Writing a retrospective about a Brian Kelly-coached team’s trademark game may reopen a still-fresh wound for some Irish fans, but my aim is to capture the feeling of the day and all it represented, not to focus on drama that had no bearing on this moment. It was a symbolic moment of hope not only for the football program, but for the student body as well.
Of course, COVID threw a wrench into the senior year the class of 2021 had envisioned. Masks required everywhere besides our rooms on campus, no more than four people allowed in our rooms at a given time (masks must be on if even one of those four is a guest), weekly testing, and worst of all, no traditional dining hall experience. How can I people watch in NDH now?! The feeling on campus was restless and frustrated. Where was the one place we could all come together and feel a little more normal? The football stadium. The repressed student body, after a couple months of feeling trapped, was about ready to burst. It just needed an outlet.
At the time, Notre Dame football sat in a familiar position: a team that could never win the big one. Not a national title, though that monkey is still squarely on the program’s back. Simply, the team could never win a "big game" - a game against a top 3 team or a major bowl game. Sure, ND was undefeated in 2020 to this point, but who had they beaten?
I arrived at the game pretty sober, considering it was a night game and I got up at about 8:00 am (marathon, not a sprint, folks – learned that the hard way a year ago when USC came to town). Despite the empty stadium, it had the buzz of a non-COVID protocols big game. The unseasonably warm, sunny day brought everyone outside to tailgate (unfortunately, we had to limit our tailgates to houses and apartments instead of parking lots, but we made do). My friends and I were lucky enough to have our assigned seats in the first few rows on the 20 yard line, I believe that’s section 34 or so, where the student section would normally be anyway.
The stadium filled quickly, becoming a packed house of about 10,000 or so. The anticipation had reached a breaking point – the stadium was LOUD. It was truly loud, considering we were all wearing masks and only filled about 1/8 of the seats. Everyone was into this game; there were no passive fans staying seated or talking to friends. As soon as Kyren Williams broke off his memorable 65 yard TD run, we could sense that this was a special day. My friend, who for reasons unknown was still not in the stadium yet, said that the crowd noise as Kyren scored was one of the loudest sounds he’d ever heard. Similar jubilation followed for Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s fumble six.
As the game trundled on, the students stuck in the nosebleeds began to trickle down closer to the field. Three events threatened to halt their trek: Ian Book’s fumble near the end zone, Dabo Swinney’s successful pass interference protest (whining), and Ben Skowronek’s fourth down drop just one play later. I physically fell to my knees after Skowronek’s drop, thinking this was about to be another heartbreak. When the Irish got the ball back with 1:48 remaining and two timeouts, the students began a slight push again. The energy in the air was palpable. Then, Avery Davis streaked open down the middle, hauled in the pass, and brought the Irish to within 5 yards of overtime.
After Davis finished off the drive with a touchdown on third and goal, ushers perked up as students began to crowd the lower bowl. Friend groups split up by social distancing came together for overtime. 2OT came after the teams traded touchdowns in OT, and the Irish started with a beautifully blocked Kyren Williams touchdown. At this point, there were no students above the first ten rows. My heart officially jumped into my throat.
- Sack #1. We lose our minds. It’s never felt more real. Beating #1 is three plays away, but there is still work to do.
- Sack #2. It feels like a formality at this point. The crush of students is upon me, and I have to move down just above the luxury seats closest to the field (are these box seats? Not sure what they’re considered, so bear with me). Doug Flutie and Jac Collinsworth move into position just a row below me. It feels like a fever dream. It’s the first moment that I realize I am about to storm the field for the first time in my life.
- Incompletion. I am just behind a guy in an American flag onesie. I know for damn sure he’s leading the charge onto the field
- Fourth down stop. Pandemonium. The jump down to the field is longer than I had anticipated. A friend of mine, I found out later, tore his meniscus jumping down. I am one of the first onto the field, and I am among several who end up right next to Brock Wright, who is celebrating just as hard as we are. The pent-up frustration was released in an outburst of glory, pandemonium, and exuberance. My brother FaceTimed me on the field, and I lifted my phone to show him the scene.
I took pictures with my friends, then left the field in a daze. Of course, we went to legendary South Bend establishment The Linebacker Lounge to celebrate the victory, followed by a 3 am splash through Stonehenge, and a 3:30 am shower in Knott, blasting "We Are The Champions.
All of this was about Notre Dame finally beating #1 and being a legitimate National Championship contender, sure. It was more than that, though. It was a celebration of life, of normalcy, of everything that makes college football great. And I consider myself fortunate to experience it in my last home game as a student.