By Ken Trainor
Growing up Catholic in Oak Park, most of the football fans I knew rooted for Notre Dame.
Nowadays, it seems, there are as many ND haters as there are fans. So a lot of football fans are crushed and just as many are elated in the wake of Monday's national championship game against Alabama.
I fall somewhere in the middle.
My history following this team is long. I grew up when "Win one for the Gipper" did not refer to Ronald Reagan, but to George Gipp, who was played in the film, Knute Rockne, All American, by a certain forgettable, second-rate actor.
My father was big on inspirational speeches, however. He revered Winston Churchill, and he loved Pat O'Brien's locker room pep talk following the Gipper's demise in the movie, which we watched as a family almost as often as Yankee Doodle Dandy.
My grandfather, Pat Mooney (very Irish), had season tickets to Notre Dame games, so we looked forward to the annual pilgrimage every autumn to South Bend, our station wagon loaded with sandwiches and cupcakes for pre-game tailgating.
One year, my grandfather treated us to lunch at the elegant Morris Inn before the game. The elder Mayor Daley was there as well (not with us, of course). Though my grandfather was a rabid, Roosevelt-hating Republican, I was allowed to ask Hizzoner for his autograph, signed on my football-shaped menu — which I still have.
Many ND haters despise the quasi-religious fervor with which "Domers" imbue the fortunes of their football team, but it wasn't that way back then. In those days, the Irish sucked.
Everything changed in 1964 when Ara Parseghian (of Armenian, not Irish, descent) was hired and I experienced the bliss of a "turnaround" season. The Irish went from 2-8 in 1963 to 9-1 in 1964. But I also tasted inconsolable heartbreak when they lost the game — and the national championship — 20-17 against the (from then on) hated Trojans of USC after leading at halftime 17-0.
ND went on to win national championships with eerie regularity — e.g. in 1966, 1977 and 1988 (something about those "double digit" years) — but they had one "stolen" in 1993 when ND and Florida State both ended up 11-1 and the (from then on) hated Seminoles (of the despicable "tomahawk chop") were named champs even though the Irish defeated them two games earlier.
I learned that there is very little justice (or rationality) in college football, and I lost interest as the sport became less and less respectable. College football has become an unhealthy culture, reflecting an unhealthy, unbalanced nation — as the debacle at Penn State so clearly illustrated.
During the last two decades, ND's football fortunes went into decline, and they did less and less to "wake up the echoes." In some ways, that speaks well of them. Most successful football programs have only the most tenuous connection to the academic institutions that sponsor them. They serve mostly as profit centers, funneling cash to the university while serving as a sideshow to entertain alumni. Many, if not most, resort to cheating in order to remain successful.
Yet I've noticed a marked increase in ND-hating over these past 20 years, which for some reason became more virulent as the team got worse. They're too sanctimonious, I was told, their fans too obnoxious. Holier than thou.
Compared to what? I always ask. You mean more obnoxious than people from Columbus, Ohio who identify their school as THE Ohio State University? Trust me, the fans of Division I college football programs that win more than they lose are almost guaranteed to be annoying. Not to mention that ND haters themselves are every bit as sanctimonious and obnoxious as ND fanatics. Pro or con, that's the nature of the beast.
Keep in mind, I always argue (in vain), that Notre Dame provided the Chicago area's long-suffering sports fans with their only championships (3) to cheer from 1964 till 1986 (if you don't count soccer). And they apparently did it without cheating.
As opposed to basketball, where they are just one of many successful Catholic universities competing, Notre Dame is in the unusual position of being the only Catholic Division I football program of any note nationwide. Their nickname, the Fighting Irish, and their mascot, a pugnacious, angry leprechaun with fists held high, actually reference an ugly old ethnic stereotype (the drunk, bar-brawling "Mick").
Yes, there are things not to like in the Notre Dame culture. I may never forgive the shallow thinkers who tried to prevent President Obama from delivering the commencement speech there a few years back. But hating Notre Dame for their football program is unnecessary. This year's appearance in the championship game was basically a fortuitous fluke. Notre Dame's heyday as a football powerhouse has passed.
Given the passions they arouse on both sides, however, one thing remains sure: Win or lose, they make a lot of people happy.
But whoever won on Monday, it was nice being reminded of the old days. The nostalgia trip included my favorite Notre Dame moment, New Year's Eve of 1973, when the Fighting Irish (still the best fight song, by far) defeated the Crimson Tide (by far the best nickname) 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl to claim the national championship (Alabama also claims that year as a national championship, which shows just how crazy college football is).
I spent the first five months of that year studying at (and traveling from) the Loyola University Rome Center. I turned 21 that June (on the West Coast of Ireland), and fell in love that fall. Then Notre Dame went undefeated, untied, uncontested and unapologetically Number 1. It was a very good year.
With memories like that, even though I'm no longer an ND fanatic — and regardless of whether they shook down the thunder from the sky or got swept away by the Tide on Monday night — Notre Dame football will always have a special place in my heart.