Well, it almost happened. Wearing dark green jerseys, on the exact anniversary of having broken the University of Miami’s great winning streak many years ago, Notre Dame came within three seconds of upsetting the incredible offensive whizzes of Southern California. But in a brilliant last minute of football, on fourth and nine on their own twenty-yard line or so, Southern Cal put together a magnificent drive toward the distant Notre Dame goal line. With three seconds left, exhausted, Matt Leinart twisted backwards after he was stopped on a quarterback sneak from the one, and pushed one last time to get the ball over the goal line. The lead had changed hands five times. Notre Dame had held the ball with their own brilliant conceived offense for virtually twice as many minutes as Southern Cal, having forced the latter to punt more frequently, after failing on third down, more times than during the whole preceding season. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was quietly, slowly, making third down after third down of their own.
The reporter from ESPN said it was the greatest football game ever played. Aterwards, sitting on the bench for the last three seconds of play (which in football means almost ten minutes), Matt Leinart was limp, almost unable to move, his eyes red and streaked with tears of joy and relief and exhaustion. One of the greatest runners ever, Reggie Bush, was too cramped up to run the last play, and in the locker room afterwards was totally spent–having gained 160 yards on 15 or 16 carries, and having triumphantly crossed Notre Dame’s goal line three times.
These great stars and several others, nonetheless, had had for the first time in a very long time, during those last three minutes or so, being behind and being stymied by an inspired Notre Dame defense, the sick feeling that maybe, after all, they would lose. And then, like true champions, they reached down very deep and threw their last bit of energy into barely, but sufficiently, getting the 28th straight win in their amazing run through three seasons.
It was a sundown finish under the lights that neither they nor anyone who saw it will ever forget.
Notre Dame lost. But the young men fought with such courage, strength, wit, and determination– and, yes, with so much coaching intelligence and will-to-win –that they almost did the impossible. It was a superhuman effort, and they came within a minute of having superhuman results. I don’t think I have ever felt prouder of a Notre Dame team. I don’t quite share the pain of losing that the guys on the team no doubt feel. It honors them to feel that.
No one hates to lose, at anything, more than I do. And a loss is not a win. Yet there really is such a thing as doing nobly, even when the sweet wind of winning does not blow in your sails. This year’s young men made all of us very proud, and made us love Notre Dame as much as we ever have, and long, long will. They are among the most worthy teams of all that noble history.
God go with them, every one!