In the early 60’s, Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh was committed to moving Notre Dame to the top echelon of American universities, not just best in class of the Catholic schools. Hesburgh understood symbolism, and the campus was expanding Eastward with Keenan and Stanford, Stepan Center, the Computer Center and the forthcoming ACC. So a decision was made to build the then largest on-campus college library in America. But the mission given to the architects was to create an imposing structure, eloquent as well as functional.
The library was going to replace the old library which is now the School of Architecture. One of Notre Dame’s most long-standing values is to cherish undergraduate education, and while pursuing greatness as a graduate and research institution, to not do so at the expense of undergraduate vibrance. The new library was designed to be versatile. The bottom two floors, the base, had plenty of table space and carrels to accomodate undergraduates who preferred to study with the feng shui of a library, rather than the cacophony and hijinks of the dorms. The upper portion of the library was a tower designed for specialized and graduate studies.
The South Panel of the Library Tower
The South panel of the library tower was going to be its visual signature. The decision was to make a mural commemorating “Christ and the Saints of Learning.” The working title of the mural would be “Word of Life” It would unify the Divine and the Academic. It would show, in a rare setting in Catholicism, Christ surrounded by some of the great theologians, doctors and teachers. The usual suspects: the Gregory’s, the Jerome’s, Augustine of Hippo and the great Thomas Aquinas, author of the Summa Theologica. (if anyone is in the mood for some spiritual reading,or wanting to give spiritual instruction to children or grandchildren, read Aguinas’ treatment of the Seven Sacraments. It is breathtakingly compelling regarding the power and synergy and interdependence of the Seven Sacraments.)
The “Word of Life” mural was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phalin of Winnetka, at a generous $200,000, in 1963 dollars. The library dedication was planed for May, 1964, just after Note Dame had hired some guy name Parseghian as its football coach.
Millard Sheets was the artist, and the way he chose to design the his mural was to place Jesus at the top with arms upraised, apparently anointing and rejoicing over the work of the teachers and doctors portrayed below him. Or so the story goes. Some presenters would have chosen a Last Supper style array. Some would have had a circle with Jesus surrounding by the doctors, teachers or theologians. But not Millard Sheets.
Visibility of the Mural
It was presented in front of a reflecting pool just South of the Library. You could see it if you were walking on the Southeast portion of the campus. You could see it pretty much from anywhere in the South half of Notre Dame stadium, at least before the mid-90’s expansion. The tricky part of the stadium view was that you could just see Jesus, but not the saints of learning. Obviously, with that setting and that view, it didn’t take long………
How the mural became Touchdown Jesus
Once the ’64 football season started, with Ara’s first year and Heisman John Huarte throwing TD passes to Jack Snow, Touchdown Jesus was born. It was particulary visible the higher you were in the south portion of stadium, and perfectly positioned for the cameras atop the West side press box in Notre Dame Stadium. The nickname caught on right away and, along with the camera and aerial shots of the Golden Dome and Sacred Heart, appears on every telecast. Touchdown Jesus is know to millions who have never been near Notre Dame stadium. It is visible from fewer seats in the stadium, since the mid-90’s expansion, but the next time you watch a Notre Dame telecast, note how long it is before they show some or all of Touchdown Jesus.
Campus Football Tutorial
There are football fans, alumni and others, who have grabbed the hand of a child or grandchild during their first visit for a Notre Dame football game, and executed a particularly instructive show-and-tell on the way to the game. It’s simple. You start at the Grotto and tell the story of Tom Dooley, and light a candle or two or a dozen. You then walk up that small embankment until you’re in front of Corby Hall. You spend less time talking about Father Corby and the CSC residents, then you do in pointing out the perfect, clearly visible hand raise of ol’ “Fair Catch Corby.” You talk about the wisdom of the fair catch, (as long as you’re not inside the 10!)
You then shoot an azimuth ESE toward the Hesburgh library, approaching the library from the West. And there he is, index finger raised, ol’ “First Down Moses”. You then circumnavigate the library counterclockwise from 9 o’clock to 6 0’clock and first look at Toouchdown Jesus directly, then in the reflecting pool, and then just before you enter. You see, Rocket and Watters and Mike Miller and Zbikowsi can’t return every punt for a touchdown. At Notre Dame it’s an okay sequence. Fair Catch Corby, First Down Moses and Touchdown Jesus.