All right, as this college football season winds to a close, since it appears that we are all going to have to live with awakened echoes and shaken thunder again, and since it appears that all the people who had kept the blue Sansabelt slacks emblazoned with the tiny green shamrocks in the back of the closet for nearly a decade will be hauling them back out, and since it appears that more phony Irish memorabilia once again will be peddled from the benighted hamlet of South Bend in Indiana than is peddled at the duty-free in Shannon Airport, we might as well get the whole movie thing out of the way right now.
The essential Notre Dame movie is Knute Rockne — All American, period. It is not, God help us, Rudy, which is a passel of unreconstructed mythopoeic bullpucky even by the standards of the university in question, which are considerable. (And, I swear on my grandmother’s grave, I will get Aaron Sorkin somehow for trying to make said bullpucky iconic on that episode of The Newsroom — and for making President Jed Bartlet a Notre Dame grad, now that I think about it.) And the essential Notre Dame movie scene is not The Jersey Scene. It is the scene at the Rockne family dinner table when young Knute shows up late because he has been waylaid by some neighborhood jamokes who let him play football, primarily to jump on his head, if the movie is in any way true to life. Anyway, young Knute slips in, but Papa Rockne catches him and begins to tear him a new one in fluent Norwegian. (As far as I’m concerned it might as well be Urdu, but it sounds Norwegian, at any rate.) And then young Knute squares himself to his full height and delivers the line that explains the hold that Notre Dame football fastened onto so many people in this country.
“Don’t talk Norwegian, talk American,” young Knute says. “We’re all Americans now.”
Make no mistake. We are going to have to deal with the lore again, God help us, because we are going to have to deal with this stubborn, tough football team. Watching them briskly and professionally dispatch outgunned Boston College on Saturday night, in a 21-6 game that was nowhere near that close, you saw a team with a good, solid defense and an offense that is growing into itself week after week, especially in the play of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. In controlling the game from the opening kickoff, the Irish converted 10 third-down chances in a row, many of them by piling Golson off the right side behind his massive offensive line.
“I was really pleased with the quarterback play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Everett played the way he needs to play, especially in the red zone. I think we said that, once he starts playing at the level that we need him to play in the red zone, we’ll start scoring touchdowns and not just field goals.
“We did a nice job on third downs. I thought, again, that our quarterback play was really good. One of the best plays I think he’s had was when he ran it on third down, when he put his foot in the ground and went north and south and showed some real toughness. We were effective today because our quarterback was effective today.”
So, they won again, and Alabama lost, which the entire Notre Dame traveling party tried (and failed miserably) to pretend wasn’t important to them, and there are now three undefeated contenders left for the BCS Championship Game, and one of them is Notre Dame, may the merciful god take pity on all our souls.
The old ones have mostly passed now, the immigrant fathers and mothers, and uncles and aunts, and grandparents who came over in the great waves from Europe, many of them fleeing failed revolutions of their own, except for the Irish, who were fleeing not only failed revolutions, but famine as well. They came here, Catholics many of them, and they built their own parishes in the images of the villages they’d all left behind. (My grandfather and grandmother grew up two miles from each other in North Kerry, but didn’t meet until their villages reconstituted themselves as St. Peter Parish in south Worcester, Massachusetts.) And all of the parishes built schools, and then the demand grew so great that the great Catholic universities were built, and they became the dream palaces that the old ones built for their children and their children’s children. That was how Holy Cross functioned in Worcester, and Boston College in Boston, and Fordham in New York, and Marquette in Milwaukee. But these were largely regional franchises. The home office was in northern Indiana.
That is why the Rockne movie is the real movie and why the dinner-table scene is the real scene. Because, for so many of the old ones, and their children and grandchildren, whether they went there or not, Notre Dame stood for the education they’d made central to their purchase on a place in their new country. And the football team represented the same kind of purchase on the life of their new country that DiMaggio did for the Italian immigrants in San Francisco and New York and, much later — and with much more blood and tragedy — what Jackie Robinson meant to those folks who came to the northern cities from the rural South, and found themselves in a land no less alien than that which confronted the European immigrants as they stepped onto the docks.
