Be patient. You’ll like this story.
When I was a kid, my mom would often tell me a story.
It was usually full of wonder and magical features that caused my mind to explore worlds that defied belief. I realized later in life — especially after I had kids of my own — that she told me these stories not only for my benefit, but hers as well. An adult, it seems, needs an escape from reality sometimes as much as a child. My mom’s ability to weave a tale of adventure was a terrific way to keep the evils of the world at bay and she allowed herself to join in the imagining. I cherished those stories and I remember most of them. I have even repeated many of them to my kids. And yes, I took all credit for their originality. These type of memories are what make the hard times in life bearable, and have helped me in times of sorrow.
I asked my mom once if she remembered all those nights where she put me to sleep with the stitching of words that brought such comfort. She did indeed remember. Then, she said something that I thought was sad.
“I also remember the day I realized you were growing up. It was when my stories didn’t interest you.”
I was surprised by this revelation. I didn’t want her to think it was true as I could see it elicited a painful memory. I told her every one of those stories she told me mattered and impacted my life. She smiled and let me know it was OK. No feelings were being trampled on.
“It’s not that I feel bad that you grew up, it was a realization that you weren’t so little anymore,” she said. “I realized, like all parents do, you can tell when your child has grown up…when the stories end.”
This 40-year-old memory came rushing back to me the other day as I was thinking about Notre Dame football and spring practice upcoming.
In 1986, I was a 13-year-old kid attending my first Notre Dame game. It was at the old Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Notre Dame was playing the second ranked Alabama Crimson Tide; this was a turning point in my fandom.
The pressure to pull for the Tide that day was great. My uncle was an Alabama assistant coach. My dad and an uncle, who accompanied me to the game, were both graduates of the university.
But there was another uncle there - from my mom’s side - who was a Notre Dame alumnus. He bought my a giant foam shamrock to wear on my hand to show my support in a hostile environment.
I wore it with pride.
For Tide fans, this is “The Sack” game.
Cornelius Bennett laid a huge hit on Irish quarterback Steve Beuerlein, which caused a game changing fumble and inspired a painting that hangs on many Alabama mobile home walls to this day.
The Tide won, 28-10, in a game closer than the score indicated. But that’s not what I remember most about that day. That is not what I told my children about 20 years later.
I was making my way back to my seat in the fourth quarter when some obviously intoxicated Alabama fans seized my foam shamrock and ripped it into pieces. They threw the shreds everywhere and had a good old time doing it too.
These were grown men and women.
I was powerless to stop the destruction, although I tried. I continued walking back to my seat, furious and angry (although not crying). I was angry because I was too weak to fight back and sick that my first Irish game had been ruined.
My dad picked up on my change in demeanor and asked what was wrong. I refused to answer. I was mostly embarrassed. I didn’t want to be the weak kid who got picked on; you think a lot about those kinds of things when you’re 13 years old.
Dad persisted, and I finally broke down. I began crying because of the assholes that destroyed my foam shamrock glove. My dad and my uncles quickly formed a posse to search for the culprits. While they never found anyone, it did make me feel better that they went looking.
While my family was gone, there appeared a calming presence in the form of an elderly couple sitting behind me. They were blue and gold from head to toe.
The woman comforted me, as a grandmother would do to a hurting grandchild who needed a safe place, like I did, to express disappointment. Her male companion didn’t say anything immediately, but then tapped me on the shoulder and gestured for me to lean in closer.
“I hope your family finds who did this to you and that your day isn’t ruined,” he told me at a volume no one else could hear.
I told him thanks and that it definitely wasn’t ruined, just a bad way to end it, trying again to act grown and not show any defeat. He leaned forward again and said something I have never forgotten, “they’re just mad because even though they won today, they’re still pissed that we kicked The Bear’s ass every time we played ‘em”. I laughed and being from Alabama I knew exactly what he meant.
That day solidified me as a lifelong Fighting Irish fan. It wasn’t because some rednecks tore up my toy, or that the compassionate Notre Dame couple behind me gave me encouragement. No, the main reason is because it’s the first chapter of many chapters in a book full of memories that I hold dear in pulling for the Fighting Irish. Those memories provided me with many stories to tell my kids and share with them when watching the games.
I was there when Reggie Ho beat Michigan back in 1988. I can still see a play as clear as day when Tony Rice kept the ball on the option against USC. Oh, and foremost, Catholics vs Convicts. There are so many “I remember” prefixes that have turned into moments of bonding with my children, that they feel almost tangible. Like echoes of crowd noises still being heard after the years have carried them away. These stories have stood the test of time and are as special now as ever.
I believe that one of the reasons we as Notre Dame fans have grown so agitated over the last few years is because these type of memories aren’t as prevalent anymore. Granted, with the new hires and attitude, there seems to be a peculating flame growing through the Irish football program. If you really think about it, 2012 is the last time when we’ve had some of those moments. Hell, even that one ended in disaster after the Irish were embarrassed in the National Championship and the offseason that followed, creating doubt about Kelly’s commitment to Notre Dame.
Since then, our tables have been set with crushing losses and watching, in amazement, Notre Dame throw 40 passes in a hurricane.
I think what I’m getting to here, is we want our stories back. We want the good kind of stories, and not the ones where we laugh at our own colossal failures like it’s a Benny Hill episode. We want to be able to sit at bars or dinner and talk about the wins that used to make us proud. We need these stories to tell our kids, to make us remember back to when things made more sense and we were proud of Notre Dame. That pride tied us to something good and prestigious. Winning with that beautiful Golden Dome in the background lifted us up.
It just made us happy.
My hope here, is like the story I told earlier, this sense of accomplishment will return in the fall and get back to normal. We need things to get back to the way they were and it bothers us if it doesn’t- no matter how many times we say it doesn’t. Most of the anger expressed over the last few years is our unwillingness to accept mediocrity and the morbid fear that we will reach the lowest point a fan can experience… apathy.
That’s what makes Notre Dame unique in the first place; it’s a special place and holds a critical spot in the consciousness of all Fighting Irish fans. It starts this spring and as always; hope is eternal. What we are looking forward to, is a return to what was once a birthright. In the end we want to feel good again about Notre Dame football, and not have to face the pain associated with the realization that things have changed forever.
We will not accept this, and never admit its time for….. when the stories end.