Friday, October 27, 2006

Friends and football

I had Monday off, so I planned to sleep in after working Sunday night -- the cap to a long day -- and then hunker down to recall the weekend before it was lost to me. While I failed at my intentions, Heather wasted no time pounding out a fabulously detailed recollection of 48 hours in South Bend. She must've typed on the flight back to L.A. or something. That, or she's just much more motivated and disciplined than I.

Five years ago, I sat in the bedroom of my first Edgewater apartment, SportsCenter on TV, Casey beside me for what must've been one of our first sleepovers at my new place, and I saw the crawl on the bottom of the screen that announced a home-and-home series between Notre Dame and Penn State for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, with the first game to take place in South Bend. We must've known already about the UCLA series that would take place during those same two seasons, with the locations the same as with the Irish-Nittany Lions coupling: 2006 in South Bend, 2007 at the other school. Five years out, and I was already giddy over the thought of two trips to Indiana, one with my oldest, best friend from back home who had gone to Penn State, the other with one of my closest college pals and her West Coast Bitch Posse crew of Bruin alumnae.

But then a lot happened in the interim four years. Matt, my longtime buddy, got married -- to a Domer who graduated the year before me -- and they just couldn't wait to start their family, naming their daughter Gwen back in May 2005. This past March, I got myself a new job, one that took me back into the sports news world and meant a non-traditional schedule working often on nights and weekends. I wasn't sure how it would play if I followed up two weeklong vacations within the first two months with various requests for weekends off so I could go see a couple of football games. I sensed, however, waning interest from Matt and Denise, and when I told him that I didn't think I'd be able to make it, he revealed the same thoughts from their perspective.

That left the UCLA weekend, which had the apparent misfortune of falling during the first weekend of the World Series. Luckily, that did not pose a problem and I was cleared for the trip in August. (Our related plans to make the return visit to State College and Los Angeles in 2007 will probably suffer the reverse fate -- I still hope to clear a September weekend next year to see the Irish in Happy Valley, but I will not be able to fly out to California during the first weekend of October during the first weekend of October to see my first game in the Rose Bowl.)

As the baseball season moved from August into the climax of September, I started to wonder whether the sports gods were going to be overly generous toward my teams. Having not grown up as much of a fan of the NFL, I have no solid allegiances to any professional football team. But with the best former Domer playing in Pittsburgh until this season and since marrying into a Steeler family, I have grown more and more fond of that team, which made our Super Bowl party this year more than just a night of eating, drinking and shushing during commercials. Then the Mets burst out of the gate in April and ran roughshod over the National League, all but making reservations for the World Series by Sept. 1 -- when No. 2 Notre Dame flew to Atlanta to prepare for its Sept. 2/my birthday opener at Georgia Tech.

First the Steelers, then the Mets and potentially the Irish, all winning or playing for their respective championships in the same season? Certainly it couldn't last.

And, alas, it did not, of course. First, the Notre Dame echoes remained somnolent in a tough home loss to Michigan in the third game of the season. The, a week later, the Mets labored to clinch the National League East while their pitching ace, Pedro Martinez, struggled to come back from an injury. They were at least able to complete the inevitable, securing the division and the best record in the National League, but on the eve of the playoffs, they learned that Martinez would be lost through the postseason with a torn left calf muscle and, a day later, that he'd miss the first half of next year with a torn muscle in his shoulder that would require surgery. No problem, they said, they still had the veteran and playoff-tested Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez ready to start Game 1 and be their new ace.

But on the afternoon before he was to start the first game, Hernandez -- whose age falls somewhere between 37 and 41, the discrepancy related to his Cuban roots and the nature of his arrival in the U.S. via raft in the early 90s -- tore a muscle in his right calf while jogging. What the heck is a 40-year-old pitcher doing jogging the day before his start anyway?! I asked. Who cares about conditioning at this point? All he has to do is pitch.

