I grew up on the Southwest side of Chicago in the 1970s, a neighborhood home to many Irish Americans. A few doors down from me lived a family that became a very important part of my life. The mother and father were born in Ireland. Their youngest child, Patrick, was the only boy and he was a couple of years older than me. I looked up to him, and he took me under his wing. His older sisters used to babysit me. Patrick's mom was an angel, and I always felt safe in her presence. His father scared the hell out of me. Not that he was ever mean -- I just couldn't understand a word he said. He had a very deep, gruff voice, and the thickest brogue I've ever heard, so no matter what he said, he sounded angry. The family's love for each other was apparent, even when they were all yelling. They used to take me along to huge, all-Irish picnics in the Cook County Forest Preserves, where I would observe the sports of "soccer" and hurling being played, and overhear largely unintelligible conversations. While the family didn't really follow "American football," they sure helped me connect with my heritage.
My mother's parents were also born in Ireland, in the same county. Although they only lived about 10 miles apart, they didn't know each other. They only met after each had independently arrived in Chicago. They married and started a family. Two of my mom's sisters became nuns. Another sister married and moved to South Bend, where they started their family. When I was still an infant, my mother became ill, and my aunt came to Chicago and took me back to South Bend with her for an extended stay. As a child, I would spend a few weeks every summer with my cousins, and we'd often visit the Notre Dame campus. Later, one of my siblings became a Brother of Holy Cross, also in South Bend. He started taking some classes at Notre Dame. He eventually chose to leave the order, but continued classes and graduated from ND. The progression was complete.
So it was natural for me to love the Fighting Irish. It seemed a birthday was not a success unless I received a new Notre Dame T-shirt or sweatshirt, a banner to hang on the wall or a ceramic figure to put in my bedroom. There were plenty of other kids in my neighborhood who grew up the same way. If there was a pick-up football game in the park, the odds were high that each kid wore something from either Notre Dame or the Chicago Bears -- many times both.
As a young sports fan, I learned about football by watching Notre Dame. I remember a family party when I was 7 when we were gathered around the TV before kickoff versus USC. Everyone was explaining to me how it's one of the best rivalries in college football. USC was extremely good, but I could feel the hope and anticipation in the air. The tailback for USC scored 6 touchdowns, two of them on kickoff returns, and I felt all that electricity leave the room. USC went on to win the national championship. The next year, Ara Parseghian led the Irish to the title, although I was in third grade and didn't really understand what that meant. When I was in seventh grade, Joe Montana led Notre Dame to an upset over Texas in the Cotton Bowl to claim the crown. Not only was I now old enough to understand, I really enjoyed it.
Years later, as an adult, I stood in the rain and watched the Miami Hurricanes humiliate Notre Dame 58-7. Two years after that, the Irish beat the Canes 31-30, in the infamous "Catholics vs. Convicts" game, and went on to win the national championship. I was ecstatic. In 1993, #2 Notre Dame beat #1 Florida State to claim the number one ranking. The next week, they were upset by Boston College in the rivalry dubbed "The Holy War." ND has given me the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
It was my friend's birthday recently. He was born in Ireland, but came to the States at a young age and adopted all the American sports. He chose to celebrate this birthday by inviting friends over to watch the big game, ND at Oklahoma, and enjoy a home cooked, authentic Irish breakfast. The Fighting Irish came through with one of the biggest wins of my lifetime, and proved to many that this year's team is for real.
College Football is my favorite sport, and Notre Dame is my team. Love them or hate them, the sport generates more interest when the Fighting Irish are relevant.