Thursday, November 01, 2012

We're Back!

Bless me faithful reader, for I have sinned.  It has been over a year since my last posting.  I have to confess that I have been a fair-weather blogger, allowing my career and social life to get in the way. More importantly, I had lost the desire to blog anymore.  I was frustrated by yet another team that appeared to be talented, but making critical mental mistakes that were costing us football games.  I had tired of writing, week-in, week-out, about the Irish once again clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.

But this was a deeper malaise that I had stumbled upon.  A waning of my passion about Notre Dame football was a symptom of a deeper, more personal issue.  I eventually realized that I, like the team I care so much about, had forgotten how to believe.  I was going through the motions, doing all the right things, but the passion was gone.

I have been a Notre Dame fan since long before I was born.  It's in my blood.  I grew up an Irish fan, and I still vividly recall the jubilation as a 9-year-old child when my childhood heroes - Tony Rice, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, Michael Stonebreaker and Chris Zorich - led the upstart Irish to a National Championship.  I rode high on the glory years of Coach Holtz.  Even my father's death in 1992, just days after he watched the Irish beat Penn State in the game now affectionately known as the Snow Bowl, only fueled my passion for the Blue and Gold.

I felt personally responsible for the loss to Boston College in 1993 as a freshman in high school, when the "friend" I had taken to the game with my extra ticket strong-armed me into leaving the stadium just before the dirty Jesuits from Boston ruined our perfect season.

I suffered through the jubilation and subsequent dejection of the 2005 USC game from the student section with my brother when I was in law school - getting kicked off the field only to watch the Trojans push over my dreams.

I lived and died with each and every snap.  Losses ruined my week.   But over time, I had become increasingly jaded when it came to my Irish.  By the time Kelly was hired, my passion for Notre Dame was on life support.  I truly felt like Charlie Brown every time Lucy held the ball for him to kick.

I had conjured up belief in the Return to Glory too many times.  Notre Dame had become The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  It came to a head last year.  Off the field, all of the negativity surrounding the Declan Sullivan tragedy and the handling of the Lizzy Seeberg case shook my faith.  On the field, the last-second loss to Michigan had knocked me to the mat, and another all-too-familiar loss to USC last year was the knockout blow.

So I broke up with the Irish football team.  I had been hurt to much.  Of course we would stay friends - they are far too large a part of my life not to be.  And I have a very expensive piece of paper from there that I'm still paying for.  But I just couldn't let myself believe in them anymore.  It just hurts too much.

Thus, I entered this season with a more subdued approach. I was going to tailgate, attend the games, and then go about my business.  The days of living and dying with the fortunes of Notre Dame football were behind me.  I decided against the long-planned trip to Dublin to open the season.  I was just going to approach Notre Dame games in the same way I do any other diversion - concert, film, baseball game, whatever.

I was of course happy to see Notre Dame stomp on Navy.  But a close game against Purdue simply justified my new approach.  Don't get too involved, I kept telling myself - they will only break your heart.  A big win over Michigan State (then ranked #10) was a great achievement, but I had been through big wins before.  They are usually followed not too long after by a soul-crushing loss.  And Michigan was coming to town.  Surely we would find a way to lose to the much-hyped Skunkbears. Again.  And probably in epic last minute fashion, right?

But the Irish held on for a victory and woke up some echoes inside of me.  The ugly win was cathartic - nothing tastes as bad as losing to the scum from Ann Arbor.  But even though I flirted with belief, I kept my distance.  13-6?  Yeah, the defense certainly looked like it might be pretty good.  But the offense?

Despite not having planned ahead, I stumbled into an opportunity to go to the Miami game.  An improving ground game against a weak Miami defense rolled to a win.  Winning still felt good, but I wasn't ready to commit.

Stanford came to town.  This was the moment I had been waiting for - the moment where the Irish would surely disappoint me again.  This was a very good team coming to town, and I was certain that we would create some overly dramatic ending but fall short and talk about "what if." But it was the Cardinal that left the game asking "what if."  The goal line stand reminded me of that Snow Bowl in 1992 - but I dared not believe we could be even close to as good as those teams were under Holtz.  However, we certainly shook down some thunder.

At the end of the game, I let myself get caught up in the moment and danced in the rain as I flirted with belief.

Been here before, though.  I settled back down and remembered that we still had the two best teams on the schedule, and we were only going to get as far as Norman before we settled back into a surprisingly good, but typically Notre Dame-esque undeserved BCS bowl season - doomed to end in an embarassing loss.  

I knew we would lose when we looked positively pedestrian against the mighty Cougars of BYU - an unranked opponent in our own house.  Also, it appeared we may have a full-blown quarterback controversy threatening to derail the season.