El Duque was not missed during the first round, when the Mets swept the Dodgers onto the golf course, but they could have used him in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. He was left off the roster and therefore unavailable, but he recovered enough that the Mets began discussing his possible return for Game 1 of the World Series, should the Mets advance. But last Thursday, in a cruel twist of Dan fate, former Notre Dame pitcher Aaron Heilman served up a two-run home run in the eighth inning of Game 7 that propelled the Cardinals into the World Series and produced the silver lining that at least now I could relax.

Back "home" again in Indiana

I've digressed. This is about football.

On Friday, I awoke after merely four hours' sleep to head to Newark Airport with Casey, who would be spending the weekend in Chicago with her dad, stepmom and sister. We met my father, who had flown in a couple of hours before us, and she headed off to the El while he and I picked up our rental car and chose I-294 as our best guess for a route from O'Hare to Indiana.

Having checked with a coworker from the area who had recently made the trip, I knew that no route south from the Windy City was clear of construction. And on a Friday, I knew I-90 -- the most direct route, but one that takes you downtown and past the lakeshore -- would be backed up by 1 p.m., which was when we were departing the airport. Heather and the gang was about an hour ahead of us, stuck in that I-90 traffic, but she'd mentioned that they'd probably need to stop for lunch at some point en route. We checked in with one another frequently, and when I announced our position as we approached the entrance tolls for the Indiana Toll Road, Heather exclaimed that they were roughly a mile from those very booths.

From that point, I set the cruise control about 5 mph slower than I'd been going and waited for them to catch up to us. When the blue Toyota Highlander appeared in my rear-view mirror, I waited for them to pass, waved, and remarked to my dad that Kevin -- riding shotgun -- had no idea who I was at first. Before Heather had completed the pass, however, I spotted the girls in the back seat through the tinted windows, waving, and Heather settled into the lane in front of me until we reached the last rest area before South Bend, 20 miles out.

We stopped there, said our hellos and caught up while Dad and I got our lunch at McDonald's. For the first time in my life, I did not order a burger and fries, not wanting to spoil our dinner at CJ's that night. A crispy chicken caesar and a Strawberry Passion Awareness Fruitopia it was for me.

I made the decision to approach South Bend from the west, getting off the Toll Road near the airport to avoid the exiting traffic five miles down the road and to bring the California crew up to campus in a more dramatic way. First we passed through the run-down western part of town, acknowledged the South Bend Tribune on our way through downtown and cruised the neighborhood streets south of campus, crossing St. Peter, St. Louis and other avenues familiar to us from friends who lived there during school and the parties they threw. At Notre Dame Avenue, we turned left, heading north, and saw the Golden Dome emerge through the autumn-hued oak trees. Standing sentinel on either side of the road, their branches met in an arch over our heads and parted like two cells in a Disney film as we passed beneath them, revealing the gilded centerpiece of campus. More than once, I've heard a story about how Father Hesburgh, the iconic president emeritus of the university, once met an unsuspecting freshman (or prospective student) on a flight into South Bend and offered her a ride to campus. "Close your eyes," he instructed as they approached from the south, as we did on Friday. Only when they'd made the turn and the Dome came into view did he tell her to open them, an audible gasp escaping her mouth as she took in the sight.

South Bend has two distinct smells in October. One is the ethanol wafting from the processing plant on the north end of campus, the other the scent of burning leaves on block after block in the surrounding neighborhoods. It's this second scent that brings me back to my college days, that last fall spent just a few blocks east of campus in an apartment complex that has since been renamed Clover Ridge or something, from Campus View -- a misnomer from the start, since trees and houses blocked any view of campus. (I don't know where Heather's complex, a block from mine, got the Turtle Creek moniker, there being neither a creek nor, to my knowledge, a turtle, other than the one chiseled from stone outside the complex's leasing office.) But driving to campus, walking from the parking lot to the bookstore, and transversing the grounds on Saturday morning, I smiled at the smell of the leaves -- burning and otherwise -- that took me back to (gasp) nine autumns ago.

