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It’s a few minutes after 7 o’clock and the snow, which has been swirling around Notre Dame Stadium all day, is at last beginning to accumulate on the field. The stadium lights bounce off the falling snow, creating a warm glow that hovers over the scene below. The Notre Dame marching band, cloaked in long, navy robes, stands proudly on the field in the midst of its final rendition of the “Notre Dame Victory March.”

Twenty minutes ago Notre Dame Quarterback Tommy Rees took a knee to put the finishing touches on the Irish’s 23-13 victory over BYU. This time a year ago, the undefeated Irish and their linebacker sensation Manti Teo were the center of the college football world. But this season, a pair of September losses to Michigan and Oklahoma and a disappointing trip-up at Pitt have confirmed what every Notre Dame Fan has known since the season began: “not last year.”

At this point, the television cameras have been packed away. The attention of the college football world has moved elsewhere – on to Stillwater, Oklahoma or Oxford, Mississippi where the “games of the week” are about to kickoff. Most of the Notre Dame crowd has made their way to the exits as well, intent on finding a hot meal and place to thaw their hands and feet.

One section of the stadium remains. As packed as it was for the opening kick, the student section dedicated to seniors is alive with excitement.

One of the lesser-known traditions in a school known for rituals allows Notre Dame seniors to go onto the field following the team’s final home game. After nearly four hours of cheering and many more hours of tailgating in temperatures that dipped into the low-teens, the class of 2014 is ready for their run at history. Perched one section above the seniors, fighting the urge to retreat to the closest warmth I can find, I watch as the students relish their moment. Songs ring out. Hugs are given. The occasional snowball is tossed towards the sky. Groups of friends who have become like family gather to take pictures that are sure to adorn offices and mantelpieces for decades to come.

IMG_1105I arrived in South Bend five days ago to get a sense of what life at Notre Dame was like and to understand football’s role in shaping the culture on campus. Like most outsiders, when I thought about Notre Dame, football was the first thing that came to mind. I envisioned Rudy and Knute Rockne, Heisman trophies and golden helmets. I wanted to witness this football-centric Notre Dame but also get a sense of the spirit behind the game.

As a lifelong college football fan, I’ve grown up watching Notre Dame games and am well aware of the aura surrounding Irish Football, but I knew little of the on-campus reality. Visiting Notre Dame offered more than the promise of good football, it provided an opportunity to learn about a different way of life.

Midway through the third quarter, I feared that I had come to the wrong game. Facing swirling winds, bitter cold, and snow flurries, many fans had failed to return to their seats after halftime. “In twenty years of coming to games, I’ve never seen the stadium this empty,” a man sitting behind me remarked.

I’ve always had issues with fans who come to games late and leave games early. But as I huddled over my hot chocolate, hood positioned in such a way that I was able to block the worst of the wind, I sympathized with the masses of fans crammed around the heaters in the stadium bathrooms. Maybe the football gods should give them a free pass.

As I sat contemplating how to reconcile the empty seats with the Notre Dame I’d heard about all week, a funny thing happened. The game started to become fun. Midway through the third quarter Cam McDaniel, a junior running back from Coppell, Texas, started grinding out first down after first down. Inspired by their team, the band played louder. The students got rowdier. Mother Nature had thrown her punch, but now the stadium was fighting back.

The game took on the feel of one of those games of old. Too cold to send texts or check scores of other games and lacking an attention grabbing jumbo-tron, the crowd focused on the game and the game alone. 2013 felt like it could have been 1950.

The fans cheered the same cheers, perfectly timed to line up with play on the field. The band played the same fight song. The field, with cross hatches across each end zone, and the stadium, devoid of advertisements and corporate branding, looked the same. Even the play on the field, a defensive struggle in which neither quarterback broke the 250-yard mark, seemed old fashioned.

This was the Notre Dame I had heard about all week. This was the Notre Dame I had come to find.