Don’t talk Norwegian, talk American. We’re all Americans now.
I do not deny any of this, but I also have to admit that it makes me a little crazy. First of all, I abhor the tin-pot Irishness of the place. (The Irish immigrant tradition in this country comes out of a rebel history tradition, dammit. It’s not meant to be used as an excuse for a gathering of drunk investment bankers from Highland Park.) Secondly, That Song makes my teeth itch, and let’s be honest, it’s no better than the third- or fourth-best fight song. It can’t be compared to Michigan’s or to Southern California’s. If you catch me on the right day, I’ll slot the Minnesota Rouser in there ahead of it, too. And, last, but most important of all — good god, can they be insufferable. They’re like sacramentalized Yankees fans. I have to say, I really enjoyed that 12-year stretch from 1995 to 2007 when they lost nine bowl games in a row, and when the average margin of defeat in those games was north of 17 points. Ah, as Mr. Dooley, of the Archey Road in Chicago, would say, thim was th’ days.
We are an immigrant nation, as we demonstrated pretty convincingly at the polls last Tuesday. One wave comes ashore, becomes assimilated, and then the next wave follows. It is never a pretty process. In the past, it has been a downright violent one, but somehow it happens, and all that’s left in the children and grandchildren and now the great-grandchildren of the ones that came before are those vestigial instincts that come out, unbidden, like some sort of Iron Age conjuring incantation, when the band begins to play.
OK, let’s play with chaos just a bit, shall we? Let us assume that Notre Dame manages to get by Southern Cal, and Kansas State manages to escape Texas, and Oregon beats Oregon State in the annual Wild Hemp Classic or whatever the hell it is, and then gets through a conference championship game in which the Ducks record 750 passing yards. This would leave us with three undefeated teams, and one of them would be Notre Dame. In that event, watching the purely objective, scientific BCS Brainiac 205 computer come up with a magic formula to screw Kansas State is going to be a wonder to behold.
Does any person smart enough to spoon his own oatmeal really believe that the powers that be in the BCS would set up Oregon and Kansas State if Notre Dame–Anybody were a live option? The game is still going to be televised, right? And what’s that, you say? Maybe Oregon would get hosed? Yes, and maybe Phil Knight will join the Carthusians. There is a reason why nobody messes with Nike, and it’s roughly the same reason that people don’t play mumblety-peg with tactical nuclear weapons. Nope, sorry, in that scenario, it’s Kansas State that doesn’t have a chair when the music stops. Sucks to be you there, Bugtussle.
(Let me say for the record that I don’t think any of this will happen. I think Texas will beat Kansas State on December 1, for one thing. But unbridled mockery of the BCS at every opportunity is something of a sacred duty for us all, so there you are.)
The Irish are starting to know it, too. That’s why they all ran so fast and so far away from any discussion of what Texas A&M did in Tuscaloosa about 30 minutes before they’d taken the field in Chestnut Hill. Kelly didn’t want any part of it after the game, and neither did Golson, who stood on the darkening field and ducked questions about his team’s immediate future as ably as he’d juked BC linemen all night.
“Right now, I’m just focused on this next game with Wake Forest,” he said. “We’re just trying to stay undefeated, and stay the course. I think, for me, I would be disappointed if we were undefeated and didn’t get to play for the national championship, but I’d stay happy with the team’s success, the character of the team, and how we went about things.
“I was watching the game before. I didn’t actually know they lost. I knew they were down. I turned it off a little bit and tried to get ready for this game right here because that’s all I can really control. For me, it just is what it is. It’s beyond my control. All I can control is what goes on in our game. You can’t look forward to anything like that, or you’ll drop the ball and not stay to the course. My head is down, just trying to get prepared and get the next one. I think we experienced that a little bit with Pitt last week. You never want to have that lay-down game where you take wins for granted, because that’s what can happen.”
Echoes awakened. Thunder shaken. Golson’s job was finished on this night. He ran for the bus. Somewhere, a band started playing again and my teeth began to itch.