After "checking in" to Chez VM, the house of friends of mine who were out of town for the weekend, we headed downtown for burgers at CJ's, one of the iconic South Bend pubs that tends to fill up on football weekends with alumni who enjoy looking at the old photos on the wall and ordering pitchers for the same price as you'd pay for a pint in New York, and most other cities, I'd imagine. Heather batted her eyes at a table of three gents who'd received their check, stressing that we weren't rushing them, but requesting that whenever they were ready to depart they notify us -- standing a few feet away -- so that we might inherit their table. As the six of us settled onto three stools and pondered how we'd create table space for the other three to put the burgers we were soon to order, two even older gentlemen at an adjacent table offered us their spot, enabling us to bring together the two and pull up three more stools.

Things just seemed to work out for us that way throughout the weekend. Well, at least for the Notre Dame fans among us.

Six burgers and two pitchers later, we settled our tab and shuffled out of the bar, turning sideways to squeeze past a couple of men on their way in. As one passed, a sense of familiarity came over me and my first thought was that this was someone I'd shared a dorm with or perhaps saw often in class. Then I realized I'd actually seen him on Notre Dame and NFL broadcasts, for it was former quarterback Rick Mirer. "Heather!" I called out over the mix of crowd and jukebox noise, "There's Rick Mirer!" As I turned to point him out, I caught his eye and his reaction to my shouting his name at the bar. Embarrassed, I nodded hello and turned to exit. When I relayed the story at work on Sunday night, one coworker's reaction was, "If I were Rick Mirer, I'd spend a lot of time hanging out in South Bend, too."


Saturday dawned dark and cold. The four of us staying in the basement -- Heather, Kevin, Lauren and myself -- awoke in a cocoon of darkness, the lone slit of a window revealing nothing in the way of daybreak. With northern Indiana now observing Daylight Savings Time, the region remains aligned with the East Coast throughout the year, making South Bend one of the westernmost cities in the time zone and making for particularly long light in the summer evenings -- 9:30, I imagine, still provides some light on the horizon in the weeks approaching and following the summer solstice. But it also makes for dark mornings, and with the cloud cover on Saturday, 7:30 a.m. felt a bit like 4:30. So while it took the six of us a full two hours to make our way through the metaphorically revolving shower door, we piled into the car by 10 a.m. and managed to rather successfully navigate the mounting traffic as fans arrived hours before the game to allow for adequate tailgating time.

For our parking donation, we chose the Saint Mary's College athletic teams. OK, we didn't so much choose them as Heather has parked there before and it worked out for her, and it worked out for us on Saturday. The plan was to park at SMC, walk the tree-lined road past the religious retreats and housing, the cemetery wherein several founding fathers of the university are buried (that is, the guys whose names adorn half the dorms on campus) and start the transverse of campus that would double as the girls' tour at the Grotto.

I was torn. I wanted to see campus, all of it, on a football Saturday, to share it with friends -- three of them seeing it for the first time -- recall moments with Heather, laugh at the memories and smile at the scenes before us. But I also wanted to drink. I wanted to meet up with the crew -- my father, several of my classmates and the South Bend-entrenched parents of one who host a tailgater every week -- have some chicken and brats, drink some beer and talk football. I kept going back and forth in my head, one minute not walking fast enough, the next not wanting to move on until I'd taken it all in. I could've sat on a bench on God Quad all morning and watched the fans criss-cross the paths and lawns, shuffling through the leaves, stopping for pictures every time a new view of the Dome appeared through the trees. Clearly, the next time I go to a game, it needs to be either in early September or in November, times when I can take at least four days and not feel that I have to squeeze everything into such a small window. Even on Sunday, when I had to wake up earlier than anyone else and leave them a few hours early, I wished I had more time, had those extra hours to talk with them more over breakfast or to take a quick peek at Chicago with them.

At the tailgater, I drank beer and took compliments on my beard and then we were asked our thoughts on Notre Dame's 14-point spread over UCLA. We all gave Jim our thoughts -- unanimously in favor of his $50 saying the Irish would cover. Later, Jim wanted another one. He asked me to look over the list and pick another game on which he could wager another Grant. "We can split it, if you want," he added. Saturday was a tough one for the spreads. I managed 12 out of 20 on the just-for-fun, no-money-down Yahoo group I do with friends (including the three UCLA gals; Heather bowed out this year because, as she said, she could no longer enjoy rooting for the upsets if she hadn't picked them in the pool -- I can totally see her point), but I wasn't so confident when there was money riding on it. I considered several games -- Rutgers getting 6 1/2 at Pittsburgh (would've been right on that one); Louisville giving 17 to Syracuse, but it was in the dome (my home-field hunch was correct); Texas a mere 4 1/2 favorite over Nebraska (I would've been wrong); and Cal giving 23 to Washington (wrong again).

