Last night as I walked to my car in the twilight, the summer temperatures had dipped down to the low 70s.  It felt good to wear jeans again.  I breathed the cool air in deeply, the beginning of fall almost taunting me.  The smell of a bonfire in a nearby neighborhood reached my nose, capping the illusion perfectly.

Yes, I know fall hasn’t arrived.  But the weather this week has certainly made me question if it might just be coming early.  Fall has always been my favorite season for a number of reasons.  Besides pumpkins, apple cider, cool evenings, and the crunch of leaves, Fall brings me one of my favorite things: college football.

But something was different this year than the past football seasons of my life.  Instead of following all the pre-season chatter, counting the days until kickoff (I remember one year barely containing myself until the first Saturday of September), taunting friends who were now foes, sporting my blue and gold on the Friday before game day…  I completely forgot that Notre Dame kicks off against Nevada today at 3:30 ET.  What was once the center of my Fall was off the radar.  Needless to say, this made me a bit depressed.  What happened?

I tried chalking it up to a handful of reasons:

1) The past few years have hurt.  The sting of sitting in Notre Dame stadium watching Notre Dame lose to Air Force — only a few weeks after I sat there and watched them lose their opening game to Georgia Tech 33-3…  that does something to your spirit.

But this can’t fully explain my lack of excitement this year.   Last year wasn’t as bad as the year before it.  And besides, I’ve never been a fair-weather fan.

2) We’re starting our third year without Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija.  There was something about those seasons that really captured hearts.  Okay, I know what you all are thinking… but it was something other than Brady’s good looks.  Maybe it was the success they had, maybe it’s my personal memories of watching the games with my friends, maybe it was just the fact that we liked saying Samardzija.  Whatever it was, those were fun years.  And it’s still weird for me to watch someone else lead the team out of the tunnel.

But we move on, right?  We can’t say I’m not excited about this season because a certain number 10 is now wearing orange and brown.  I’m bigger than that. ; )

3) I’m separated from the buzz.   When I first moved away from Indiana, I thought it would be harder to remain in the Notre Dame football frenzy.  But I soon found myself Notre Dame friends who were just as excitable as I was, and we had a nice routine of watching the games together.  Last year was different, though.  Not only am I not in Indiana, I’m not in college, and I don’t have a core group of college football fanatics around me.  I also tend to work on Saturdays, making watching football games difficult.  I think I watched two games last year.

But I’m not working today.  I could plant myself in front of the TV and watch the band coming running out of the tunnel, the Irish Guard leading the way.  So why am I not pumped?

I just slipped in my Rudy soundtrack, trying to put myself in the right mood.

I know the real reason the fire is gone in my heart, and I’m pretty ticked off about it.

When you cheer for a college team, your passion is about something so much more than a sporting event.  You aren’t just cheering for the football team… you’re cheering for your school.  There’s a passion and a pride when you see those players on the field– they represent something much more than themselves.  If it’s your alma mater, they represent everything your school gave you in your time there– the friendships, the pursuit of wisdom, the life experiences, the joys and sorrows.

But Notre Dame is bigger than that, and their fan base far surpasses alumni.   The “subway alumni” are spread across the country — although the term was first coined to describe Notre Dame fans from NY who followed Notre Dame football as avidly as alumni.  Why do so many cheer for Notre Dame as if they had gone to the school there?  Why is there this passion for an institution that some have never even visited?

Often, it’s because the school gave those people– or their great-grandfathers– something.  At a time when immigrants were trying to hold on to their Catholic heritage amidst ridicule and persecution, they could look to that school in the Midwest with affinity.  They could listen to the radio and hear about the football team from that little Catholic school trounch another football powerhouse.

When the factory worker brought a paltry wage home to his wife and seven kids, when he struggled to keep the family united and their spirits up, when he knelt down in that pew and murmured his Ave Marias, when he continued his daily battles in this land of opportunity… he felt apart of that Catholic football team.  They were, just like him, the Fighting Irish.

Father Carey, C.S.C, explains the moniker:

Notre Dame began athletic relations chiefly with local colleges founded by various denominations. Press reports would refer to the schools as the “Baptists” or the “Methodists,” and the like. For Notre Dame it was the “Catholics,” or the “Irish.” But the players were never all of Irish ancestry; nor were they all Catholics.

The usage was not original, but a continuing custom from earlier Colonial times. The bulk of the first Catholic immigrants were Irish — so that Catholics and Irish were identical in the public mind. It is sad to recall now, but few of the original states were without laws against them. Advertisements for ‘help wanted’ commonly carried the restriction: “No Catholics. No Irish.” The Puritans were the first to cry: “Stop the Irish!”

When the religious origin of other colleges lost its significance, the emphasis shifted to conventional names, and to their school colors. But history is recorded remembrance in our blessed heritage here at Notre Dame. Fighting Irish!  It’s more than a name; more than a people. It is the Faith!

In narrow, little New England, it began as a slur — a term of opprobrium. But we took it up and made of it a badge of honor — a symbol of fidelity and courage to everyone who suffers from discrimination; to everyone who has an uphill fight for the elemental decencies, and the basic Christian principles woven into the texture of our nation. Preserving this tradition, and this meaning of Irish at Notre Dame does honor to everyone of us. It explains why Lewinski belongs here; why Alessandrini is the Irish leader; why Schmaltz belongs here; why Bertrand, and Moreau, Van Dyke, and Larson feel at home here as much as do Leahy and O’Brien.

emphasis mine; from

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why it’s harder for me to get excited about a football game.  Because Fighting Irish used to be a “badge of honor.”  Notre Dame was different from other schools, and that’s why we loved her.  She stood for something — or Someone– that a state school never could.  Even in her football games.

Even when were losing, I got excited for the games because we were entering the fray and not going down without a fight.  Remember this post?  Loyalty?  Sure… but now?  Loyalty to what?  To whom?

It’ll all seem pretty hollow this year.  I used to refer to the team as “us.”  When Notre Dame won, it was a personal victory.  It was the Catholic school, standing strong against the state institutions.  It was us against them.

While I’ll still turn on the game, and I’ll still root for the blue and gold, it won’t be the same.  The blue and gold doesn’t shine quite so brightly when the school forgets to whom the Blue and Gold belong.

Notre Dame, Our Mother
Tender, strong and true.
Proudly in the heavens
Gleams thy gold and blue.
Glory’s mantle cloaks thee,
Golden is thy fame.
And our hearts forever,
Praise thee, Notre Dame.
And our hearts forever,

It’s not something I’m happy about.  The tragedy of the mess in May is that a place which has stood for so much more than itself turned its back on it all — its heritage, its identity.

That commencement invitation was a slap in the face of every Catholic who has fought for their family, their country, and their Faith.  That day in May, the Fighting Irish ceased to fight– ceased to fight for the Truth when it needed defending the most.

Father Jenkins and President Obama, and everyone else who let that madness go on… they’ve stolen my fire, my passion, my football team.  The football team that runs out of the tunnel will still stand for more than itself — it will still stand for the University of Notre Dame… but for what does the University stand?