A Day with the Fighting Irish, Weather or Not!

College football is one sport I’ve never been a huge fan of. No special reason. I’m not a big fan of professional football either. Perhaps the fact that colleges basically serve as a free minor league for football is something that doesn’t seem quite right to me. The landscape is littered with college football players who didn’t become academic scholars. Or even close. Such is the way of the world in college football. But as I discovered this past weekend, there is a side to college football I truly enjoy.

Last Thursday, Chris Galloway and I took a group of 35 to Chicago for a “sports weekend” with celebrity guest host Kelly Brothers of KCRA-TV and KFBK Radio. The idea had been Kelly’s – a 4 day trip including both a Cubs game and the Notre Dame football home opener at South Bend. Throw in some sightseeing and great food (Harry Carey’s and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket – a Route 66 landmark – it just doesn’t get any better!) and we were all in for a real treat.

On Friday, we watched the Cubs and the Pirates, two teams that were playing only for personal glory, inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. It was a hot, humid day, but we were seated behind third base, in the shade. Overall, a great day to soak up the old ballpark.

Saturday morning, we arose early for an 8am bus departure to South Bend, arriving around 11am eastern time. By the time we arrived, thousands had already set up camp around the outside of the stadium. Tailgating? Practically mandatory. Kickoff was still 4 ½ hours away, but the campus was teaming with activity.

First stop, the bookstore. It’s the best souvenir spot on campus and our gang supported the local economy in a big way. Just about everyone getting back on the coach clutched a bag in their hands, some were large bags. Next up, a tailgate party fit for a football fan. Italian beef (a Chicago favorite), southern fried chicken and all the trimmings. Unfortunately, we didn’t make a clean connection with our “beer wagon,” which was in a different parking lot, until we were on our way into the stadium. Best laid plans…

Kelly led a walking tour of the campus, which was filling up rapidly with fans. We paid homage to “Touchdown Jesus,” a massive mosaic on the side of the library. The nickname comes from the fact that the artwork can be seen from inside the football stadium, and Jesus has his arms outstretched over his head, as a football referee would pose signaling a touchdown. A bit irreverent, but it works.

This being the first game of the season, lots of parents were on hand to proudly root for their child’s new alma mater. Kelly, being a Notre Dame grad, was in his element, as he showed us around. A highlight was the story of his dorm, Zahm; and the obvious nickname for its residents (Zahmbies, what else). To say there was excitement in the air is an understatement.

As game time neared, the players, attired in coat and tie, marched to the stadium; followed by the band, after a pre-game concert. Once inside, it was obvious the excitement had come right through the gates with us. Professional sports have a certain aura surrounding them. College sports do also, but it’s a different vibe.

Fan’s investment in pro sports teams is in dollars and years of rooting for their favorite teams. College is different. The investment in college teams often comes from the heart and soul. Alumni who spent some of the best years of their lives working towards a degree have a tie to their school’s sports teams that borders on the fanatic.

As the game began, the stadium announcer informed us they were tracking thunderstorms 100 miles from the stadium, but expected no problems with the weather. Famous last words.

By the end of the first quarter, the storm clouds had begun to gather. Notre Dame, after an initial burst of energy, found itself down 16-0 to South Florida, a team they expected to beat handily. The stadium felt like the air had been pumped out. When your team is getting their collective hats handed to them, it’s hard to maintain your level of pre-game enthusiasm. Then came the announcement. Due to a major wave of thunderstorms headed our direction, the decision was made to suspend play at halftime.

The rains came, as advertised. The fans, many disgruntled by the delay (Don’t they play football in all kinds of weather?), grew impatient. Some left. But at least 85% of those gathered remained on the concourses for what became a two hour delay. When play resumed, the Fighting Irish lived up to their name, marching down the field to score. Perhaps the second half would be different from the first.

But Mother Nature wasn’t done. Another thunderstorm approached and with only 4 minutes to go, a second suspension was announced. This time, with the game seemingly out of reach for the hometown boys (23-13), most headed for their vehicles, hoping to beat the raindrops. BIG raindrops. Buckets of raindrops.

Our gang returned to the coach, the last few arriving as the skies opened up. We had called it a day. (The game did resume again after a 40 minute delay and ended up 23-20, in favor of South Florida.)

Some fans were upset, some confused, some were on the back side of a lot of drinking earlier. (Tailgating has to stop when the game starts, and no alcohol is sold inside the stadium, which certainly helps dry out the imbibing fans.) And if you didn’t know “the rest of the story,” you might have wondered why a football game had been stopped twice for thunderstorms.

Think back just a few weeks. At the Indiana State Fair, severe thunderstorms brought high winds, but the show went on. Unfortunately, the winds caused a stage to collapse, killing 7 people. Now think back to last fall. You might have missed the story about the Notre Dame Student Manager who was video-taping a practice at the stadium when lightening and thunder came. The young man, Declan Sullivan, was killed by a lightening strike, an event that deeply troubled the Notre Dame leadership, because they had not provided a safe environment for a young man in their charge. They were humbled.

So when the word came that 80,000 people were in the path of a potentially life-threatening wind and rain storm, those in charge of one of our country’s most venerable schools did the right thing. They acted with an abundance of caution and suspended play, getting people out of the elements.

It was an unpopular but well thought out decision. A football game is not worth anyone’s life or limb. Yes, a wonderfully exciting day had come to a less than glorious conclusion.  But the day was a success. I think the folks who went with us had a good time and got to experience a college campus on game day. Not just any college campus, Notre Dame. Thanks to a few thoughtful, caring school officials, we’ll all live to tell about it. Sometimes good decisions are not easy or popular. Even when they seem insignificant 24 hours later. Which I think is the point.

I’ll attend another college football game someday. I had a great time. The people at ND were super, Kelly was a terrific host. Next time though, let’s leave the thunderstorms behind.

 

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