Then I found one I felt better about. Michigan, at home, was giving 13 to Iowa. Surely the Wolverines, with their stout defense, could hold the Hawkeyes and their second-string quarterback at a two-touchdown arms' length. On our drive from Chicago, my dad and I had seen a few eastbound cars on I-80 decorated with their Hawkeyes flags and magnets. We played a short, impromptu game of "recite the Big Ten schedule" trying to figure out where the Hawkeyes could be headed. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern were out. Indiana was a possibility, but then I remembered that the Hoosiers were headed to Ohio State. Penn State was a possibility, but that seemed far for the cars we saw that were only in northwestern Indiana at 3 p.m. on Friday. Michigan, Michigan St. and Purdue became our possibilities, and we settled on the Boilermakers, only to discover that night that the Iowans would have continued on I-94 once that interstate split from I-80 on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan.

"Jim, I think Michigan is it," I told him. We split the 50 bucks, Kevin and Jessica, I believe, congratulated me on my first foray into sports gambling (not counting a day at the horse track) -- I believe Jessica playfully used the word "degenerate" -- and throughout the afternoon at the game, I whiled away the TV timeouts watching the rotating scores on the stadium scoreboard, happy I passed on all the games I clearly would've had wrong. The next morning, when I picked up my father at Jim's house, he handed me my $25 share.

The six of us were lucky enough to have three pairs of tickets within three sections of the north end zone at Notre Dame Stadium. Heather and Kevin sat together, being married and all, and so Jen, Jessica, Lauren and I drew tickets to pair up. Holding them face-down, I let the three ladies choose while I held onto the last one. Jen and Lauren nabbed two seats on the aisle about 10 rows up from where Jessica and I sat; Heather and Kevin were just two sections over. As a result, Jessica and I were the only pair with split rooting interests. I realized after the game that I held back a bit in my enthusiasm. Naturally, I still jumped up and cheered for big plays and I screamed prior to big plays on defense in the second half. But I also have come to realize that I don't always have the energy anymore to shout and scream and cheer myself hoarse before halftime. Perhaps a close, back-and-forth see-saw game could've brought that out of me, but this game, from a Domer's perspective, went forth early, then back for the bulk of the contest, and then finally forth again only within the final minute, with 27 seconds remaining.

So Jessica and I remained rather reserved. Early in the game, she found herself cheering for Brady Quinn and the Irish on nice plays, momentarily forgetting that the opponent this time -- for the first time in 42 years -- was her school. Late in the fourth quarter, after Notre Dame went for it on fourth-and-1 and didn't get it, I conceded the game was over. "It's not," she said. "I can see us blowing this one." Even after UCLA ran the ball three times, failing to get a first down, and Notre Dame's expenditure of its three timeouts meant the Irish would get the ball back with about a minute remaining, I sat there and said, "I don't think we're winning this game." Jessica responded quickly with, "We're not winning this game."

Three Quinn passes and a Victor Abiamiri sack later, she was right, and Notre Dame came away with a surprising win when Quinn hit Jeff Samardzija on a 45-yard catch-and-run for the winning TD. But although I'd just witnessed what would soon become a piece of Notre Dame lore (if the game were broadcast on ESPN, it would be known as "instant lore"), it didn't feel like it. I don't know if I was in shock or just in awe. After coming around to Notre Dame in the late 80s and early 90s, when one potential national title was taken away by a phantom clipping penalty and another by inexplicable voting, I've not yet come to terms with the Irish being one of those teams that gets things right at the end of games. It was only the third game-winning TD the Irish have scored in the final minute of a game, or something similar, according to ESPN, but I didn't think of it that way at the time.

