As far as I am concerned, the happiest days of the year began Saturday night with Notre Dame’s first game, down in Atlanta, against Georgia Tech. I just love to watch Notre Dame play football — hate when they lose. But win or lose, the next 12 weekends (I think there is an open date) are going to have a purpose and a center.
I have a nephew, Joseph (Joe), who is just back from the Philippines, and in few months on his way to Indonesia — he works for the State Department. At the Sunday afternoon dinner (a family tradition in the old days) at my sister’s apartment, he was marveling that the announcers, and even some of the Georgia Tech guys, kept saying the night before that Notre Dame is “America’s team.” That sounded amazing to us. Even Joe can remember when Notre Dame meant the immigrants’ school, the outsiders fighting for a little respect, and thrilled by a win as an underdog.
How things change. (Only in America).
On Saturday night in Atlanta, Notre Dame was wearing its white “away” jerseys, and those looked neat enough with the gold helmets and the gold pants. But I like best when they are in blue, that deep Notre Dame blue. They look formidable then. Powerful and like a machine, a highly intelligent machine with a lot of originality and flare.
Saturday night, it looked as though Georgia Tech just might beat ND. Down only four points going into the fourth quarter, the Rambling Wreck was only one big play from taking the lead, and maybe holding it for good.
But there were two all-Notre Dame plays that made the difference Saturday night. With less than eleven seconds to play in the first half, a scoreless Notre Dame, down 10-0, had the ball on the GT four-yard line. Time for only one play. Quite to the surprise of all, the coach called for a quarterback draw right up into the middle of the great Georgia Tech defense. That’s what we call a “Notre Dame” play: improbable, risky, but gutsy and absolutely determined to score. Brady Quinn ran with considerable force and from just inside the two-yard line heaved his 6′4″ body well over the goal line. The faces of the GT line, which had heroically held Notre Dame bottle up for 29-minutes plus, reflected surprise and dismay.
The other one was with still a minute and a half left to play, and Notre Dame running out of downs near mid-field. Punt or go for it? On fourth down, Notre Dame not only ran, but again sent Brady Quinn right into the center of a truly stout-hearted (but now weary) defense. But Quinn did not go into the line, he leapt up and over it, well past the first-down marker. Risky, humiliating if it failed, possibly decisive if it had been followed by a long Georgia Tech pass to win the game. The safer choice would have been to punt the ball immediately.
The preference for risk made it another Notre Dame play.
What I love about Notre Dame is the determination to do everything possible to win. I have never forgiven Coach Bob Davie for telling the young men on their first day of practice that their main business is to have fun. The heck it is! Their main business is to do or die, to play for this one day like champions, to give every bit of breath and guts they have — and with all that, to show imagination and an unquenchable love for risk.
Not for ND the old Woody Hayes “three yards and a cloud of dust,” steady as clockwork, relentless, regularly good for a win. Very good football, but for the Irish a little too “Lutheran”(it’s only worth it if it hurts, and you leave with black-and-blue welts on your body). Notre Dame gets its biggest kick out of outwitting the stronger guy, and taking greater risks than the speedier guy.
Everybody knows the Irish fight song; I was told once that it was the song known to more of the soldiers on D-Day than anything else, and sung aloud as a morale booster on some of the landing craft. (Not sure I believe it, but it is certainly believable). The Notre Dame hymn to our Lady (to our Lady and also the school) is also so lovely — and not just because it is like an Alma Mater — it really pulls on the heart. “Notre Dame we love thee, and our hearts are true.” It is both a song of school loyalty and also a prayer.
Notre Dame fans don’t just cheer for Notre Dame. They are not just loyal. They truly love the place (even if they have never actually been there) or, more exactly, they love the spirit that has animated its football squads since even before Knute Rockne was coach. Spirit is not tangible, and it is only really effective when ND has some 260-pound tackles and guards, some hard-charging runners like Jerome Bettis, and one of those passers of Heismann quality that the school is famous for.
Yet even if it always had those heavier assets, but not the spirit, it would not be Notre Dame. We would not love it so.
This year is going to be a tough one. Penn State comes next. Then Michigan. Then…. But hold it! This year, more than ever, it is going to be necessary to fight through one whole game at a time.
But I do like it better when Notre Dame is not so highly ranked, and fights its way upwards. Starting near the top always makes me nervous. It is an immigrant thing.
– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.