 

When college football fans go to games, they usually arrive on campus on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. By that point, most schoolwork has ceased, and the excitement of the upcoming game has transformed the school. For these fans and the ones who watch on TV, the campus is always crowded, the game is always the center of attention, and the students are diehard fans who paint their chests, lead cheers, and show up to tailgates at dawn.

Flying into South Bend on Tuesday, my first few days on campus offered a different experience from the one you see on NBC every Saturday. In contrast to game day Notre Dame, midweek Notre Dame felt much like the remote 2000 student Division 3 school from which I had just graduated.

Expecting a big campus integrated in a decidedly college town, I was surprised to find the area surrounding Notre Dame quiet and remote.

Downtown South Bend sits two miles to the north of Notre Dame, enough of a distance to keep the working class town andIMG_1118 the elite, private university relatively distinct. On any given Wednesday, a visitor to campus won’t see reporters or fans or even many townspeople – just faculty, staff, and the 11,000 18-22 year-old interlopers falling in love with a school, a place, and a community.

Football was a part of that love, a rallying point for the Irish faithful, but the devotion extended well beyond the games. Attending classes, eating meals in the dining hall, tailgating with students and alumni, I began to realize that football was really just a view into life at Notre Dame. Watching games on TV I had always sensed the affection Notre Dame fans have for their team, but after spending a week on campus, it became clear that the passion the Irish family feels for football is merely a visible manifestation of the pride they feel everyday for their university.

Like any strong family, the process of building community at Notre Dame begins in the home. Students live in one of 29 residence halls on campus – 15 for males, 14 for females. Incoming freshmen, including athletes, are randomly placed into one of these dorms and given a roommate. Due to the lack of off-campus housing available, over 80% of students remain in the same dorm for all four years. This means that freshmen are mixed in with upperclassmen from day one.

Alumni I met spoke with fondness about their dorms: “You feel a strong connection to your dorm because you’re there for four years. Almost no one switches dorms and so you end up getting to know those guys really well. I’m still in touch with many guys from the dorm 27 years after graduation.” Dorms, they said, were the place where they first learned what it meant to be a part of the Notre Dame family. Their older dorm mates passed down traditions that had been entrusted to them years before. They taught them the football cheers, accompanied them to their first games, and were there to celebrate memorable victories.

In contrast to other schools where athletes are isolated in their own dorms, the Notre Dame housing system ensures an intermixing of the campus community. While there is some natural grouping of athletes on campus, the divide is less pronounced than at other schools: “It’s great because you know people from all over campus – you go to the football games and cheer for your dorm mates, then you go to a play or concert and see the football players cheering them on,” one student remarked.

Tight end Ben Koyack, who has emerged as a go-to option for Rees in the last few weeks, told me, “Many of my best friends are guys not on the team who I met in my freshmen year dorm. We all still live together two years later. When I caught my first touchdown a few weeks ago (a 19-yard grab against Arizona State), I heard that those guys were just going nuts. It’s fun after a big win, because I know I’ll come back to my dorm and people will have written notes on my white board and hung signs in the common room.”

While much of the community-building is done in the dorms, the heavy presence of legacy students on campus provides another link between different generations of students. For many students, the process of embracing Notre Dame begins well before freshman year. Officially, a quarter of the student body is classified as legacy students – more than double that of Harvard and Yale. In reality, the number of students who have a prior connection to Notre Dame, whether through a distant relative, family friend, or church affiliation is much higher. Everyone I met seemed to know someone who went to Notre Dame, including many members of the staff.

What’s notable about young Notre Dame fans, as opposed to kids who grow up rooting for schools like Auburn or Florida, is that they come from towns all across the country. Notre Dame is truly a national school. While their friends root for the local team, these youngsters are defined as the Notre Dame fan. Cheering for the Irish is not something that everyone in their life does; it’s something their family does.

