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Thursday, October 30, 2003
Why Irish eyes are smiling

By Kieran Darcy
ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As I drove around Notre Dame that September afternoon in search of a parking spot, I saw license plates from practically every state in the country. The campus was overrun. Several people sat by the side of the road holding signs, searching for tickets. And kickoff against Michigan State was more than 24 hours away.

Despite my Irish heritage, I've never been a big Notre Dame fan. I'd never been to South Bend before. The little I knew about Notre Dame came mostly from one of my favorite movies, "Rudy." But everyone knows that Notre Dame is arguably the premier college football program in America. Eleven national championships. Seven Heisman Trophy winners. Its very own national TV contract.

So many people, from all over the country, are Notre Dame fans. And many, like Rudy, have a devotion to Notre Dame football unlike anything else I've seen in sports. So I set out for South Bend to follow in Rudy's footsteps -- to discover what makes Notre Dame football so unique.

* * * * *

Touchdown Jesus
With the mosaic and pool, this is the perfect place to reflect.
My first stop that Friday afternoon, of course, was Notre Dame Stadium. It looks more modern than it does in the movie -- the stadium underwent a renovation in the mid-'90s, and was expanded to hold 80,000 fans. I rattled the black gate at the north end, but it was locked solid -- no room to slither inside, as Rudy did during his first visit. But I did catch a glimpse of the sun-drenched field through the tunnel.

Then I turned around to behold Touchdown Jesus, the majestic mosaic that adorns the wall of the Hesburgh Library and reflects into a long rectangular pool below. The famous image, Jesus with arms oustretched as if signaling a TD, is absolutely awe-inspiring.

After strolling around campus for a couple hours, I headed over to the Joyce Center, Notre Dame's indoor arena, for a 6 p.m. pep rally. The place was filled to the brim with over 10,000 fans. Students sat with their dorm-mates, each dorm represented by different-colored T-shirts. Soon, the players marched in, wearing suits and ties. I had mixed emotions during the rally. For example, when the 62-year-old alumni president addressed the crowd by repeatedly yelling, "Raise the roof!", I wanted to vomit. But I got chills when senior offensive tackle Jim Molinaro spoke and said, "I just wanna say ... Coach, when there comes a time in the game tomorrow and it's fourth-and-1, I'm telling you right now: Run right behind me."

At times, I desperately wanted to be a part of all their tradition. At other times, I desperately wanted to line up against them.

I bet that's how Notre Dame's opponents feel. I expect that's some of what Florida State's players and fans will experience this Saturday when the Seminoles come to South Bend to risk their No. 3 spot in the BCS Standings against the Irish.

Anyway, I figured I'd reserve my decision for Game Day.

Before I left campus for the night, I went looking for Corby's, the bar where Rudy blurts out that he isn't actually a Notre Dame student and subsequently is barred from helping the team. It turns out the original Corby's closed down; the new one, where they filmed the movie scene, is downtown. So I settled for a Miller Lite at Legends, right by the stadium, and headed for my hotel in LaPorte -- 45 minutes away. That was as close as I could get to South Bend on a home-game weekend.

And the hotel was full of Fighting Irish fans.

* * * * *

On Saturday morning at 8:30, back on campus five hours before kickoff, a big crowd had already arrived. As I walked around the perimeter of the stadium, I bumped into Bill Duddy -- perhaps Notre Dame's biggest fan. Bill, who will turn 85 in February, didn't attend ND as an undergraduate, but his son and three grandkids did. He had come all the way from Reading, Pennsylvania, to see the Michigan State game with his son.

Kieran Darcy and Bill
Wonder what Bill's wearing for Halloween?
He was dressed like a leprechaun.

Bill was handing out candy to everyone he passed. I asked him what makes the Notre Dame experience so special.

"You come out here, and there's more feeling at this place than in Rome," Bill said. "And everyone has a smile on their face."

With that, Bill moved on to dispense more candy, and I decided to check out the tailgaters. It definitely wasn't a typical tailgating atmosphere. Sure, people were eating and drinking in the parking lots. But rather than Jock Jams, the sounds of fiddles, flutes and bagpipes filled the air. I've never seen so many flower arrangements at a football tailgate. I know what they say about the Irish -- I am one, after all -- but no one was out of control at all.

And Bill was right. Everyone seemed to be smiling.

