Authors: Ralph McInerny
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For Charlie Callahan
At the Notre Dame Grotto, which is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, votive candles cast flickering light on the statue of Mary. Before her kneels St. Bernadette in prayer. On this Saturday evening, she was joined by bands of bewildered fans who had crept down here from the stadium seeking spiritual consolation in their gloom.
“We could have won.”
Strange remarks in a sacred place? Prayer is a many-faceted thingâpetition, thanksgiving, repentance. Why should sharing one's disappointment with the patroness of Notre Dame after one more loss not find entry on that list?
Many had not laughed when Trooper Tim McCarthy, in the closing minutes of the game, told his awful joke and urged them to drive carefully home. Some were not even in the stadium at that time. Did fellow Christians linger in the Coliseum while their friends were fed like lunch to the lions? Nittany Lions.
The pain that follows the loss of a game in which one's favorite team has played would not, for many, rank high among the sorrows of the Western world. There are always philosophers among us, measuring our joys and griefs on a scale that diminishes both. But philosophers are often wrong. Some of them speak of language as a gameâbut can you lose it? The grim either/or of an athletic contest, win or lose, is tolerable before the game begins, but who can take comfort from that disjunction when the final whistle has blown and another loss has been recorded? For centuries, men and women have gone on pilgrimage for less, and so these fans have come to the Grotto.
Elsewhere, tailgaters gathered around their vehicles, no remnant of the elation they had felt before the game visible. Some of the kidsâah, the resilience of youth!âwere passing a football back and forth. The football is an oddly shaped object, meant to travel in a spiral when thrown. A ball tumbled through the air, end over end, and was caught. A cheer went up. The mourning adults looked sadly at their offspring.
The parking lots began to empty; tens of thousands of cars were expertly directed by the local constabulary and sent on their way. In a few hours most would be gone, back to Chicago, to Detroit, to all points on the compass. When they reached the toll road, they could look back and see, in the waning light of the day, the great statue atop the golden dome, Mary standing tall and unbowed, looking south. It might have been the direction in which the team had been headed since the beginning of the season.
In Holy Cross House, the residence of retired members of the Congregation that had founded Notre Dame, an old priest read his breviary. “How long, O Lord, how long?” He might have taken it as the psalmist's desire for refuge. He might have taken it more personally, as a reference to his own approaching death. His eyes lifted from his book to look across the lake at the now illuminated golden dome. He sighed.
Yet another loss.
How long, O Lord, how long?
The 2007 season began with a loss, never a good sign, but what prophet or pundit could have predicted what lay ahead for Notre Dame? Mark May of ESPN excepted, of course, but then a constant Cassandra, like a stopped watch, is bound to be right once in a while. Student sportswriters on the various campus publications ranked the initial performance of the team and found it wanting, yet all were ready to accept and expand upon the excuses that emanated from the athletic department. This was a young team. Too many starters from the previous year were gone. Brady Quinn was gone. Three different quarterbacks were tried in the first game! Not to worry, once that problem was settled and a starter chosen, things would fall into place. Well into the consecutive losses, these loyal sportswriters were predicting Notre Dame victories in the next contest.
Hope is a fragile thing, trust less so, but the two become linked in the minds of football fans. As the losses mounted, at home and away, every game televised nationally, thus giving the collapse of the Notre Dame program maximum coverage, criticism began. The first demand that Charlie Weis must go appeared in the letters column of the
. Surely a band of loyal and affluent alumni could be found to buy out Weis's contract and bring in someone who would restore the fortunes of the storied team.
Already, summer soldiers in the stadium had expressed their discontent with a play, a halted drive, a missed tackle, sometimes in other than colorful language. This was standard fare, and these were fans whose emotions swung easily from elation to gloom even in the best of seasons. Criticism from students expressed days after a game when presumably reason had reestablished itself suggested a more serious problem. The appeal to the alumni had not attracted the millions necessary to buy out the coach's contract, but it did elicit rumblings from the far-flung Notre Dame family.
