|My first experience of the Notre Dame campus immediately impressed upon me the continuing vitality of those traditions and legends. Riding in the back of a taxi cab down Notre Dame Avenue toward the campus, I was entering a world that had seemed until then to exist only in my imagination. Dozens of towering maples stood on either side of the street-an honor guard at attention before the entrance to a magical kingdom. Through the trees on the left was a cemetery, whose gravestones and monuments suggested the resting places of heroes and fallen warriors from Notre Dame's past. Straight ahead, above and through the leaves and branches of several layers of protective trees, I saw the Golden Dome, crowned by a statue of the university's patroness, shimmering as brightly in reality as it had in my imagination. Any major university campus has its sacred shrines and holy places, but Notre Dame has them in abundance. There are literal holy places, such as the Grotto, where Dr. Tom Dooley came to pray and meditate as a student before his self-sacrificing career in Southeast Asia-and a Tom Dooley Room in the student center commemorates the life and death of one of the university's most revered graduates. But there are other, in many ways more prominent, secular holy places as well. At one end of the South Quad stands Rockne Memorial, a red-brick structure built in 1937 to house handball courts, a basketball gym, and a swimming pool. "The Rock' is more than a site for classes in physical education, however, as Yankee Stadium is more than just another baseball park. To the eighteen- year-old freshman from Spokane, Washington, "the Rock' was a reminder that even lowly mortals from obscure regions of the country might tread the same ground over which the great Rockne himself once strode. Some sacred objects on the Notre Dame campus have been transformed into secular shrines to the football team for which the university, despite its other excellences, is universally known. Outside the library a sculpture of Moses with the right arm extended and index finger raised in an admonishing gesture is said by students on occasion to be indicating their team's number one rankng in the country. On the front of the thirteen-story library stands an immense mosaic of Jesus with arms upraised in benediction; to fans looking north from the stadium during a football game those arms could only be signaling a score. 'Touchdown Jesus," he is somewhat irreverently called.
The stadium itself is the holiest place of all. A perfect oval constructed of red brick in 1930, Notre Dame Stadium is a monument to the heroic deeds and legendary players who created history on its grassy field. On my first view of the stadium I was awestruck-as one is awestruck at his first glimpse of that other Notre Dame in Paris, or of other edifices which stand as monuments to a fabled history. The stadium is in some ways most impressive in the absence of fans and players than it is on game days. Amid the cheering voices of 59,075 loyal domers, and the grunts and thuds of twenty-two players on the field, the noiseless presence of ghosts is more difficult to feel, But in its repose, as I saw it for the first time on a September afternoon in 1966 the stadium's walls seemed to reverberate with echoes of long- departed heroes. In the shadows of the spartan locker room, with its rows of plain benches and simple green metal lockers, I could imagine lingered the benevolent spirits of Bertelli, Hart, Sitko, Guglielmi-who used the very same lockers in which I would soon be hanging my clothes. In the tunnels under the stadium I could look up and see the beams added in recent years to support the sagging weight of the tons of brick and concrete completing their fourth decade, but holding up also much more -seemingly the legendary history of Notre Dame football. From my solitary seat on a wooden bench behind one end zone I could look down upon the flawless green of the playing field, and create in my mind a more perfect game than had ever been played. Lujack hands off to Gipp, who follows the block of mighty Leon Hart into the secondary ... Sitting by myself as a freshman in that end zone seat, I dreamed of becoming a part of that Notre Dame legend.
Now is it that a simple oval structure of red brick and boys' game played by undergraduates at a small Catholic school named in 1842 for Our Lady of the Lake, could come to mean so much, not just to me but to millions of my countrymen? What moved Grantland Rice to compare a foursome of pretty good running backs to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? What moved a Hollywood producer to make a film about a football coach whose plea to his players passed on from a dying teammate to "win one for the Gipper" has become as famous as "I have not yet begun to fight," "Remember the Alamo.' and other immortal calls to heroic action? If we add up all the games and all the players and coaches who have been part of Notre Dame football since 1887, the sum cannot account for the total impact Notre Dame football has had on American culture.
Football to a great many Americans is more than just a game. We tell dejected losers and coaches who believe that they must win at all costs that "its only a game," but really we lie when we say that. Maybe hopscotch is 'only a game," or perhaps hide- and-seek, but not football. It is possible, actually, that no competitive game-no contest between two individuals or groups of individuals in which a loser and winner will be determined-is "only a game" in the sense in which that phrase is used. Competitive games by their very nature are significant events in which one person's human capability is pitted against that of another: a winner or loser inevitably wins or loses something of value. This is certainly true of football. The opponents in a collegiate football game often represent different regions, different conferences, different traditions, different value systems, different religions perhaps; the winner of such contests wins more than the winner of "only a game."