Love thee, Notre Dame

I stopped off at the tailgate one more time, then caught up with Heather and the gang at Legends -- nee, Senior Bar -- the sports pub on campus, just across the parking lot south of the stadium. On my way, I passed a tailgating group that was standing solemnly around their car as a priest released incense -- they were observing Mass. The thought of a priest wandering aimlessly -- believing for a moment that a priest might be without aim in his life -- around the parking lots after a football game offering to perform Mass had us laughing when I relayed the scene, but the more likely scenario is that the Father is a family friend or former dorm rector of one of the attendees of the tailgater/Mass and the arrangements had been made beforehand.

We walked back across campus in the dark. I love Notre Dame at night. I always got a homey, warm feeling walking beneath the trees under cover of night, the Dome an illuminated compass point. Mary faces due south, so as long as you can see in which direction she's facing, you can find your way around campus. South Quad is more impressive in daylight, when it's teeming with students walking along the sidewalks or throwing footballs and Frisbees on the lawn, but the floodlights on the Dome, the lights on the buildings, the spotlights on the statues give the scene another unique look.

We visited the Grotto once more, coming at it from the right side, watching the candles shimmer in the hollowed-out alcove in the side of the hill. Not an overtly religious person myself -- and not a Catholic, either; I'm a Methodist -- I would often walk down to the Grotto at night as a freshman, spending some time on a bench just sitting and watching. Thinking. Meditating, I suppose. Here and there, I would kneel and pray, usually in dire times for a friend or family member in need of a little extra thought and support. I lit candles even less frequently, only two times that I can remember, perhaps no more than three or four, total, if I'm forgetting any.

The walk along the road back to Saint Mary's was long and painful. I was tired of being on my feet, and we all were longing for a bathroom, hoping we might find a building at Saint Mary's that would let us in. After we crossed Route 933 -- the four-lane highway that, along with the long road, the fields, woods and religiously affiliated buildings that serves as a barrier between the two affiliated schools -- I spotted our answer shining across the vast, dark lawn across which we walked: The Inn at Saint Mary's. A quick pit stop, and we piled into the car to head to dinner.

Over wings, beer and fries, we watched the end of Rutgers-Pittsburgh, the start of the World Series and any football games that were on at Buffalo Wild Wings. We played along leisurely with the NTN trivia game, not bothering to get a console to play competitively, knowing that we were fading fast. By 11 p.m., we'd all changed into more comfortable attire and were lounging in the basement. Minutes later, we were under the covers, lights out.

For me, Notre Dame is not about football. I don't go just because I love to watch the game live or because I want to cheer on the Irish. I don't believe I've ever once gone to a Notre Dame game without drinking a beer -- outside -- beforehand, or without shaking hands or hugging someone I used to have class with, party with or get drunk with, and probably haven't seen in a year or more. Even during my senior year, when I went to Ann Arbor for the Michigan game as a stringer asked to help out a website that covers Notre Dame sports, I met up with the contingent from our campus newspaper about four hours before the game and had a couple of beers.

I love Notre Dame because I love the friends I made there, the friends I still e-mail, visit, plan trips with and chat with on the phone. I may not be able to keep up with all of them regularly, and I certainly don't see everyone as much as I would like, but to do that, I would not be able to hold down a job. And they'd probably get sick of me. But there's usually one weekend a year when I find myself back in Indiana, or a few of us plan to be in Pittsburgh or Atlanta or Baltimore the same weekend the Irish are there, and football brings us back together. We catch up, we look ahead, we talk football, baseball, life and love. It may sound cliche, it may sound trite, but it is what it is. It's more than just football. It's Notre Dame.

We are Notre Dame.


Anonymous said...

The Hawkeyes did not start their 2nd string QB vs. the Wolverines. They started Drew Tate. They did start their backup this week vs. Northern Illinois.

Dan said...

Thanks, I did see that. Obviously, at the time, I didn't know that. Luckily, it worked out for me.

Jessica said...

I hate being right. :)

But thank you for being such a good host -- I think we managed to be very good sports to each other!