Unlike other schools where allegiance is heavily dependent on geography, the Notre Dame fan base is bound by a shared religious and cultural heritage. Over 85% of the student body identifies as Catholic, and the Fighting Irish have always been closely linked to their Island roots. It was only five decades ago that JFK became the first, and to this day only, Catholic President. Not long before that, groups were operating in cities across the country to keep Irish and Catholics out. In the face of this xenophobia, Notre Dame stood as a beacon of hope. For the Irish-American and Catholic communities, Notre Dame’s success both on the field and off became proof that they too belonged in America.

“My family’s always followed Notre Dame. I’m not close with anyone who went there, but being Irish-Catholic, Notre Dame is a place you look to as a kid and admire,” one friend told me before my trip.

For students and alums, Notre Dame is an opportunity to celebrate in their community. To them, Notre Dame is not just a place to learn, it is a place to grow. Notre Dame is not a place you leave after four years, it is a place that stays with you.

 

On the surface, Wednesday and Thursday felt like Wednesday and Thursday at any elite school. Sitting in the lounge area of the student center, which is conveniently located next to a Starbucks, I heard one group of students discussing the neuroscience behind the formation of memories and another group debating the credibility of Iran’s newly elected President. Flyers around campus advertised a cappella concerts and upcoming soccer games. At night, after dinner in the dining hall, the students I met headed for the library.

The players, many of whom were easily recognizable because of their size and their team-issued sweats, did not seem to receive preferential treatment. “You definitely know who is on the team, but it’s a small school and you see the players a lot so you get used to it. When you’re a freshman, you might see one of the star players and want to tell all of your friends, but that goes away,” the guide on my campus tour told me.

Academics, not football, were the focus of midweek Notre Dame.

Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell summed this up best when he was asked about how hard it was to balance his responsibilities as a student and a player, “It’s definitely tough – by the time you’re done with practice, dinner, and study hall, you want to go to bed, but I look around at all my fellow students and see how hard they work. It motivates me. I’ll leave the library at midnight, and there are still tons of people there. I came to Notre Dame because I want to be in that sort of environment.”

The environment that Russell described, however, runs deeper than the academics. Many academically rigorous schools feature intense competition among students. Others lack a way of bringing campus together, resulting in the formation of cliques. Notre Dame avoids both of these pitfalls. Brought together by the dorm system, the excitement of football, and the school’s rich traditions, students are more likely to collaborate than compete. The study areas around campus are filled with groups of students working together, and dining hall meals are likely to last for hours.

The looming excitement of the football game itself was a part of the mystique, but, as alumni were sure to remind me, it was only a part: “It’s not just about the football. It’s in your blood; it’s who you are. Notre Dame is the whole thing – the Grotto, the Basilica, the events on campus.”

The head campus chef, a man who has worked at Notre Dame for the last 27 years, reiterated this point, saying, “Football is just a window into the Notre Dame spirit. It runs a lot deeper than the game. Notre Dame is about the academics, the Catholic mission, all the history around the school.” The chef was quick to highlight the school’s Nobel Prize winners before mentioning its Heisman trophy recipients. The tallest building on campus, which is best known for its “Touchdown Jesus” façade, is, after all, a library.

 

IMG_1063As Saturday drew closer and the transformation from remote campus to college football Mecca got underway, the sense of timelessness grew ever more apparent.

Arriving on campus for class Friday morning, I passed news trucks and families carrying shopping bags from the campus store. Kids wearing Irish jerseys were tossing footballs on the quads. Event staff were setting up tents. The quiet campus was changing.

By Friday afternoon, the campus of 11,000 had already swelled to many times its normal size with fans and alums in town for the game. Dining and library staff donned their football jerseys. The professor of the last class I attended even stopped class five minutes early to display a presentation on the history of Notre Dame’s rivalry with Army (the basketball team was playing Army over the weekend, but most of the presentation centered on football).

Game day Notre Dame, which really kicks into gear as classes let out on Friday afternoon, had arrived.

To help newcomers like myself, the athletic department publishes a three-page pamphlet for Game Day weekends that describes all of the campus events leading up to kickoff, activities conducted the same way before every home game since before even the most rabid fans can remember.

