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Stafford: Fighting Irish still have rich tradition


This past weekend my friend Sam and I sat in a New Jersey restaurant and waited for his wife, Lindsay, to finish her shopping.

We'd gotten bored after 30 minutes of looking for nothing in particular, and Lindsay showed few signs of weariness.

Sam and I needed something more masculine to hold our attention, so, naturally, we went to a bar and ordered nachos and watched college football.

Sam is a Notre Dame fan and my father is a Notre Dame graduate, so our conversation, as always, steered toward the Fighting Irish.

I brought up the recent absence of Notre Dame's green jerseys, which Notre Dame occasionally wears as a means of pre-game inspiration.

The Irish first went green in 1977, when Notre Dame obliterated Southern California, 49-19.

Notre Dame went on to win its 10th national championship that year; Joe Montana was the Fighting Irish's junior quarterback that year.

Few other schools can boast that kind of tradition.

I don't remember seeing the green jerseys last year, or the year before. Thinking back, it seems the Irish haven't donned the green garb since 2005, when Notre Dame lost to USC on the now infamous "Bush-Push," which, of course, happened when Trojans tailback Reggie Bush illegally nudged quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone to win, 34-31.

Notre Dame wore the green jerseys in several notable wins: In 1985 Notre Dame brought out the green jerseys for the second half of its win over USC; and in 1992 the jerseys were worn in a 39-28 Sugar Bowl win over Florida.

Sam and I spoke a little more of Notre Dame, planned a tentative trip to South Bend, Ind., next season, and then our conversation whisked away to some other pertinent topic. Probably the nachos.

The next morning we caught college football highlights on ESPN, and there they were: The Fighting Irish, flickering on Sam's widescreen, pummeling Army in those legendary green garments.

Notre Dame no longer sits atop the college football world. Since winning that 10th title, the Fighting Irish have added only one more.

Even when they have been highly ranked, specifically in those not-so-distant days of Brady Quinn, there was still that tinge of a feeling that the Irish couldn't keep up with college football's best. Bowl losses to Ohio State and Louisiana State are proof enough that Notre Dame couldn't.

In recent years, Notre Dame hasn't been able to keep up with even lower echelon teams. For every promising win over Michigan and Michigan State and Utah, Notre Dame suffers a disastrous loss to Navy, Tulsa and Connecticut.

But Notre Dame still trickles tradition.

I've seen the Fighting Irish several times, always against Navy, always in Annapolis, Md., or Washington. I've only once been to South Bend for a football game -- and there's really nothing like it.

It was a little more than a year ago; my father and I took a train from Union Station in Washington to South Bend. It was about a 16-hour ride.

From outside the train station South Bend looks like a little shantytown, thrown together as a last-ditch effort to give Notre Dame students something to do on Friday and Saturday nights.

We took a cab into campus and met up with a couple of my father's friends and toured the grounds. Most of the people on campus were tourists. We didn't see many students until we entered the deep bowl that is Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish were set to play the Midshipmen.

Everything seemed coated by a thin layer of Notre Dame mystique. The grass seemed greener than most grasses; the bricks which comprise the campus' various buildings glowed a golden hue.

The golden dome, perched atop the Main Building, shone like a second sun.

And there was plenty to do: We browsed the bookstore and stood beneath the towering Touchdown Jesus and stared into the reflecting pool and grilled hamburgers behind one of the dormitories.

My point is this: Watching a football game at Notre Dame is hardly about watching Notre Dame football. I don't remember much from the actual game. I remember Notre Dame lost. I remember Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen rifled a pass into the back of wide receiver Michael Floyd.

I remember not caring much, because the experience of seeing the Fighting Irish play at home outweighed the experience of seeing them lose to an average Navy team.
No -- going to Notre Dame is about touching the sopping Irish tradition. It's about feeling what most only hear about. It's a day-long affair. It's overwhelming and not overpowering.

Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who had the Irish sport the green jerseys only twice, once said this about the Notre Dame mystique: "If you were there, no explanation is necessary. If you weren't, no explanation is satisfactory."

Austin Murphy, in his book "Saturday Rules," which follows the 2006 college football season, expands on Holtz' thoughts, saying this: "There is something about Notre Dame that soothes the psyche; that provides, if not outright physical healing, a balm for the spirit."

He was right. The Notre Dame mystique really is a healing balm, and you really can feel the tradition of Notre Dame, humming of memories past, and hoping for forthcoming success.



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