Hard weekend for Irish fans – at least football-wise.
It’s been tough enough that a season launched with such promise could falter and fall so abruptly, but there was at least the hope – an assumption even – that the team would land a win for the seniors’ last home game.
Even so, there’s more to Notre Dame than football – if you’re a true fan, you already know that. So, for all you true fans smarting from our team’s recent losses, here’s a happy story from last Saturday to ease the disappointment.
My family and I have been Irish fans long before my oldest, Ben, matriculated this fall at Notre Dame. He’s doing well and keeping busy – we rarely see him even though we’re mere minutes away. Still, we always know he’ll be in the stadium for home games, and we have fun trying to pick him out when the cameras pan the student section.
This past weekend was different because a friend surprised me with a pair of last minute Louisville tickets on Friday afternoon. “It’ll be rainy,” she said, “but not as cold as it was for the Northwestern game.”
I assured her that weather was not an issue, and I gratefully accepted her kind gift on behalf of my family.
Like I said, we’re big fans, but we don’t get to many games on account of (cough, cough) “budgetary constraints.” However, over the years, thanks to occasional splurges and the generosity of others, we’ve managed to get most of our kids to a home game or two – with the exception of our two youngest, Kath and Nick. Kath is only eight, so she’s just now at an age when she’d appreciate the game day experience – we’ve got plenty of time to make that happen yet.
Nick, on the other hand, is already eleven, and he’s the fiercest ND fan of us all (with the possible exception of my wife). He roots and hollers and whoops when we score – “GO IRISH!” he roars ferociously whenever there’s a pause in the revelry. No question: Nick was going to his first home game.
Saturday morning, we deliberated as to who’d take him. Nancy was up for it and reluctant to pass up the opportunity, but she had some work to finish up that evening. I lucked out.
He was confused – go to the game? Like…go to the game? I told him it was true, and that we’d probably get to see his brother there as well – maybe even sideline reporter Jeff Jeffers, whom we know from church. Nick’s one word response (accompanied by a fist pump): “Yes!”
After lunch, we bundled up and grabbed a heavy woolen army blanket – just in case. Nancy dropped us off on Eddy Street, and we joined in the hoopla as we made our way to the stadium parking lot. We’d made arrangements to meet Ben at Legends, and it was a happy reunion when we saw him coming our way.
“Hey, Nicky!” he yelled. “You going to the game today?” Nick ran into his arms. We chatted a bit, and then Ben took our picture with his phone.
“Classic,” he commented.
“Be sure to send it to me,” I replied. He promised.
By then, Nick was ready for some stadium fare, so we said goodbye to Ben and headed to the gate. Once inside, it was hotdogs and popcorn and Sprite…and then another hotdog, even before we started migrating to the stands. I got a little confused about our section number, and we ended up in a line that would’ve put us in the student section. Before I realized my mistake, we approached a young woman distributing miniature gold pom-poms. “Hey, Nick,” I said as came up, “you can get a shaker for the game!”
“Sorry, sir,” she apologized, “they’re only for students” (pause, glance down at Nicky), “but I have one for him.”
Now, understand that my Nicholas has Down syndrome, and we’ve discovered you can tell a lot about people by how they respond to him – almost like he’s a character barometer. I mean, how can you look at a kid like Nick and not melt? You’d have to be pretty callous – the kid’s pure love. Maybe that ND student-worker would’ve made a pom-pom exception for any eleven-year-old making his way into the stadium, but I like to think that she was especially motivated by Nick’s particular Down’s shine.
And it was the same when we were entering the stadium and buying our grub – smiles, beaming smiles all around at Nicky. And likewise when we got to our seats: Whereas I was just another ticket holder with a bulky down coat, Nick…well, Nick was more, especially during the national anthem.
“Don’t forget to put your hand over your heart,” I reminded him.
“No, papa,” he said soberly, as he formed his fingers into a salute. “I’m a Cub Scout, so I do this.” More beaming smiles all around.
It’s like he was an ambassador, and people changed when they saw his beautiful face – they lightened, they softened, they mollified. Even into that first quarter on Saturday, when the score went lopsided against the Irish so early, Nicky helped us keep it in perspective. After all, he was so happy just to be there! He was in Notre Dame stadium, and there was the marching band, and there was #5 – Everett Golson himself! – right down there on the field.
Score? What score?
Special needs’ kids and Notre Dame have a pretty tight relationship. I know that many ND students get involved with South Bend’s Logan Center in various ways, not to mention Hannah & Friends, founded by former ND coach Charlie Weis, as well as Sharing Meadows in nearby LaPorte County. Those are all excellent programs for the students, but Nick’s reception on Saturday illustrates something beyond programs – something about Notre Dame’s culture itself.
It’s a culture that we also saw on freshman orientation weekend last August as we attended events as a family with Ben. The students, the staff, the other anxious parents, and the volunteer alumni – everyone noticed Nicky. My wife especially observed it at the picnic dinner in the South Dining Hall on Saturday. The smiles, the looks, the whispers of delight.
That says something about Nick, of course, but it also says something about Notre Dame. It’s a place that seeks to form its members to be welcoming and receptive, especially of those less fortunate – the opposite of the “throwaway culture” that prevails today according to Pope Francis. The Holy Father’s remedy is exactly what we’ve observed at Our Lady’s University, at least when it comes to our Nick: The building up of a “culture of encounter, solidarity, and hospitality” toward everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
What with the rain and the long walks up the ramps to our seats, Nick was pretty much ready to go home before the half. We said our goodbyes to those seated near us, and we headed out of the stadium to the bookstore where Nancy was going to pick us up.
“Well, Nick, your first home game experience,” I said as we walked. “What was your favorite part?”
“The food,” he replied without hesitation. “And seeing Ben.”
If you ask me, it was the smiles. I guess it’s all in the perspective.