Most of the events in the pamphlet are the well-known traditions like the midnight drum circle that takes place outside of the student center before home games, the player’s walk from the Basilica to the stadium and the Friday night pep rally which regularly attracts 5000 or more fans.

Talking with students and alums, I learned some of the lesser-known traditions: avoiding walking down the main steps under the golden dome; rubbing a statue of Knute Rockne’s nose (it’s worn and flattened as a result); and touching a certain stone in the Grotto – a small site where students can be found praying and lighting candles throughout the day. “You can tell who is a Notre Dame alum because they’ll go to the Grotto and touch the right rock.”

These traditions harken back to the school’s rich past and create a mystique that is uniquely Notre Dame. They also help keep the Notre Dame family together. “Notre Dame doesn’t have an official homecoming. Every home game is a homecoming,” one alum told me.

Unlike most college campuses, where change is widely apparent, at Notre Dame change is rare. Returning alums are able to recognize the school and connect with the current generation of students because, in many ways, their experience is the same.

The rituals, the gathering for mass, the sacred locations on campus all remain. The dorm football championship (the only full-pad IM football tournament in the country), the priests in dorms, the walks around the lakes are all unchanged. Numerous new buildings, signs of the school’s rapid growth, mark the campus, but even those are modeled after the existing structures and blend into the traditional campus architecture.

Even many of the most prominent people have not changed. Emil Hofman, a retired professor who for four decades taught over 60% of the freshman class, still spends many days on the same bench outside the Golden Dome where he used to conduct office hours on nice days.

“Going back to Notre Dame feels like returning home. Some things have changed, but, at its core, the school is the same. Now that I have three kids here, it’s fun to see how, in many ways, their experience is similar to the one I had here,” an alum told me as he waited for his three sons, all current Irish students, to join him at a tailgate.

The current students welcomed the alums back to campus. They relished in their opportunity to be a part of the school’s history. Though many of the most visible events on campus were mostly filled with alumni, the students were proud of the traditions. When I mentioned that I was thinking of leaving a pre-game tailgate to go see the band march in, the response was overwhelmingly positive, “oh, you should definitely see that.”

After the game, only seniors rushed the field and at halftime only seniors threw marshmallows. One student explained that years ago, students used to throw marshmallows at every game, but in an effort to crack down on the mess it caused, the University began revoking ticket privileges for any student who threw a marshmallow. Undaunted, the seniors that year simply waited until their final home game, snuck in bags and bags of marshmallows, and had a fight for the ages. The school, aware that there was little they could do to stop seniors who no longer had any need for ticket privileges, made it a point to allow marshmallows for seniors only during the final home game. Much to the confusion of visitors, grocery stores near campus prominently place huge displays of marshmallows in advance of the game.

 

As the game wore on, and the Irish put the finishing touches on their eighth win of the season, the images I had seen all week began to fall into place. The game, the energy of the student section, the march of the band were not so different from the groups of students gathering at the Grotto or the celebrations in the dorms.

I expected to find a football-crazed school. What I found instead was a pride that runs much deeper than wins and losses on the gridiron.

After Rees took his final knee and the two teams shook hands at midfield, the crowd remaining at Notre Dame Stadium did not move towards the exits. Instead, the collection of sixty-thousand plus students, fans, and alumni rose to their feet. As they do after every home game, win or lose, the team ran over to the students, put their arms around one another, and joined the band in singing the alma mater. Like the dorms and the campus’ two dining halls, there was no distinction between athlete and non-athlete, senior or first-year, legacy or non-legacy. Instead, there was a collection of people celebrating their common pride in this small, remote school that has given them so much.

As I made my way to the exits of Notre Dame Stadium, I turned one last time to take in the scene below. I caught myself and took a deep breath. This is what I came for – to watch a bunch of students rush the field 20 minutes after the end of the game so that they could celebrate four years they are sure to never forget. As I watched kids making snow angels on the field and impromptu snowball fights breaking out, I realized that this, this creation of family, is what Notre Dame is all about.

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