In the fall of 1930, the esteemed British scholar G.K. Chesterton came to Notre Dame to spend a semester as a visiting lecturer. During his stay, he attended a football game vs. Navy that inspired him to write a poem titled "The Arena", which has been called "the most mystical approach to football ever taken" [and must be read before you continue!]. It is here that our (mostly-factual) story begins.
The few souls passing by the Main Building at sunset on October 10, 1930 were treated to a most unusual spectacle. A large figure—which could only be determined to be a man upon closer inspection—was making his way down the main quadrangle at a leisurely pace. His attire resembled a jumble of garments tossed onto an oversized armchair; it was obvious that most of the pieces were chosen for their function, not their form. The innermost layer consisted of a white shirt and a tie crookedly thrust under a bulging waistcoat; over this was thrown a plain jacket and a woolen greatcoat, which in turn was dwarfed by a massive broadcloth cape. On top of this layered hodgepodge sat a cheerfully grinning face, and on this mustachioed face perched a delicate pince-nez overshadowed by a rumpled, broad-brimmed hat set on lopsided curls. However mismatched the outfit, the hearty demeanor of the man on which it hung radiated so strongly that one might have said it fit him better than it would have fit any other man.
It was in such a leisurely manner that Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the famous British scholar and convert to Catholicism, was returning alone from the dedication ceremony for the brand new Notre Dame Stadium. As he ambled back to his lodgings at the Bixler house, the scholar found himself reflecting on a spirited discussion he’d had with an old history professor that day. The man had good-naturedly exclaimed, "You’d best watch yourself in that new Stadium of ours, Gilbert—it’s an arena the ancient Romans would be proud of, and you know how they treated us back then!" At the time, Chesterton had only responded with a self-effacing jest regarding how difficult it was to watch any part of himself, let alone his entire 330-pound self. Now, though, he found himself thinking back on the image of the Stadium as the old Roman Coliseum in all its pagan glory, with the golden idols towering above all.
And the molten monstrous visage
Saw the pageants, saw the torments,
Down the golden dust undazzled saw the gladiators go,
Heard the cry in the closed desert
Te salutant morituri,
As the slaves of doom went stumbling, shuddering, to the shades below.
"Te salutant morituri", he mused to himself in a voice unusually high and thin for a man of his tremendous girth. "‘We who are about to die salute you.’" An odd image, that—the idea of young men declaring to a bloodthirsty crowd the ancient, hopeless creed of the Roman gladiators. "I suppose they’re not that different, after all. But I shan’t sit at this contest tomorrow and have such dreary thoughts running through my head. Blood and sword-blades, indeed!" He chuckled to himself and shook his shaggy curls.
Chesterton had just arrived at Notre Dame for the first time with his wife, Frances, on Monday, October 6, at the behest of University President Father Charles O’Donnell, C.S.C. Over 500 students and faculty came to each of his lectures on Victorian history and literature in Washington Hall, and he soon became a student favorite for his deep insights, approachable demeanor, and his peculiar brand of absent-minded joviality. He used no lecture notes, and his mind often raced so far ahead of his mouth that he would begin laughing at his own jokes several minutes before he actually told them. Tales soon spread of his endearing post-lecture exploits, not least of which included being unable to squeeze out of his car to see the Grotto (when advised to turn sideways, he allegedly replied, "My dear man, I have no sideways") and stealing into Sorin Hall at midnight with a gaggle of students and several (forbidden by Prohibition) kegs in tow.
"Evening, Professor!" said a voice by Gilbert’s elbow.
"Hullo!" said the Englishman, coming out of his private musings and looking down. Recognizing the short, wiry senior at his side, he exclaimed, "And what brings you out on the Quadrangle tonight, young John? Shouldn’t you be chauffeuring me back home?" He chuckled and shook the young man’s hand.
"You caught me," Johnny Mangan laughed. "I usually come out here just before nightfall so I can say good night to Our Lady. I just happened to see you coming down the path, that’s all."
"I’d be astounded if you missed seeing me from this distance, John," replied Gilbert with a twinkle in his eye. "Would you mind if I join you in bidding Our Lady good night?"
"Not at all," said Johnny. They walked a short distance towards the Main Building, then Gilbert heaved his ponderous bulk onto a bench and together they watched the sunset’s glow deepen on the magnificent Golden Dome. A few people nodded a greeting as they walked by, but for the most part campus was growing quiet as the sun went down.
After spending quite some time in this fashion, Gilbert suddenly exclaimed, "Ah! I cannot make out whether she is an empress, or a goddess, or both."
"What's that?" replied Johnny, sounding confused and a little shocked.
"My apologies, dear boy," laughed Chesterton. "I merely had a thought occur to me regarding the matter of Romans playing Irish football." He chuckled again at the youth’s bewildered expression. "Perhaps I’ll put it in one of my lectures for you. A thousand thanks for letting me join you tonight, young John—you’ve done this old scholar a great service, even if my mind occasionally rambles off."
