As the clock hit 4pm in South Bend, it was 3pm in Springfield, Illinois. Instead of looking for a forty, I was in a discount store while my girlfriend looked at the small selection of Notre Dame gear available, passing the time before her best friend’s wedding reception.
While my girlfriend never attended ND nor was ever a fan until she met me, she was still excited for her second game at Notre Dame Stadium (both of which were under the lights). Even though her best friend was celebrating nuptuals, here she was, looking for something new to wear into ND Stadium the next day.
Eventually, she came across a selection of Irish jerseys and asked “Who is #5 on your team?”
I don’t fault her for not knowing. She does well to keep up with the basics of our football team, but doesn’t exactly have the numerical roster down yet.
“Either Manti Te’o, our star linebacker, or Everett Golson, our quarterback.”
After a quick conversation as to why the NCAA allows two players on the same team to wear the same number, she finally makes a connection.
“Wait…that Te’o guy is the one we are wearing the leis for right?”
“I want to get this.”
This should’ve been signal number one that this weekend would be unlike any other. To be honest tough, I was simply too damned excited that my girlfriend decided to wear a jersey in support of a specific player instead of just a shirt she liked that happened to have something Notre Dame on it. It’s was her first true step of Irish fandom, whether she chose to admit it or not.
Friday came and went and I couldn’t get in the car fast enough to make my way to South Bend. After all, there is serious tailgating to be done and I want to drink beer with my fellow Domers instead of being on the road for four hours.
As we started to make our way to some fellow Otters, I was immediately struck by the sheer amount of leis already out in the lots. Not just by fans either. Some of the security guards and parking attendants had donned the flowers as well. About every other person I pass has a lei on. I even have some random guy tap me on the shoulder so he could tell me that he thought wearing the leis was awesome.
I turn around and see he is a Michigan fan and immediately feel dirty, but still…even the enemy is on board with our show of support.
Tailgating itself is rather uneventful. Just a bit of rain sending everyone running for cover. Shotgunning beers on the front porch of Sorin. ND fans going Gangnam style. You know, the usual.
However, the main event was creeping ever closer. We made our way to our seats and again, I noticed something completely different.
The new captain passed by our seats, welcomed everyone to Notre Dame and said, “I hope everyone here is ready to stand and yell.” Wait…what?! Could the “Take a StaND” campaign actually be having an effect?
No more than five minutes later do I see a different usher handing out leis to fans in my section. I couldn’t help but think to myself that this used to be the same crew that attempted to convince us all that marshmallows were deadly weapons and here they are handing out something that could actually be used to choke someone.
Even better, on the first TV timeout, yet another usher turned to us after the majority of the section sat down, “Why is this section a morgue?” Later on during the game, the ushers were waving their hands in the air to get everyone on their feet.
It was great. I usually feel bad for standing up so much, but not in this environment. I was being encouraged to be a fan for a change. No one in my section was about to complain to an usher for me to park it, not after he just admonished us all for being quiet during a TV timeout. No one said a word to me either, not even quiet mumbling behind my back. I loved every minute of it.
And then there was the music, piped in or from the band. Firstly, kicking off the game with the “Here Comes the Irish” vocals followed by “Shipping Up to Boston” simultaneously gives me chills and makes me want to run through a wall. Unlike my previous experience in which no one knew how to react to the music, people got into it, especially the students.
While alumni can certainly debate the merits of piped-in music in the stadium, there is no doubt the current student body has embraced the change with drunken dancing glee.
The band found themselves in a larger role this time around. Piped-in music was axed for TV timeouts, forcing the band to again fill the silence. It works well at times, but I found myself severely thrown off by what sounded like an electric bass amped up to 11 and what I thought sounded like a mic’d drum kit. I found the bass player, but couldn’t see if there was a drum kit or if my ears were playing tricks on me.
Regardless, it definitely gave the band a different sound. Not sure quite how I feel about it as it seemed to drown every other instrument out, but then again, my proximity to them likely didn’t help.
As I became acquainted with my new environment, my focus shifted to the game, which immediately slapped me in the face when Golson threw an INT that I saw coming a mile away. Thankfully, the defense stepped up and the opening riff of “Welcome to the Jungle” blared through the Stadium PA to remind fans ND wasn’t dead yet and neither should they.
The rest of the game is almost a blur — partially because every Michigan play seemed to result in a turnover and partially because every play that Tommy was under center I spent praying that he gave whatever 2011 voodoo hex was on him to Denard and it wouldn’t come back to our sideline. It seemed that every time I looked back to the clock 4+ minutes had passed.
However, near the end of the game, time almost stood still.
As Michigan started to drive down the field and found their way into the redzone yet again, you could feel the crowd and defense both tire. For the first time all game, my usual “here we go again #NDFBIsDeterminedToKillMe” started to creep in. Then, Michigan called a timeout on 3rd and goal and the band did something incredible.
They played “Crazy Train”.
The worried crowd seemed to come back to life a bit via laughter. That damned song is forever burned into my mind thanks to an awful experience at last year’s USC game. Since then, it’s been a bit to laugh at. I’m not sure whether the band intentionally did this or not, but I’m sure however was in charge of the stadium PA did:
Ozzy rang through the speakers and I’ll be damned if the crowd didn’t react with noise as the defense came back on the field. The song that was once a nightmarish joke was being used to exorcise our demons.
Incomplete Pass. Field Goal. Irish ball. Game iced. Victory formation.
Then as the celebration commenced, Notre Dame happened. I can’t describe it as anything else.
Manti Te’o jubilantly ran towards the student section and saluted them. The students responded by holding up five with one hand and waving the leis they were once waving in the other. Te’o jumped into the student section and others followed in celebration.
Yes, the senior class finally beat Michigan. Yes, Notre Dame finally got vengeance from their embarassing loss under the lights to Michigan last season. Yes, the demons from the last year’s night game at ND Stadium seemed to be vanquished.
This celebration was so much more. This was a celebration of the Notre Dame family coming together to honor and support one of their own. From the leis worn in the stands down to the female student managers that put a single hibiscus in their hair, there was zero doubt that we were all unified in support of Te’o.
It was “We Are ND” personified.
No doubt was left when the alma mater was sung. I may have heard louder crowds at ND Stadium before, but I have never heard the alma mater sung so loudly and clear. The echos were truly awoken as “Notre Dame, Our Mother” resonated through the stadium, bringing a tear to my eye.
As if that wasn’t enough, the stadium PA had one final brush stroke to complete this masterpiece:
We were being played out as if we were closing down the ‘Backer. And much like how those nights end, the crowd lingered to soak in the moment and dance just a little bit longer.
Even as I exited the stadium, the celebration continued in ways that I have never seen before. As we approached the “E” gate, I noticed that the seniors were sprinting and cheering down an impromptu and accidental fan made tunnel. No one wanted to block them, everyone wanted to watch their joy as the Irish went 4-0 for the first time in a decade.
What a night indeed.