So I had already made my peace with losing to the Sooners.  Outwardly, I played the role of the always optimistic Notre Dame fan.  But inside I knew better than to really believe.  I mean, the Sooners are a perpetual BCS team, an elite program with an elite coach that had recruited elite players and have proven themselves time and time again.  And they DON'T lose at home.  Indeed, they had already coughed one up to K-State at home - Stoops had never lost at home twice in one season.

I made plans to stay at a friend's house out in the boonies to watch the game, knowing that I wouldn't disturb the neighbors with my off-color commentary shouted at the failures on the field, and I would have a safe place to drink away my sorrows after the game.No crazy last-second road trip to Norman for me - I was going to take my beating in private.

And then they kicked off in Norman.  At first, as Landry Jones started chucking the ball all over the field, I felt justified in not getting too emotionally attached to this team.  But then we stiffened and forced a punt. The offense was lackluster and went 3 and out.  Again, Landry started taking apart the secondary, marching 71 yards before holding them to a field goal.

Wait, what?  Did you just see that?  Cierre Wood just burst through for a 62 yard touchdown!

I'd been watching the Irish all year, and every game sort of played out the same.  So when we firmed up in the 2nd quarter, trading field goals, something started to feel right.  Notre Dame was playing THEIR game. They were controlling the game, not trying to "keep up" with the Sooners.

In the third quarter, Oklahoma barely got on the field.  The Irish had started pounding the Sooners inside, missing a field goal and scoring a field goal, holding the ball for nearly 2/3 of the quarter.

But these were the Sooners.  And they had a touchdown pulled off the board once already this game. They confidently came back and scored a touchdown to tie the game at 13.

In past seasons, this would have been the turning point of the game.  The Irish had used a ball-control offense to keep the Sooner scoring down, but the Sooners were weathering the storm, and now simply needed to escape with a win. So the Irish offense would sputter, the Sooners would pad with a couple late scores, and Notre Dame football could be put right back where they belonged with the rest of the also-rans.  I'd read this script before.

But then something shifted.  The offense that had been so conservative all year with the redshirt freshman quarterback at the helm woke up.  I had never seen a prettier pass in my life as Golson - not Landry - had the offensive highlight of the game, dropping a 50-yard bomb gently into the hands of freshman Chris Brown.  A few plays later, and Golson punched in a rushing touchdown.

Wow.  But this game isn't over.  I mean, the Sooners had just woken up their vaunted offense.  It wouldn't take them long to respond with a touchdown of their own, right?

Perhaps, but then something magical happened.  A moment for the ages.

Brent Musberger called it a Heisman moment for Manti Te'o.  But that understated it immensely.  Certainly, the Heisman voters are going to seriously consider the senior linebacker for the award, and he's already all but locked up an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club. But this moment was so much more than an individual moment.  Against all odds, Te'o had appeared out of nowhere and snatched the football up just before hitting the ground.  And with it, he had snatched the Notre Dame football program from the dump heap of history.

And as I leaped from my seat screaming at the top of my lungs in jubilation, something else happened:

I fell in love with Notre Dame football all over again.  Belief burst forth in my soul, and I knew this was a true Notre Dame team.  

I was instantly transported back to 1988, and reminded of the moment when Pat Terrell batted down the final pass and it started to sink in.  I recalled the final moment of Notre Dame football my father enjoyed, when Reggie Brooks snagged the two point conversion in the Snow Bowl.  I remembered the feel of rushing the field after beating USC in 2005.  It came rushing back and all was forgiven once again.

What tho' the odds be great or small, old Notre Dame will win over all.

Return to Glory.  Relevant. Championship caliber.  BCS quality. Call it what you will, but whatever "it" is we've got it.

The season isn't over.  We have three games to focus on before traveling to the Coliseum for an end-of-year battle for what could be a spot in the National Title game.  Heck, we theoretically could win out and still not make the championship game.  We could lose to anyone remaining on our schedule if we lose focus.  But it would take a phenomenal effort on their part to beat us.

This team is GOOD.

More importantly, old wounds are being healed.  The Notre Dame faithful, tested by it's longest stretch of mediocrity in history, can now rest easy knowing that we truly are Notre Dame again.  This isn't smoke and mirrors, like the 2000-2001 Davie weak schedule team, the 2002-2003 Willingham winning without an offense team and the 2005 Weis winning without a defense team.  This is a team that imposes its will upon opponents, and muscles their way to victory by simply beating their opponents into submission. Strong running game, excellent defense, and occasional explosiveness vertically down the field in the passing game.

The Echoes have been woken.  The Thunder has been shaken down.  Her Loyal Sons are marching onward.

Anybody else want a showdown with Alabama in Miami for the crystal football?


So now the blog is back.  With it, I will be joining a sports podcast called SportsBeards as well on the newly created coming very soon. Stay tuned!