It would be difficult to explain to someone from another planet or even another country the role that football plays at the University of Notre Dame. Once incoming freshman had been shown
Knute Rockne, All-American
, starring Ronald Reagan and Pat O'Brien, to orient them. More recently,
improbably served the purpose of instilling in incoming students, should they need it, an understanding of the mystical significance of Notre Dame football. During their four-year stay, most will respond to this message. The student section in the northwest curve of the stadium, recognizable by the identical T-shirts worn, is always full, and the students stand throughout the game. Win or lose, after the game the team comes to stand before this section, helmets aloft, to salute their fellow students and thank them for their support.
When these young men and women go out into the world as alumni they do not, as the graduates of other colleges may, lose touch with the Saturday doings on fall afternoons in South Bend. A contract with a national television network ensures that every game will be brought to them wherever they may be. Often they gather under the auspices of the local alumni club and renew that sense of mystic solidarity that was theirs when as students they followed the game inside the stadium. Indeed, the sense of solidarity with the university and the teamâa distinction without a difference in the minds of manyâincreases as graduates age away from their days on campus. Even those few who had been less than enthusiastic fans of the team as students find the true faith entering them in later years. There are homes from coast to coast, otherwise indistinguishable from others in the neighborhood, that are gripped in gloom in the days after a Notre Dame loss. And, it must be said, there are triumphalist alumni who stud their lawns with leprechauns, fly green pennants from the corners of their garages, and sometimes even rush into the street to shout and cheer, doubtless to the mixed reactions of the Purdue and Michigan and Southern California alumni in the neighborhood. These enthusiastic souls would be put to a grim moral test during the historic 2007 season. Many did not pass it.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The symbiotic connection between the American college and football goes back into the dim past of the nation. Institutions of learning, most of them founded under religious auspices, accepted the ancient maxim of
mens sana in corpore sano
. Games, unorganized at first, were encouraged on those modest campuses of yore. Our prestigious institutions of higher learning all had modest origins: sectarian, local, their faculties far from the stellar quality that many later would achieve. The rivalries between them were seldom of an intellectual sort; rather, they were sectarian, regional, even social. The members of the Ivy League grew from unprepossessing seedlings, and the games played on their campuses evolved from intramural exercises to contests with rivals; the annual games with Yale or Harvard or Princeton slowly became legendary. Universities founded later mimicked this tradition, and then, one fateful day, hitherto unnoticed Notre Dame beat the invincible West Point team and the Fighting Irish became a national phenomenon.
The Catholics of the country, particularly Irish Catholics, saw the team as their champion in a WASP world, a mode of upward mobility. The subway alumni, more passionately partisan than those who had actually attended Notre Dame, were born. The schools of the Big Ten and then other regional conferences arose and soon eclipsed the Ivy League. Athletic activities were no longer more or less happenstance manifestations of school spirit but the planned and public manifestations of these institutions. Professional football, at first a poor cousin of college leagues, began a steady climb to prominence that was sealed by the advent of television. Once-local clubs, like that sponsored by the packing industry in Green Bay, outgrew their modest beginnings. Professional football was soon big business, with profound consequences for the college game.
College athletes became a recruiting pool for professional football, and the once self-contained campus activity, a four-year involvement sufficient unto itself, came to point beyond, to a career, eventually to a very lucrative career. It was here that a divide occurred. Under this new dispensation, the teams of the Ivy League faded from importance. It was seldom that student athletes from these schools sought or were sought by the prospering members of professional football leagues. In those historic institutions, the game was played as before, with little or no interest in a continuation of the activity after graduation. The storied rivalries among them continued but took on the quaint air of the superseded. Some, like the University of Chicago, abandoned organized athletics entirely and withdrew from competition. The surprising suggestion was made that colleges and universities were chiefly aimed at the acquisition of knowledge and culture. Academic excellence became a watchword. Elsewhere, it was different.
Two truths, once held in precarious balance, came to seem almost contradictory. On the one hand, the aim of a game is to win; on the other, a salutary reminder, a game is only a game. On some historic campuses the latter truth prevailed, on most the former, and these began to professionalize their athletic programs. Coaches were no longer, as in the long ago, simply plucked from the faculty, as Knute Rockne had been taken from the chemistry department; now there were national and public searches for coaches who could ensure a winning program. Television upped the ante. There was money, lots of money, to be had from college football. The bowl games, a story in themselves, became paramount, brooding over the regular season like its ultimate end, a promise of millions more as the old year turned into the new. The professionalization of college football was in fact a fact.