"Of course," replied the student with some amusement. "Can’t say I or anyone else really operates up on your level, so no need for apologies. I take it you’ll be attending the game tomorrow?"
"You have my word as a lecturer," Gilbert said. "You know, I fancy we’ll have a real gladiator match against those gentlemen from the Naval Academy."
"That we will," said Johnny. "Good night, Professor!"
I have seen, where a strange country
Opened its secret plains about me,
One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one
Seen afar, in strange fulfillment,
Through the sunlit Indian summer
That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.
The morning of Saturday, October 11 dawned with crystal-clear skies over South Bend. As the day drew closer to the game’s noon kickoff time, buses began arriving on campus laden with their cargo of sharply-dressed fans, most clad in light summer attire against the unusually warm autumn weather. Chesterton himself broke his fast around 9 A.M. at the Bixler house with some friends in the faculty; much of their conversation was bent upon educating the English scholar about the finer points of American collegiate football, interrupted frequently by Chesterton trying to make a hesitant, often hopelessly faulty comparison to the more familiar (for him) sports of rugby and cricket. He was saved from a tedious lesson on the forward pass by the honking horn of his young chauffeur Johnny, who greeted him as enthusiastically as he had the previous night.
"Morning, Professor!" he cried. "Ready to give a lecture on how we’re going to beat the Midshipmen?" He scrambled out of the University’s Studebaker sedan and began the difficult daily labor of fitting the oversized Englishman into the cab, which was never meant to accommodate someone of his impressive girth.
"If this keeps up, I’ll have to borrow some of those Midshipmen to ferry me around campus," grumbled Gilbert good-naturedly. Despite his relative inexperience with the sport, he really was excited to watch Rockne’s lads in action. This was due in large part to the infectious enthusiasm that the entire University showed toward their team, no doubt buoyed by the team’s torrid 95-12-5 record and three national titles at that point in Rockne’s tenure. With a 20-14 season-opening victory over Southern Methodist the week before (which Chesterton was unable to attend), Notre Dame continued to firmly establish itself as a national powerhouse.
Arriving in front of the northwest gate around 11:30, Gilbert majestically extracted himself from the Studebaker (with Johnny’s assistance) and picked up his walking stick. He beamed at everyone he met as he entered the new Stadium, eventually easing his ponderous frame into the thirteenth row at the 40-yard-line.
"Hullo, there’s old Professor Gilbert!" cried one of the students as that magnificent pince-nez’d bundle of coats appeared in the stands. "Let’s hear it for the Professor!"
"He’s a man! Who’s a man? He’s a Notre Dame man!" chanted the assembled students, and this exuberant salute was soon taken up by the neighboring sections. Caught off-guard, Chesterton nervously muttered to Johnny, "I hope they’re not angry about their old lecturer showing up, are they?"
"Angry!" exclaimed Johnny in amazement. "They’re probably cheering because they want you to write a poem about our win!" This remark so tickled Gilbert that he went into one of his customary fits of high-pitched laughing and spluttering—such a fit that several onlookers grew concerned and inquired whether he was choking. Gilbert waved them away and dabbed tears from his eyes; he had not expected such merriment at what he thought would have been a serious contest.
At that precise moment, he caught sight of the Golden Dome and gaped in amazement; he had quite forgotten that Our Lady was visible to those in the Stadium. To Gilbert, she seemed to be looking into the Stadium herself, smiling upon the raucous students and their leather-armored classmates taking the field.
She too looks on the Arena
Sees the gladiators grapple,
She whose names are Seven Sorrows and the Cause of All Our Joy,
Sees the pit that stank with slaughter
Scoured to make the courts of morning
For the cheers of jesting kindred and the scampering of a boy.
"Queen of Death and deadly weeping
Those about to live salute thee,
Youth untroubled; youth untutored; hateless war and harmless mirth
And the New Lord's larger largesse
Holier bread and happier circus,
Since the Queen of Sevenfold Sorrow has brought joy upon the earth."
The Irish and Midshipmen ran onto the field, accompanied by the Band of the Fighting Irish blasting the Victory March and all 40,000 fans from both schools standing and cheering. Gilbert was pleased to not hear any boos against the Naval Academy. It was good, he thought, that foes could meet each other with both a competitive spirit and yet a healthy respect for their opponent—a field of "friendly strife", as it were. He was surprised to see the Irish wearing green uniforms, but Johnny assured him that it was merely a way to distinguish between the two teams, since Navy also wore blue.
Navy won the coin toss and elected to receive. The fans roared as Frank Carideo’s kick soared to the Navy 5, and the ground battle began in earnest. Both teams ran the wishbone offense (though Notre Dame incorporated the forward pass more), and the Irish defense was initially hard-pressed to keep the Midshipmen from chipping away at the yardage. However, neither team could accomplish anything beyond trading punts, and the battle remained scoreless at the end of the first quarter.
