by Mike Coffey
My dad was a Notre Dame graduate, and before he spent 12 straight years paying ND tuition for my brother, sister and me and got a little burned out on the practice, he went to plenty of ND football games. He’d head eastbound on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. Sometimes he’d return in the evenings, and sometimes he got to spend the night at my grandparents’ house in Long Beach, IN, near Frank Leahy’s old place. Either way, he usually returned happy to have spent time with his classmates and friends watching ND football.
As I reached the age of reason, I also reached the conclusion this was something I wanted to be a part of. So I began lobbying my father to attend these games with him. Needless to say, it was not a favor immediately granted. I had to meet a number of conditions, not the least of which was proving I could sit for the requisite period while paying the proper level of attention. The “ooh, something shiny” nature of my personality meant this was much easier said than done. But I was determined to overcome it, and in September of 1980, I found my 10-year-old self in the back seat of my grandfather’s Cadillac on a Friday evening, heading for my first weekend of Notre Dame football with excitement in my soul.
That excitement was tempered a little after dinner Friday night, though, when I got my dad’s version of a pregame pep talk. This trip was something reserved for people who were (or could at least act) grown up, he told me. There would be a lot of walking involved. I would spend a lot of time before the game looking at buildings and other sights on campus. We would be visiting with a number of his friends, and he expected me to act my age (if not older) and treat them respectfully. I might hear “colorful language”, and while such words were not suitable for my use, people of a more mature vintage were entitled to speak however they wished. As far as I was concerned, the words “I’m bored” were removed from the English language for 24 hours. If I was not willing to accept these things, I was told, I could stay at the house with my grandmother. But if I put my butt in that car the next morning, I was on the hook and would be held accountable.
I was no quitter, and had spent too much time proving I deserved to be there. So that car saw my butt in it 12 hours later.
My dad hadn’t pulled any punches. We parked over at St. Mary’s and walked the mile and a half to campus. We said prayers at the Grotto, went over to Sorin to see dad’s old room, and stood for over an hour at the (non-Barnes-and-Nobleized) Bookstore to buy stuff for my siblings who hadn’t made the trip. We walked around the then-closed Fieldhouse to relive some of dad’s track memories. We stopped by Bob Feely’s tailgater in Green Field, mere steps from the student entrance to the Stadium. I tossed a football around with some of the other kids whose parents were in attendance, while the adults wondered if Dan Devine could recapture the magic of three seasons before in his final go-around, and how good this Blair Kiel kid was. They tossed down some beers over the course of our visit, and while some of them got well-lubricated, none of them got profane or out of control … although I did learn a new word or two.
Kickoff time arrived, and we headed for our seats in Section 36. I’d like to think my reaction walking into the Stadium was similar to Ned Beatty’s in Rudy, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, given that I was sunburned and a little tired. But I’d committed, and dammit, I was going to see it through. Three hours later, Harry O’s kick crept over the crossbar, ND sent Bo and his boys back to Ann Armpit losers, and I was glad I’d stuck it out.
Having seen one of the greatest games in ND history certainly made an impression on me. But even if the kick had fallen short, the whole thing would have been worth it to me because I’d proven myself worthy of it. As Ara Parseghian said in Wake Up The Echoes, anything in life really worth having, you have to pay a price for. I’d paid my dues by acting like the adult I needed to be to experience Notre Dame football, and it made the experience all the sweeter.
Which is why I’ve never been able to understand (and probably never will) the continued kid-ification of Notre Dame football, the latest example of which appeared in the recently-released list of football weekend improvements. The new “Rally on the Green” area — itself probably a good idea, given the previous lack of utilization of the space and its ability to connect the new Eddy Street Commons area more solidly to campus — will include “roaming ‘kid-friendly’ entertainment throughout the grounds.” This follows the inclusion of child-focused areas at the Blue-Gold game, including things like jumping jacks. The goal of a more “family-friendly” Notre Dame has been cited as justification for changes ranging from pep rally location and content to the overzealous rule enforcement by Indiana state law enforcement, Cappy Gagnon and some of his ushers that prompted the backlash and resulting “improvements list” in the first place.
While places like LSU and Miami and Michigan seem to pride themselves on creating an antagonistic atmosphere seemingly from the moment you exit your car, that’s too far in the other direction, and doesn’t represent a solution to me. So I have no problem with ND making an effort to keep things civil.
There’s a lot of space, however, between civil and where the administration is pushing things. When you buff out the rough edges, you detract from what makes the experience special, and that lessens Notre Dame in the process. Zero-tolerance isn’t a solution either, and a generation of kids who used to be content tossing the pigskin around apparently now have to get non-stop protection and stimulation, even if it costs long-time fans in the value of their experience.
Part of what made that Michigan game in 1980 special for me was that I’d earned the right to attend. I’d proven no one outside or inside the Stadium had to change their behavior simply because I was there. It didn’t give them license to act like idiots, but it didn’t mean they had to bend over backwards special just for little old me. They could participate in the experience just as they always had, and I would be along for the ride and experience it with them.
How much cheaper would that experience have been for me if I would have spent the hours jumping around in an inflatable, or getting my face painted, or other things I usually saw at the parish carnival? Would I have been as impressed by the tens of thousands sitting in their seats and clapping politely for three hours as I was by the fact we spent at least half the game and most of the fourth quarter standing up and yelling ourselves hoarse?
My father spent enough time catering to me the other 360 days of the year, so I hardly begrudged him the five ND football games. I was included there when I proved I didn’t need the catering. I guess I don’t understand why that is now a bad thing.