Tailgating is only one element of Notre Dame's game-day experience. Plenty of people were touring the golden-domed Main Building, taking in the gorgeous murals of Christoper Columbus. The beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart was full of football-jerseyed fans. At The Grotto, a smaller-scale version of the shrine to Our Lady in Lourdes, France, people were lining up to light candles, and kneeling in prayer.

Before every home game, the team processes across campus from the Basilica to the stadium, about a 10-minute walk. At 10:30, 45 minutes before the procession was to begin, people were already forming two lines along the route. At 11:15, the Basilica's bell tolled, and soon all the players, again clad in suits and ties, began marching past, the crowd clapping wildly and shouting words of encouragement all along the way.

When I finally set foot in the stadium, I appreciated what Rudy's dad said when he first entered it: "This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen." The immaculate grass. The slanted white chalk lines in the end zones. The yellow flowers along the sidelines.

Notre Dame crowd
Everyone should take a walk in a stadium full of luscious greens.
Everyone in the student section wore green T-shirts, giving the left half of the north end zone the look of a live green monster that extended halfway down the west sideline. Add Michigan State's fans, and the whole stadium was green and white. There are no advertisements; not even a video scoreboard. Just 80,000 fired-up fans -- very refreshing.

At one point before every home game, the Notre Dame marching band plays the opponent's fight song -- a very classy gesture. But when they play that oh-so-familiar Notre Dame Victory March, you can't help but feel the blood rush through your body.

I didn't want to stay in the stuffy press box to watch the game, so I hiked up to the outdoor photo deck at the very top of the stadium. It was crowded, even up there. The only open space was right under the public address speakers. I had to cover my ears until they adjusted the volume. But when the crowd roared, it was almost as loud as the speakers.

Watching the student section that afternoon was as entertaining as the game itself. They never sit down. They do all the unique Notre Dame cheers -- at times, they pump their arms up and down in rhythm; at other times, they put their arms around each other's shoulders and dance. They rattle their keys when a key play is about to take place. And when the Irish score, several students are lofted in the air by their friends; and together, they do as many push-ups as Notre Dame has points.

"No doubt, we have the greatest fans in the land," says Irish QB Brady Quinn.

And they never quit -- even after the Spartans returned a Carlyle Holiday interception for a touchdown that put Notre Dame behind 22-9 with less than seven minutes to play. All the students stayed. When the game was over and the Irish had lost, almost all of them waited while the Michigan State band played the Spartans' victory song, and then applauded their own defeated troops afterwards on the field. The Notre Dame players came over to the student section and saluted them, their helmets aloft. They had played poorly, but they were cheered nonetheless. It was one of the most heart-warming sports moments I've ever witnessed.

That clinched it. I was ready to hop on the Notre Dame bandwagon. I wanted to belong.

It wasn't exactly that moment when Rudy was carried triumphantly off the field.

It was even better.

* * * * *
The Grotto
A Notre Dame game is a religious experience.
As I watched what transpired after the game, I was completely overwhelmed by a warm, fuzzy feeling. I realized it had been building up all weekend and finally had just burst out. I thought back to the people lining up to light candles before the game at The Grotto. I thought about the way the students handled themselves at the game. And it just hit me -- why so many people come, from so far away.

For a sports fan, visiting Notre Dame for a football weekend is like a pilgrimage, like going to Lourdes, or Jerusalem, or Mecca and Medina. You go there to be part of something bigger. To be a part of tradition. To be a part of history. But there's something more, something higher, involved. I can't quite explain it, even after being there. But when you're there, whether you're religious or not, I think you can feel it. Somehow, it all makes sense. You come away feeling good, no matter what happens in the game.

It's a beautiful thing.

* * * * *

Finally, I walked down on the field and headed to the locker rooms. After the postgame interviews, I marched up the tunnel towards Touchdown Jesus and couldn't help but smile at the sight of it.

I'd heard that a Mass was being celebrated at the Basilica 30 minutes after the game. I was running a little late, but figured I'd go for whatever was left of it. As I walked across campus, the silence was eerie -- all you could hear were the fountains running. Maybe everyone was exhausted, and had retreated to their dorms for a nap.

When I got to the Basilica, a few people were milling around outside. The doors were closed. I walked up the steps where a woman was standing and asked if Mass was still going on. "Sorry, the church is completely jammed; we had to close the doors."

I didn't mind. I had just been at church with 80,000 other people.

You can e-mail Kieran Darcy at kieran.d.darcy@espn3.com