Football is also more than just entertainment-no matter what players and particularly owners at the professional level would sometimes have us believe. Circuses are entertainment; movies are entertainment; opera, ballet, situation comedies, Grand Ole Opry-these are entertainment. Despite what Woody Allen claimed in a routine several years ago, the ballet Swan Lake could never be fixed. There could never be heavy money laid on the swan to live. Viewers of movies may temporarily accept the illusion that the characters and conflicts they watch are "real," but audiences always understand that the performers are actors and actresses, and that the outcome has been determined already and cannot be altered. The audience may not know if the hero is going to escape with his life, but it knows that the producer and director know. And it knows that even if the hero should die, the actor who plays him will rise to act again. 'Viewers of football games (or other sporting events) truly do not know who will win even if Nebraska is playing St. Mary's College; and for the fans of both teams winning and losing matter. No watcher of a cop drama yells at the TV screen when the hero unwittingly walks into a trap, but countless football fans groan with real anguish when their team's star halfback fumbles in the last two minutes of a close game, and roar wildly when the winning field goal clears the crossbar as the final gun goes off. Even in his living room before his television screen, a real fan does not watch his favorite team from a lounging position on the most comfortable sofa, but literally from the edge of his seat, with a white-knuckled grip on the arms of his chair.
A football team gives fans something to identify with, and heroes to admire and emulate. In a society of complexity and rapid change, football is stable. One can be the fan of the same team for a lifetime; one can feel ties to history, to a tradition, to timeless values that are difficult to find elsewhere in our turbulent world. Ultimately-at some deep, unconscious level-football is mythic. It pits the forces of good against the forces of evil, with the outcome in doubt. America is too new a nation to have had mythic heroes: we look to no Achilles or Odysseus as our forebear. But Jim Thorpe and Red Grange, Jim Brown and Joe Montana, perform the same heroic deeds that cultural heroes have always performed. Slaying dragons and monsters of more human proportions, they embody traits and achievements with which in our modern age we are still reluctant to lose contact.
Notre Dame football has a larger share in the mythology of the game than does any other college or university program in the country. Football is merely entertainment unless the spectator cares who wins; only then does it become more than "only a game." Quite simply, more people care about Notre Dame football than care about football played anywhere else. Football teams represent particular regions-usually states or parts of states. Notre Dame alone among major colleges belongs to the entire country. Unaligned with any conference, Notre Dame has long played a truly national schedule. Army, Georgia Tech, Iowa, and USC-or schools of similar geographical distribution -are on the schedule every year. Notre Dame has played often in all of the major media centers; Grantland Rice did not have to travel to South Bend to immortalize the Four Horsemen. Notre Dame's strongest appeal is to the Catholics who reside in every town and city in the land, but non-Catholics, too, at an early age become aware of Notre Dame, simply because Notre Dame is seen by more people in more parts of the country. In the South, those Yankee Catholics from South Bend are less appreciated than elsewhere, but even in the heart of Dixie diehard alumni and subway alumni keep the faith.
Undefeated seasons, all-American players, and thrilling victories have been necessary for the creation of the Notre Dame mystique, but legends are made in peculiar ways in modern technological societies. It was perhaps fortuitous that the unveiling of the forward pass by Dorais and Rockne in 1913 and of the Four Horsemen in 1924 took place in New York, where the top sportswriters wrote. The pen is uncontestably mightier than the sword in creating legends. Rockne as a coach was a genius at publicity. Who else in his era had one of his famous locker-room pep talks recorded for posterity? Coaching in the nineteen twenties during the Golden Years of sport in America-the decade of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, even Man o' War-Rockne perhaps better than anyone else understood how to exploit the media. The Rock's untimely death in a Kansas cornfield in 1931 was tragic, but it assured his own immortality and that of the football team he had coached for thirteen seasons. Frank Leahy and other successors merely had to keep winning football games to perpetuate the legends.
However self-consciously the legend of Notre Dame football has been created over the years by reporters and publicists, the power of the legend is real and self-perpetuating. No school has been involved in so many classic games and historic upsets as Notre Dame. Whether ending Oklahoma's forty-seven-game unbeaten string in 1957 by a 7-0 score, or losing 19-13 to SMU the year before on a touchdown in the final two minutes, Notre Dame arouses emotions in her own players and in opponents that produce truly memorable football games. The series with USC has been particularly notable, but before Southern Cal there was Army and in recent years there has been Alabama. Somehow, more seems to be at stake in any game Notre Dame plays than in other intercollegiate contests.
As an eighteen-year-old freshman I came to Notre Dame fully conscious of the school's mystique. Whoever plays at Notre Dame-becomes a part of Notre Dame history, and even if the press guide exaggerated the drama of my four years there, I was not unaware of the role I was playing. If the drama of my career at Notre Dame had much greater interest for me than it could have for any Hollywood movie mogul, it nonetheless had its drama-which was created less by what I did than where I did it.