Matt Vautour: Experiencing Notre Dame

Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2015

At any pregame moment in the four hours before kickoff on the quad between Notre Dame Stadium and Hesburgh Library, there are at least three fans with both arms in the air.

Somebody nearby is always holding camera, usually a cell phone, as countless people pose for their picture in front of the famous “Touchdown Jesus” mural.

There are at least six football games every year in the Northern Indiana college town and all of them mark an opportunity for somebody to check an item off their sports bucket list. UMass fans were among them Saturday as the Minutemen made their first ever trip to South Bend. Notre Dame is among the most iconic college sports programs in the nation, for its success, its history and tradition, and its place in popular culture.

Fans wander around campus snapping pictures of Washington Hall, the dorm George Gipp got locked out of in “Knute Rockne All-American,” or the basilica where Daniel Ruettiger prayed in “Rudy,” or the classic stadium they’ve seen on fall Saturdays for decades on NBC.

Except for the cranes peeking in from behind the back row of the stands, and the skeleton of the new suites and press box complex on the visitors’ sideline, the basics of the stadium inside the gates named for Rockne, Ara Parseghian, Frank Leahy and Lou Holtz are still the same as they were when Joe Montana, Raghib Ismail and Angelo Bertelli played.

The view when future NFL receiver Will Fuller runs out onto the field is an only slightly updated version of what Rudy saw in 1975. A Jumbotron is coming as part of the construction around the stadium, but the scoreboard remains a simple, standard digital style that gives the score, the time, the down and the distance. Most of the seats are backless bleachers and most of those are wooden.

But it’s more than just the stadium. The whole campus is part of the football experience as the game permeates every part of campus life. Many buildings have football nicknames, like a student center nicknamed “the huddle.” Jesus isn’t the only one with a gridiron moniker. A statue of Moses with one finger in the air is “No. 1 Moses,” while the statue of William Corby, a Notre Dame priest and Gettysburg chaplain is “Fair Catch Corby” due to his raised arm.

Football and faith are constantly intertwined. Notre Dame proudly announced earlier in the week that the Irish were 5-0 when the pope visits the United States and nobody seemed to think it was coincidence. The campus features statues of Knute Rockne and Moses. Many of the people posing with Touchdown Jesus do so before or after either visiting the Basilica of the Sacred Heart or lighting a candle at the Grotto, where people wearing replica throwback Joe Montana jerseys kneel in silent prayer. If they were praying for a good day for the Irish offense on Saturday, their pleas were answered in a 62-27 win.

The tailgating lots are filled hours before kickoff. License plates and accents from all over make both merry and sausages as Notre Dame truly draws a student body from around the nation and world.

If anyone isn’t inspired to play like a champion, it’s not for lack inspiration. The slogan from Notre Dame’s famous locker room sign isn’t hard to find. “Play Like a Champion Today” is on everything: flags, T-shirts, cups, baby onesies, magnets, travel mugs, license plates, mini hemets, mini footballs, full-size footballs, hats and pajamas.

Some enterprising wise guy made some money on “Drink Like a Champion Today” T-shirts as there were plenty of people wearing them.

Unlike at many schools where any clothing announcing allegiance to the home team’s opponent is treated as an act of war, Notre Dame has green-jacketed ambassadors around campus eager to answer questions or give directions. Most UMass fans were greeted in friendly fashion and while they weren’t happy with the result or the margin, gameday in South Bend was worth experiencing.

Even the players thought so.

“The excitement of traveling to Notre Dame and the fan following we had is pretty cool,” UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel said. “The whole Notre Dame thing was definitely a great experience.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage