campus, although I imagine more than one 20-year-old has taken it for granted. I watched the band concert and the march to the stadium. No detail is ignored at ND it seems. The reverence and respect paid by ND to its traditions and buildings is something worth experiencing. It is also very Southern. The South loves and is often hyper-focus on tradition and pomp and circumstance and there is definitely an air of that at ND. It is grand and I enjoyed it very much. I even bought a shirt (gasp!).
All in all, it was a good experience. The campus is beautiful, the people are nice (and if not, they are at least entertaining), and the tradition is a lovely and grand one.
But, make no mistake, I did not leave South Bend a fan. I still think they are the media’s pet and annually overrated, but I do understand a little better now why they are beloved by the masses.