Being a fan is weird; it connects you to strangers, fellow supporters and unites families. College football allegiances are especially complicated – and make for the most passionate, fun-filled rivalries. On Thanksgiving, it’s time to give thanks for football and to those who made us love it.
Uncle Deni was a Notre Dame Football fan.
Deni had earned his PhD at Notre Dame but, as far as I can tell, he had more Irish in his blood than any Italian in history. Nearly every picture of him has some reference to Notre Dame, whether as obvious as a sweatshirt, or as subtle as a gold and blue tie. It was inescapable, an indelible part of his being.
Growing up, nearly all my earliest memories of football – and certainly my fondest – involved Notre Dame. The early 1990s were a barren wasteland for football talent on teams that I had any affiliation with. Despite Doug Flutie’s day-after Thanksgiving miracle in 1984, college football remained an afterthought for much of New England. The NFL Patriots still suffered from the drubbing they received from the Chicago Bears in 1986. Duke, my dad’s alma mater, entered what would be an unprecedented 15-year period of football futility after Steve Spurrier left for the greener pastures of the University of Florida. Ohio State, my mom’s alma mater, had John Cooper working to turn around their program after the disastrous 1987 and 1988 seasons.
But I still loved football. I loved the competition. I love the spectacle. I loved the passion. But young kids are only interested in winners. So it was no surprise that I turned to my uncle’s beloved Irish for my college football fix.
Watching the 1992 Sugar Bowl at age 6, I remember being amazed as Rick Mirer and Jerome Bettis led the Irish to victory over a heavily favored Florida Gators squad. This was the infamous “Cheerios Bowl,” made famous by the joke, “What is the difference between Cheerios and Notre Dame? Cheerios belong in a bowl.” Someone forgot to let the Irish in on the joke.
I was captivated again in 1993 as Mirer led Notre Dame to a dominating win over a previously undefeated Texas A&M team in the Cotton Bowl. Couple this with the fact that Rudy hit theaters the same year, and I was hooked on the Irish. Undersized even by undersized standards, I was convinced that I was going to be the next Rudy. Deni and his family were happy to support my passion. They filled my drawers with Notre Dame t-shirts, hats, and everything else they could get their hands on.
Imagine how crushed I was later that year when the Patriots took some guy by the name of Drew Bledsoe instead of Mirer as the top pick in the 1993 draft. I was sure the Patriots were going to take the Irish QB. I felt it. I knew it. I was going to get to follow my college hero in the NFL. Deni and his family would become Patriots fans. It would be great. All would be right in the world, united through Notre Dame football.
Instead, I was devastated. As the Seattle Seahawks had drafted Mirer, I thought about becoming a Seahawks fan. I didn’t even know where Seattle was. I wanted something else to grab onto.
As fate would have it, it was during this time that the Patriots started to become respectable, with Bledsoe leading them to the Super Bowl in 1996. Meanwhile, Notre Dame faded at the end of Lou Holtz’s tenure and moved into the Bob Davie era, during which the Irish would compile a 35-25 record and three bowl losses over his five seasons. And Boston College began assembling teams that could compete on a national level.
Soon enough, I entered that magical phase when a child begins carving out his own path in life. Parents know this phase well, as everything they attempt to tell their children is immediately dismissed. My loyalties towards my local teams deepened as I tried to find my own identity as a sports fan. Where I had previously loved anything related to Notre Dame, I now found this in conflict with my newfound BC fandom. My allegiances shifted. Now I had my own teams I could be proud of.
Indeed, Notre Dame had now become the enemy. Deni was only too happy to play into it. Touch football on Thanksgiving had been banned several years earlier after an elbow to the head left one of my cousins needing stitches. But we didn’t need to play against each other to know what buttons to push. The first real win for me came in 1999, as BC won at Notre Dame 31-29 a week before Thanksgiving. I couldn’t even name a player from the BC roster that year, but I know that I spent most of Thanksgiving Day relentlessly needling Deni as only a 13-year-old boy can. I miraculously avoided having a turkey leg stuffed in my…mouth, which is a testament to Deni’s patience.
As I grew older, the rivalry intensified. When BC beat the Irish in South Bend in 2002, a number of Eagles players ripped up pieces of the turf at Notre Dame Stadium. Some said they wanted to take it home to remember the game, others said they just wanted to destroy the field. My dad and I were all too happy to mail packages of grass seed to Deni in case his beloved field needed to be replanted, along with several BC T-shirts. Several weeks later, pictures arrived in the mail showing that apparel set ablaze.
To outsiders, it might have seemed like we hated each other; rational human beings don’t do those types of things to people they love. But for us, it wasn’t about knowing that the other person was losing. It was about knowing that the other person was watching.
Families today are separated by distances unimaginable 100 years ago. The ability to travel and start new lives in faraway places are now readily available options for children, brothers, sisters, and cousins heading out to make their mark on the world. As a result, we often do not get to be as close to the people who are important in our lives. Instead, we seek out common events that we can watch, enabling us to share those experiences no matter how far apart we are.
Regardless of what side of the rivalry we are on, watching college football is something that makes us more similar than different. It doesn’t matter whether you are an Alabama or Auburn fan, a Ohio State or Michigan loyalist, or a rabid rooter of Texas or Oklahoma. Those rivalries do not exist if not for the passion and love on the other side of the field. Each of us may love a different color jersey and helmet logo, but we are brought together by the fact that we care about the same game. The crazy things we do in a rivalry are because we know the people on the other side care just as much as we do.
A couple of weeks ago, as Deni was in the hospital, I checked the day’s college football scores on my phone. I scrolled through a number of them until one caught my eye: Notre Dame was leading Northwestern 40-29 with just over 10 minutes left in the game. A strange thought bubbled up from somewhere deep inside of me, buried amongst the clutter of daily life – I wanted Notre Dame to win. When I checked the score again an hour later and saw that Notre Dame had lost in overtime, it hit me like a punch to the gut.
This weekend, the Irish head to the University of Southern California to battle the Trojans for the 86th time. I think back to last year and how I was pulling for a USC squad that ended up losing by four so I could give Deni the business. Now, in his absence, I find myself rooting for Notre Dame to finish their season with a victory against one of their biggest rivals. I guess that means he gets the last laugh.
Uncle Deni was a Notre Dame Football fan.
It took me 28 years to realize that I am too.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.