Neither Jim nor I was what you’d call in great physical shape. We curled around the south side of the stadium and sprinted west across campus. I crossed myself as I passed under Touchdown Jesus. The Notre Dame marching band approached the north end of the stadium, snare and base drums echoing across the campus. I tripped over the foot of a sousaphone player. We were forced to walk around the procession as opposed to through it, the forearm of an Irish Guardsman—a six-and-a-half-feet-tall, kilted beast of a man—nearly decapitating me. I patted Number One Moses on the head. I saluted Fair Catch Corby. I crossed myself again at the steps of the administration building, smiled at Our Lady atop the golden dome.
By the time we descended the stairs behind Sacred Heart, Jim was hyperventilating. We reached the bottom of the steps. Jim hunched over, panting. “I sure…hope…this was worth it.”
Evidently in a little better shape than my roommate, I patted my front right pocket. “Some things just have to be done.”
Tucked in a small hillside just behind Sacred Heart Basilica, the Grotto is a one-seventh scale replica of the original Grotto of Our Lady in Lourdes, France where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette. Dozens of white votive candles are perpetually lit inside the cobble-stoned sanctuary, with that number climbing into the hundreds on gameday—and the thousands if ND happened to be playing Michigan, USC or Miami. Boston College was not necessarily a big rival, but the fact it was a fellow Catholic school inflated the numbers. “The Holy Cross Brothers versus the Jesuits,” Dad would say, always putting these games in their proper context. It just wasn’t Notre Dame football unless Dad and I were deluding ourselves into thinking God gave a shit. Mom even made sure not to clean the house in the days leading up to away games. She knew she had a captive audience and that Dad and I would be up by the crack of dawn Saturday, vacuuming and dusting with the firm conviction the Lord frowned upon a dirty house on gameday and every good deed would be rewarded by an additional Irish first down.
Today’s BC game was the first Notre Dame game I had ever attended without my father. He lost his life in an automobile accident one month prior.
I lit a candle, dropped a dollar in the collection box. A kneeler and a wrought-iron fence ran the full width of the Grotto. A kid with a maroon and gold BC sweatshirt—translation “heretic”—crossed himself and backed away from the kneeler. I took his place. I pulled the rosary out of my pocket.
The rosary once belonged to Grandpa Roy, my Dad’s father. He carried it with him during the war. Oxidized brass links connected fifty-nine beads of black onyx. Fifty-four of the beads converged into a brass Sacred Heart pendant, from which hung the remaining five beads and finally a brass crucifix. It smelled old and metallic—like your hand after you stuff it in a jar of pennies, like your father’s blood when you saw him in the emergency room that one last time.
I wrapped the rosary loosely twice around my left hand. Using my right hand, I held the crucifix in between my index finger and thumb. I recited “The Apostle’s Creed.” I grabbed the larger bead just above the crucifix. I recited the “Our Father.” I grabbed the second, smaller bead. I said a “Hail Mary.” I grabbed the next bead, repeated the “Hail Mary” a second and third time. I moved to the fourth smaller bead, threw in a “Glory Be.”
I stopped. That was all I had in me. I shoved the rosary back into my pocket. I know people who make it through a full rosary every day. And not just one time around the horn. We’re talking the full three rotations. It comes out to seventy-five Our Father’s, one-hundred-and-fifty Hail Mary’s, and another seventy-five Glory Be’s. Grandpa Roy tried making me sit through one of those once when I was a kid. I made it about a third of the way in before my knees went numb and I started doing the pee-pee dance. Thank the Lord Jesus Christ for eight-year-old bladders.
“Ten minutes ‘till kickoff,” Jim said. He stood behind me, arms folded.
“I’m ready,” I said. I jumped up, gave my kneeler to another insipid BC fan.
The Young Republicans talked us into bratwursts in front of Doyle Hall. Jim handed me the mustard. “You know,” he said, “for someone who isn’t the biggest fan of religion these days that was quite a show back there.”
“Notre Dame football is the closest thing I have to religion at the moment.” I talked with my mouth full, my resentment perfumed with the odor of bratwurst and too much mustard. “Now let’s go watch the Holy Cross Brothers kick some Jesuit ass.”
We made it to our seats right before kickoff. But we missed all the pageantry: the gold helmets pouring out of the tunnel in the autumn sun, the band’s high-step routine to “Hike Notre Dame,” the “Notre Dame Victory March,” even the national anthem and “America the Beautiful.” A former Irish drum major, my father would have been pissed.
At 6-1-1, Notre Dame was ranked #8 in the country. Their two missteps were the tie versus Michigan back in September and the loss to Stanford the Saturday after Dad was killed. Boston College came in with a 7-0-1 record and a #9 ranking. This was the highest both teams had ever been ranked when facing one another. I noticed someone in the stands holding up a poster that said, “The Pope needs four tickets.” Notre Dame won the coin toss, deferred to the second half. Boston College chose to receive. The Irish defended the south goal. I expected a good game.
So much for my expectations.
