But today I felt what I never thought I could, what I never did even last season as I fell in love with the 2012 Irish Football team and its players. I understood in a deeper way than ever before that Notre Dame cares more about what really matters than it does about the business of football. Yes, they have participated in the business and had a lucrative go at it.
As I walked past the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, I realized that just 20 hours later, a group of young men would assemble there to hold communion with our Lord. These men are the latest in a long line of greats to play to this game for this university. But the game is greater than any single one of them. And what they will do in that sacred edifice on Saturday is bigger than the game. On the walls below the entry it reads: God. Country. Notre Dame.
That is the essence of what Notre Dame teaches them: there is more. These young men are not only held to the same standard as other students, but, in many regards, they are held to a higher standard. They are not hidden in the easiest majors, poor judgment is met with a just punishment, and there are no free passes. A few hundred miles south of here, schools preach (or at least practice) exactly the opposite. While this may make it difficult for the Irish to win on football’s biggest stage again, the university understands and protects what matters: God. Country. Notre Dame.
As I walked further, I approached the Grotto and saw scores of people lining up to light a candle for their Irish. In the distance, I heard the sweet, soft tones of a man, wearing a plaid skirt, playing the bagpipes. I again gushed with affection for the great game of college football. No other reason or venue exists for such a spectacle: people asking God to intervene in a game while a man wears a dress and yet attracts people’s attention for an entirely different reason.
What I failed to understand in my youth is that Notre Dame does many things right in college football. Their stadium has been renovated and expanded, but it has never changed what it is. It is uncluttered and unadorned with advertisements. The grass is the same natural green that Rockne coached on, the Four Horsemen galloped on, and the ball was first thrown the “other direction” on. Generations of players won championships, Heisman trophies, and accolades over the course of decades in front of the same bleachers, absent of the luxury that NFL or newer college stadiums enjoy. Its scoreboard is traditional, familiar, and without the burdens of a jumbotron. Notre Dame Stadium stands as a true memorial to the legends who built a sport through generations of success and class.
As thousands descend on South Bend this weekend, coming to cheer for their Irish, and not against their opponent (unless it’s Michigan or USC), I realize why they came, and why they keep coming back. It is the same reason I will keep coming back. Notre Dame represents the greatness of the past and the path of hope for the future. The Irish aren’t building a football program, they are building men, and teaching them hard lessons at times. They want to graduate men that understand their years at Notre Dame were about more than football; they were about more than NBC, Touchdown Jesus, and NFL prospects; they were about life and an understanding that the world needs them to truly be men. God. Country. Notre Dame.