Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame

By Megan McDonald September 6, 2011

Tailgating with friends and relatives.

Though I’m a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, I’m not a rabid follower of the school’s football team (a good thing, since the one-time gridiron powerhouse has fallen on hard times in recent decades). My sports passions revolve around baseball’s Dodgers and  Rays.

But since I’m spending September in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a two-hour drive from the South Bend campus, I decided to attend the Notre Dame home opener on Sept. 3.

Under second-year coach Brian Kelly, optimism abounded at practice this summer. One pre-season poll even ranked the Fighting Irish at No. 16. The opening game held extra allure because the opponent was the University of South Florida, and I was going with my friend Jeff, a USF graduate.

The weather has been moderate here in the Midwest, and I was hoping for a touch of fall in the air. Instead, I arrived on campus Saturday in the midst of a sudden heat wave of record proportions.  With the temperatures in the mid-90s,  we had to seek refuge under the shade of a pine tree during our tailgate party. I pitied the members of the Notre Dame Marching Band, who were dripping with sweat as they paraded through campus in their heavy uniforms, playing the world’s greatest sports anthem, The Notre Dame Victory March.

The Notre Dame band marches to the stadium.

“Has anyone in the band ever passed out during a game?” I heard one tuba player ask another. “I don’t think it’s ever been this hot before,” his friend replied.

Even in the wilting heat, it was nostalgic fun to wander about the idyllic campus,  with its lush green quadrangles and honey-colored brick buildings. Notre Dame’s famed architectural centerpiece, the golden dome of the administration building, shimmered in the bright sunlight.

I noticed a few USF fans snapping pictures and taking in the pageantry. How exciting for them to be able to experience a school with such a rich tradition, I remarked, remembering that  USF had only had a football program for about 15 years. It was one of many condescending observations I would later regret.

The marching band takes the field.

We  walked into the sold-out, 80,000-seat Notre Dame Stadium just as the teams were introduced. When the USF players ran out, they were met by a cascade of boos, mostly from the student section. “That’s so tacky,” Jeff remarked. “It’s not like we are your longtime rivals. We’ve never played you before.’’ Jeff had pledged to keep his USF cheering to a minimum, since we were surrounded by Notre Dame fans. But now, he warned me, all bets were off.

When Notre Dame took the opening kickoff and marched relentlessly to the USF one-yard-line, I figured Jeff was in for a long afternoon. But then USF’s Kayvon Webster recovered a Notre Dame fumble and scampered 96 yards for a touchdown. The crowd was stunned into silence. “Karma,” a smirking Jeff told me. “Karma.”

Jeff and the USF cheerleaders were some of the few happy people.

During the rest of the nightmarish first half, a holding penalty nullified one Notre Dame touchdown and an end-zone interception prevented another.  At one point, a kick by the ND punter hooked dramatically left and sailed into the stands. “How long have they been playing football here?” Jeff asked in mock innocence.

Notre Dame and USF square off.

They’ve been playing for 123 years, it turns out. I know that because, for the first time in the school’s history,  the game was suspended at halftime as a band of fierce thunderstorms approached. That line from the fight song, “Shake down the thunder from the sky,” suddenly sounded ominous.

Evacuated fans pass time in the basketball arena.

The stadium was evacuated with brisk efficiency. Warning of  “dangerous air-to-ground lightning,” the public -address  announcer directed us to take shelter in a variety of campus buildings.  About 20,000 of us headed for the basketball arena, where we spent the next two hours watching weather maps on big-screen TVs.  “I’m glad they suspended the game, because the team suspended play about an hour ago,” one bitter Notre Dame fan remarked.

The game finally resumed at 7:30 p.m. But we’d heard another band of storms was on the way, so  we decided it was time to evacuate to the Hilton Garden Inn.  In the restaurant, I sullenly chewed my chicken pomodoro and tried not to listen to the groans from those watching on the bar TV. Jeff tried not to gloat.

We were on the Indiana Toll Road back to Fort Wayne when the game finally ended, after another  45-minute weather suspension. Final score: USF 23, Notre Dame 20. I was going to repeat the old line I remembered from my undergrad days:  “Notre Dame never  really loses; we just run out of time.”  But I wisely decided to keep my mouth shut.

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