My father, a pastor, a man of great spiritual understanding, having studied the scriptures all his life, tells me the best part of heaven will be once a year when the Notre Dame football team is sent up from hell to take their annual beating from USC.
I disagree. I’d rather we play that game away, being that there is little chance that Traveler will “accidentally” stomp that stupid, dancing leprechaun if the game is in heaven, where shocking acts of extreme violence are probably rare.
I’m writing this from the Dublin airport, literally surrounded by Irish, although there is not, at this time, any sign of the fighting variety. But I know they’re real Irish nonetheless. It’s 5:30 am. The beer line stretches out the door.
A man can be forever affected by the circumstances into which he’s born. My grandfather grew up in Oklahoma during the dust bowl. That couldn’t help but affect how he saw the world. Most of Europe couldn’t deal with Hitler because, having lived through the Great War, it was unimaginable that anyone could even contemplate unleashing such carnage again. Steve Sarkisian grew up in the Dublin airport. You’re a product of the world you grow up in.
I grew up with the Irish and the Streak.
USC fans who came of age during the Pete Carroll years of dominance — lucky fans, spoiled fans — can’t understand what this means. Yes, I would occasionally watch USC football with my dad when I was very young. There weren’t many college games on television then, but I would see some from time to time. If you asked me what college team I liked, I would have told you USC. But it wasn’t until 1984, when we moved back to California and I started going to games at the Coliseum, that I began to live and die with USC football every week. For those of you who know USC football history, you know what this means. It means that I didn’t see USC beat its biggest rival, didn’t enjoy a single win in the biggest game of the year, for 13 long years. It was a dark time. A time of weeping. A time when injustice ruled the world.
When you go through something like that, it changes you. Notre Dame wasn’t just a football team for me. Notre Dame was the Empire, evil and all-powerful. Your soul screamed out to resist, but it just seemed impossible. What can one man do? How do you take on Darth Vader? Especially when you’re relying on Ted Tollner or Larry Smith.
So the losses piled up. Sometimes they were close; often they were ugly. Sometimes, like in 1988, they ripped your insides out. The level of trauma varied by season, but the outcome was always the same, it was always awful, and it always hurt. And all of the trappings of Notre Dame — the Golden Dome, the fight song, the lunatic in the leprechaun suit with the bad facial hair, the cheerleaders with the bad facial hair — all of it was there to mock us in our pain. Why couldn’t the earth just open up and swallow the place? Why were meteors so indifferent to our plight? How could the world be so cruel as to allow the alma mater of Joseph Goebbels and Lavrenti Beria (true story) to continually bring weeping and suffering to Traveler, to the Song Girls, to the beautiful and innocent children of the world? How long must we suffer? How long!?
Then came 1996. Other than 2005, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt such unrestrained joy at a football game. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t particularly well played. It certainly wasn’t a good USC team. (They had choked away a three-score lead to UCLA just the week before.) It wasn’t a game that had national championship implications. But it was beautiful because, finally, gloriously, we found a way to beat those guys. I no longer had to fear Lou Holtz, a lisping, spitting, troll-descended football genius who, ironically, looked just like an elderly version of the leprechaun mascot after a shave and a visit to the optometrist, and who managed to destroy my life for a weekend (or more) each year.
The guys that followed never had the same power over me. Bob Davie won some and lost some, but he wasn’t frightening. Ty Willingham was a stoic baby seal, put on earth to be clubbed mercilessly by Pete Carroll as he betrayed no hint of emotion or understanding. Big Charlie the Snot Eater, my favorite ND coach, and the best strategist since Napoleon — the schematic advantage is ours! — was an arrogant clown who deserved everything he got, except the tens of millions, I suppose. And Brian Kelly, all irate and purple-faced, a furious, out-of-control Grimace in need of a straight jacket, is a worthy adversary who has done a nice job resurrecting their program. But I know he’s not unbeatable. He’s pretty good, but he’s not Lord Vader. But still, the pain of those early years remains, as does the streak-caused PTSD.
Sure, we might have a chance this time. We’ve had a bye, which means we’ve had extra time to do all the things necessary to prepare for a game of this magnitude — to heal, to watch some film, to exchange some hugs, to be complimented on being such a warrior, to hear stories about tackling — all the critical things that can make a difference in a big game. Still, I know the odds — never tell me the odds! — and I worry. I worry because this one matters more than the rest.
Occasionally, I hear “USC fans” say that we should stop scheduling the Irish, or that conference games mean more than the Notre Dame game, or that UCLA is our true rival. Yes, those quotation marks are justified and they will stay until these so-called fans have been rehabilitated. I’m usually adverse to Cultural Revolution-style re-education camps, but there are matters so important that sometimes you have to set aside even the most important principles.
So let me be clear: there is no game more critical, no game more beautiful, no game more exciting than USC-Notre Dame. Ever. It’s always USC-Notre Dame. Everything else can take its place in line.
I will be in South Bend this week. I very rarely miss. I will be sitting with friends of mine who played for Notre Dame and, sadly, are unashamed and unrepentant. They’re also likely criminals on the run like most current and former Notre Dame players. My friends expect to dominate this game, and they will be prepared to taunt me without mercy.
I fear they may get what they want. The tables have turned since our own streak of dominance against the Irish, since Pete’s string of 31-point demolitions or the 38-0 shellacking in South Bend or the 2008 game where Notre Dame didn’t get a first down until the fourth quarter. Now we face a quality ND team — no, probably not a great one, but a good one — and we’re relying on an inexperienced QB in a pass-happy system, on a defense that probably doesn’t match up very well with what ND does — since, you know, Notre Dame sometimes runs outside — and with a coach who, how should we say this, isn’t great on the road. No, that doesn’t really capture it. A coach who most weeks couldn’t win on the road even if the game was fixed by the mob, a coach whose Trojans would be an underdog to Fountain Valley High School even if you spotted him 10 points if he had to play it away from the Coliseum. It is what it is, people. Somebody told me the odds, and they are long.
Well, boys … I haven’t a thing left to say. Let’s just hope we play a great game. I guess we just can’t expect to win ‘em all.
I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Tirebiter. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at USC.
And the last thing he said to me — well, he barked it, but his meaning was clear — he said, “Sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Tirebiter.”
“I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,” he said, “probably with a bone, maybe chasing a cat, maybe chasing a car, but I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”
Fight On. Beat the Irish.