Who grew up watching football and doesn’t want to go to Notre Dame? If the answer is “Not me!” then you should turn in your citizenship ASAP. Regardless of what your feelings for Notre Dame are from a rooting perspective, Fighting Irish football is about as American as overeating and blaming others for your problems. Both of which I’m good at, by the way. Because I LOVE AMERICA!
And I love Notre Dame. Always wanted to go there, and have spent the better part of four decades rooting against them. C’mon! It’s Notre Dame! Touchdown Jesus. Knute Rockne! The Gipper! Regis! Joe Montana! So many legends have come from the Catholic school in South Bend that visiting it once is like paying respects and honoring the history and heritage of college football, right? History and heritage — two things Notre Dame has in spades, by the way. And lots of good fans and Midwestern charm to spare.
We flew into Chicago Friday. Well, we were delayed due to some weather, then basically rode a two hour airborne rocking horse (t’was a bit bumpy, but no bigs if you’re a traveling tailgate fool) into said Windy City. From there we grabbed some deep dish pizza (Lou Malnati’s is an annual must if you visit, or use Chicago as a base or hub for tailgating elsewhere), then made the two-hour drive to South Bend, a postcard-perfect Midwest college town.
Game day conditions were supposed to be less than desirable. And they were, or so says the head cold I’m dealing with currently due to hanging out for six-plus hours in forty-degree weather, complete with rain, sleet and snow, on the first Saturday of October. Like the locals said, “That’s Indiana for ya!” This in no way, shape or form diminished the good times we had.
When you’re at Notre Dame and you first see Touchdown Jesus, the large mural on campus, you feel like you’re having this surreal experience, seeing something you’d only seen on TV before or in print, but now in-person. Like when you visit Mouth Rushmore or the Eiffel Tower. There’s a definite “Holy s**t!” factor to it. From that point on your day is made, and it’s all gravy. Literally.
Because everything we ate over the next six hours was stew, soup, casserole or some sort of hearty, belly-lining Midwestern delight. Cheese, sour cream and gravy flowing freely. And the fans — they can put them away with the best of them. Crazy cocktail concoctions that would make a good New York mixologist twist his whiskers with doubt and dismay. Whatever! You just need to, umm,”stay hydrated” for a good time.
We met some great guys who took a crapola $1,000 Chevy late 70s van and remodeled it into The Kelly Green Machine. We partied with them outside the Linebacker Inn, a famous Notre Dame bar, for an hour (and this was at 11am, five hours after they got started). From there it was one awesome football fest after the next. Pepperoni roll here, football cookies there. And we even saw a stadium cake! This fellow named Mark throws a party he calls The Uber Tailgate with 100 friends but once a Notre Dame season. And it just happened to be this Stanford Saturday. And his mom made a Notre Dame model stadium cake. It was so cute nobody wanted to eat it (they did, eventually — something has to soak up all that liquid celebration). Good times colored in blue and gold.
The best way to describe what a Fighting Irish tailgate is it’s like dinner at your favorite local restaurant that’s been around a long time: you get what you come for, and that’s why you go back. Simple, basic, appropriate and delicious. The fans were knowledgeable, passionate, just wild enough and ready for the game. Hey, they love them some Notre Dame. And now that the Irish are having another excellent season under Brian Kelley? Proud to be Irish, they are.
I was prepared to leave disappointed, though, because I thought we weren’t going to meet anyone dressed as a Leprechaun all day. But about five hours into our Irish alumni odyssey, we met a dude, four foot four, red-bearded, kelly green suit and all, who helped us power through the final 90 minutes of the shoot. At that point, the rain was falling and he put that extra little bit of Irish spring in my step, if you will.
We dragged our soaking selves back to the car, drove to Sweet Home Chicago then made way back to NYC to dry off and check another great gridiron game-day experience off the bucket list. Notre Dame has always known how to play like a champion. And those winning ways have helped show them how to party like a champion, too. And what a game those fans were treated to that day! My half-Irish eyes are still smiling for them. And now it’s back to bed, some juice and rest, for we’ve got a Red River Showdown coming this Saturday back in Dallas.