Two Boston College fans arrived late to the game, towards the end of the first quarter. There was a TV timeout on the field, so the teams were huddled on opposite sidelines. The two BC fans sat down next to us and one of them complained, “We didn’t realize there’s an hour time difference between Chicago and South Bend. The last thing we heard when we parked the car was that BC had just kicked off. What’d we miss?”
“Guys, I don’t know how to tell you this,” I said, casting a nod up at the scoreboard.
At the 4:22 mark of the first quarter, with more than three-fourths of the game still left to be played, the scoreboard read “Notre Dame 21, Boston College 0.”
Jim volunteered to drive the first shift home back to Indianapolis, at least until my Jim Beam buzz subsided. “Where’s the president’s Doomsday Plane?” he asked.
“Grissom Air Force base,” I said. “It’s farther south, in Peru.”
“I thought Peru was the Circus Capital of the World.”
“Is there a law that mandates it can’t be both?”
“Guess not,” Jim said. “Some game, huh?”
“Impressive,” I said. “We scored the first four times we touched the ball.”
We didn’t say it out loud, but the highlight of the game was halftime. The “Rudy” camera crews rolled out of the tunnel. A bunch of extras in vintage 1975 Notre Dame and Georgia Tech football uniforms stormed the field. They executed about a dozen plays. We were given cues to cheer. Dad loved the Rudy story. He had circled the BC and Penn State games on the calendar back home on our refrigerator. He hoped he might get on camera. I cried when they carried Sean Astin off the field. Like the moment in “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner asks, “Dad, you want to have a catch?” this was the scene in “Rudy” that would forever reduce me to a puddle.
The final score was Notre Dame 54, Boston College 7. Coach Holtz called a fake punt when the Irish were up 37-0. I still couldn’t get that fake punt out of my head. “That’s not Notre Dame football,” I said to Jim in the stands. “That’s crap.”
Jim and I switched drivers at the McDonalds in Rochester. I noticed the billboard on the way into town: “Home of the 1987 IHSAA Football 2A State Champion Rochester Zebras.” I attended that state final in the Hoosier Dome. The Zebras beat Cardinal Ritter 23-20. That was when Mom taught at Ritter, back when we lived on the Southside of Indianapolis. It was something like a 45-minute commute for her. Just curious, what the hell does a backwater town in northern Indiana have to do with a freaking zebra?
“You want anything?” Jim said. He handed his money to the McDonalds cashier.
“Maybe,” I said.
Jim handed me a five spot. “My treat.”
I ordered two cheeseburgers and a large Coke. I pulled out my wallet to dig up some change. My ticket stub fell out, fluttered down to the floor.
“I got it.”
He was a middle-aged man, close to my Dad’s age, or possibly a lot younger—his multiple chins, pudgy fingers and bad complexion telltales of a life given over to fast food. He picked up my ticket. The ticket was white, with an embossed Golden Dome logo on the left. The number “150” fronted the Golden Dome in blue script, with the words “1842-1992 University of Notre Dame” in smaller type beneath the number. The middle-aged man eyed the ticket. A look that bordered jealousy without quite getting there. The food must have been distracting him.
He handed me the ticket. “Great game today,” he said. “54-7. I didn’t see that coming.”
“Me neither,” I said. “The fake punt though, that was low.”
“’All is fair,’ they say.”
“Maybe,” I said. The cashier handed me my burgers. “But stunts like that always end up biting you in the ass.”
I had saved all my Notre Dame ticket stubs going back to the Georgia Tech game in ’78. I was six years old when I watched Vegas Ferguson rush for a school-record 255 yards. The streak ended at the bottom of a McDonald’s trashcan in Rochester, Indiana. I missed my father, and throwing the ticket away just seemed like the thing to do.
A little over one year later, Notre Dame got bit in the ass. Boston College kicked a last-second field goal to shock Notre Dame 41-39 a week after my Irish had defeated Florida State to claim the #1 spot in the polls. All I kept thinking was, “Lou, why the hell did you go for that fake punt when we were leading 37-0?” Little did I know as David Gordon’s 41-yarder split the uprights that it would be the last time Notre Dame would be ranked #1 in the country.
Fast forward to 2009. It’s been sixteen years since that bitter defeat. Sixteen years since Notre Dame really mattered on college football’s biggest stage. With Boston College looming once again on the horizon, the Irish have a chance to make yet another so-called statement game—a chance to prove that the Notre Dame we saw in the last 13 minutes of the USC game is for real.
Compared to some of my ND peers, I’m not as ambivalent and certainly nowhere near as pretentious when it comes to the BC rivalry. They’ve handed us our lunch on a Communion plate for the better part of a decade. And between our shared Frank Leahy ties and our status as the only two Division I-A Catholic schools, there’s an undeniable connection between Notre Dame and Boston College. I don’t want to argue whether BC deserves to be called our rival, I just want to soothe my post-USC wounds.
I just want to watch the Holy Cross Brothers kick some Jesuit ass.
(Author’s note: a tip of the hat to UHND poster “NDavenue,” whose story about the two BC fans I admittedly borrowed in describing the ’92 ND-BC game.)