Football Then and Now

My wife is grateful that I am not a football fan. I turn on the TV and watch the Super Bowl listlessly for ten minutes and then click it off. College football gets about five minutes, even when my alma mater, Notre Dame, is playing. What turns me off is the slick commercialism of the event and the ruthless professionalism of the players.

I was a fan once, back when I was a student--- when the players were not hired celebrities but genuine students and when college football still involved a certain amount of school spirit and sportsmanship. I even played a small part on one of Notre Dame's more stirring moments.

On October 7, 1950, a 39-game unbeaten streak was stunningly ended when the Fighting Irish lost to Purdue 28-14. With a unity of purpose that I thought only beehives possessed, the entire student body surged to the doorway of the team's locker room---not to boo but to cheer and reassure them for fifteen wonderful minutes. It was an honor to be part of that crowd. I seem to recall reciting under my breath the Crispin's Day speech from Henry V.

A week later, that glorious moment had an unexpected echo, when, after defeating Tulane in New Orleans, the ND team returned in busses from the airport on Sunday night to find a mob of cheering students waiting for them at the Circle. The school magazine wrote that "the spontaneous rally last Sunday night was one of the greatest displays of school spirit in decades". Few knew that it was really the carefully orchestrated work of a few members of  the Notre Dame Liturgy Club, a group of pious nerds who met in a chapel to practice Gregorian chant and sing compline together.

That weekend was an official "away" weekend, when students who did not go to the Tulane game could go anywhere else. Sunday night, I returned from Detroit in time for a meager Sunday supper in an all but deserted dining hall and then headed for benediction at the Cathedral with a few fellow liturgists. On the way, one of them remarked that the team was returning at 10 p.m. and "wasn't it a shame that there'd be no one there to greet them."

So, just before benediction, we went to ask the presiding priest to announce the team's return and suggest that the students meet them. He dismissed our idea as inappropriate. As we turned to go, the assistant celebrant, an elderly priest who taught physics and led the benediction hymns in a powerful operatic tenor, whispered to us, "do whatever you can." I took this to be a directive straight from Heaven.

I asked my fellow liturgists to be on watch as the students left benediction, grab at least one from each hall, and bring them over our group. I asked the recruits to go back to their halls, enlist at least one student from each floor, and call us back at the first floor Walsh Hall phone. We liturgists then returned to Walsh and commandeered the phones. One of us received all the "hall captain" calls and took down their numbers, instructing them that, when we called back, they were to get all their floor captains to run through each floor shouting "Down to the Circle! Meet the team!" Another liturgist called each of the hall rectors, asking them to ring their hall bells when called again. Although somewhat bewildered, all but one agreed. Meanwhile, I called local airport and got someone there to promise to call us as soon as the team left for campus.  The stage was set; we now had to sit by the phone booths, shooing away anyone who tried to use them, and wait for the airport call.

Finally it came. We waited fifteen minutes of what we assumed would be a half hour bus journey, and then made our calls: one set to our hall captains and another to the rectors. The results were electrifying: we could hear bells ringing all over the campus and footsteps clomping on the floor above us. As we headed toward the Circle, we could see students streaming out of all the halls. Although most students were still away and fewer than a thousand were on campus, we had roused virtually all of them.

Then our plan hit a snag. Apparently, our airport contact had been a bit premature in announcing the team's departure. As we continued to wait, I began to worry that the crowd might begin to break up. Fortunately, we found a freshman cheerleader who had not been deemed worthy to go on the Tulane trip. He took charge and, for half an hour, led the crowd in cheers and songs with a vigor and charisma I haven't seen before or since. 

Finally the busses came. There was barely room for them to stop and unload. The team,  emerging into a virtual tunnel of cheering students, was obviously astonished and delighted. A minute later, they were gone. Five minutes later, the crowd had dispersed toward the halls, leaving an empty Circle.

Nearly everyone believed that the rally had "just happened."  But for the rest of that year, in the obscure nooks where the Liturgy Club gathered, the word "spontaneous" elicited a shout of laughter. But we were being a bit conceited; after all, the rally after the Purdue game had been truly spontaneous.

Nowadays, almost all "spontaneous" sports events are as planned and orchestrated as their political counterparts. Back then, they could be genuinely spontaneous, or at least the impromptu work of a few eager amateurs. Now, they are organized by a well-trained advance team and the games are played by professional celebrities who have business managers to review their contracts.

So, please send my regrets to the organizers of the Super Bowl, and of any other televised big-time games. When I want to watch a game, I will go to the nearest little league field---until that too becomes an organized commercial affair.