Burns above the broad arena
Where the whirling centuries circle,
Burns the Sun-clothed on the summit, golden-sheeted, golden-shod,
Like a sunburst on the mountains,
Like the flames upon the forest
Of the sunbeams of the sword-blades of the Gladiators of God.
Following this initial malaise, the Irish came out in the second quarter and played as a completely different team. After Marty Brill completed a long pass to Irish captain Tom Conley, Chesterton observed to Johnny, "Our strategy seems to be to smash the ball around one end, then smash it around the other end, then pass it over the unsuspecting heads of the Navy."
"Right you are," replied the student. "Perhaps you should tell Coach Rockne to—"
Whatever fateful advice Chesterton should have given to Rockne was lost in the din of the Notre Dame faithful, who cheered deafeningly as star fullback "Jumping Joe" Savoldi plowed through the right side of the Midshipmen defense and rumbled for a 24-yard touchdown.
"Holy moley!" hollered Johnny as he thumped the Englishman on his broad back. "Did you see that?"
"Perhaps I would have, if you hadn’t been feeding me coaching instructions!" Chesterton shouted back good-naturedly over the thunder of the Victory March. "I don’t suppose you have one of those new-fangled moving-picture screens in your pocket so I could watch it again, do you?"
"Maybe that’ll happen when our helmets look like the Golden Dome, Professor," laughed Johnny.
After Savoldi’s ramble and Carideo’s extra point, the Navy eleven seemed to lose their fighting spirit. Rockne’s troops kept Navy’s triple-option offense bottled up, and on the next drive Savoldi ran for a 49-yard score (Carideo missed the point-after try). When the Irish had the ball, they seemed to move it at will down the field. Navy simply had no answer for Savoldi’s 200-pound frame battering the edge of their line. The Italian native had opened a torrid senior campaign with a kickoff return against Southern Methodist the week before, and he continued his dominance with a third touchdown in the third quarter, ending the game with 123 yards on 11 carries.
And I saw them shock the whirlwind
Of the World of dust and dazzle:
And thrice they stamped, a thunderclap; and thrice the sand-wheel swirled;
And thrice they cried like thunder
On Our Lady of the Victories,
The Mother of the Master of the Masterers of the World.
By the end of the third quarter, Rockne was confident enough to begin playing his reserves. With the contest well in hand, Chesterton was able to relax and observe the game’s finer points, a process which suited his keenly inquisitive mind better than the singing and stomping of the youthful student body (which the Englishman found quite endearing). The rest of the scoring came from a 1-yard plunge by Irish backup Fritz Staab (with Carideo missing another extra point) and a fuzzled punt by return man Emmett Murphy, which led to a Navy safety. At the final gun, the Notre Dame eleven proved victorious over the Midshipmen by a 26-2 margin.
As the final snap was taking place, Chesterton noticed a buzz running through the stadium; the buzz seemed to follow the paths taken by dozens of upperclassmen, who were scampering up and down the aisles passing out pamphlets to all 40,000 attendees. Snatching several from a passing classmate, Johnny glanced at one sheet and exclaimed, "Why, it’s our new Alma Mater! Fr. O’Connell said we’d finally be getting one today!"
Chesterton’s round face lit up at the news. "Let’s have a look!" he cried, hurriedly passing copies down the row. As the pamphlets sped around the stands, the Band of the Fighting Irish marched onto the field, followed by an announcement asking the fans if they would kindly stand and sing the University’s Alma Mater, a piece proudly commissioned in honor of the University’s patroness. Though the tune was unfamiliar, the Band played it beautifully and clearly, and the power of the lyrics smote Chesterton to the core.
At the words Proudly in the heavens gleams thy gold and blue, he could not help but raise his eyes once again to the golden-mantled Mother of God. The figure on the Dome radiated brilliant golden light in the blue afternoon sky, and he again fancied that Our Lady was indeed watching over the people inside the newly-christened Stadium. But as he stood gazing at this wondrous spectacle, something miraculous happened. Though it was neither written on the song sheet nor rehearsed beforehand, the entire student body shouted—with one voice—the final words of their new Alma Mater: And our hearts forever, LOVE THEE NOTRE DAME!
As the Stadium slowly emptied out, still ringing with the joyous shouts of students and players, Johnny turned to the gentleman sitting in the thirteenth row and asked, "Well, Professor? What did you think of your first football game?"
The gentleman was silent for a full minute. Finally, he looked up. "Well," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "I think I might write that poem after all."
"Queen of Death and Life undying
Those about to live salute thee;
Not the crawlers with the cattle; looking deathward with the swine,
But the shout upon the mountains
Of the men that live for ever
Who are free of all things living but a Child; and He was thine."
Special thanks to the Notre Dame Archives, Professor Alfred J. Freddoso, Professor David Fagerberg, and the 1930 Chicago Tribune for making this story possible!