This Saturday the college football season begins. I have to admit that this pleasant distraction from the grind of parish life is always welcome. I love being a priest and serving people, but everyone, even a priest, needs some relatively pointless pastimes to take his mind off daily stressors. Notre Dame football is one of the few things that allows my mind to turn away for a couple of hours from trying to figure out ways to help lessen the pains and struggles of the parishioners that I am trying to serve.
Trips to South Bend for Notre Dame games are some of my most treasured memories from my childhood relationship with father. Since two of my siblings graduated from Notre Dame, my parents were generally able to get tickets for several games each year. The first game I saw with my father at Notre Dame Stadium was Notre Dame/Boston College on November 7, 1987. The Irish won 32-25, but what impressed me most about the game was not the amazing performance by Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year, but the singing of the Alma Mater, “Notre Dame, Our Mother” at the end of the game.
Notre Dame, our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens
Gleam thy gold and blue
Glory’s mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame
And our hearts forever
Praise thee Notre Dame
And our hearts forever
Love thee Notre Dame!
I was eight years old at the time, still very much at the age where I believed that my dad knew everything. When I asked him about what the singing of “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” meant, he explained to me that Notre Dame was a very special school because it was named after the Blessed Virgin Mary and that at this university, unlike almost every other one in the country, the Catholic faith was taught. I was duly impressed. From that day forward, I read everything I could about Notre Dame and Notre Dame football.
I quickly learned, from my father, statements of the then coach of the Irish as well as my reading, that Notre Dame football was not like any other football program. It was meant to be an icon. Here I use the term icon in its properly Christian rather than vulgar sense. The football program, or so I believed, was a clean program that demanded academic excellence out of its players and was committed to higher moral standards. Besides, what other college football program had a statue of our Blessed Mother on the top of its administration building and the Saturday night vigil Mass times and locations on campus announced at the end of its games?
I am open to the possibility that I was a little naive. But even so, the mythical, if not mystical, nature of Notre Dame’s football program was not totally without foundation. Apart from Boston College, Notre Dame was the only big-time college football program in the country. Unlike Boston College, it could lay a legitimate claim to being a national rather than a regional university. Thus, when there was a vibrant Catholic culture, with Catholic schools and a sense of Catholic otherness in American education and the broader culture, Notre Dame could lay a unique claim to the loyalties of talented recruits who were Catholic and/or products of Catholic education. Playing for Notre Dame was about more than preparing to play in the NFL; it was about expressing a deeper belonging to a Catholic sub-culture.
That began to change in the 1990s. As religious practice among Catholics continued its decades-long slide and Catholic schools began to close their doors, fewer and fewer highly touted recruits saw anything special about Notre Dame’s football program. Rather than see Notre Dame as an icon that stood for something greater, many saw only a university with restrictive rules, demanding academics and an unpleasant winter climate, none of which appeal to the average eighteen year old.
It has been almost twenty years since Notre Dame has seriously contended for the national title. After the departure of Lou Holtz, four coaches have struggled even to break into the national rankings consistently. I suspect that bad coaching isn’t the only factor. Perhaps the fact that I am a priest biases me, but without a strong Catholic culture to support it, I cannot see the Notre Dame football program ever returning to the prominence that it once enjoyed.