The campus is imposing enough just lying there, all leafy and self-haunting. The dome pokes into the Indiana sunlight like a giant golden skullcap, the black robes move quietly through the rust and amber of the trees, and the whole scene hits you with a great, intolerant splat of tradition, mystery and nostalgia. But Notre Dame has always done this, ever since Knute Rockne told his hired help to run that ball, pass that ball, kick that ball and fight-fight-fight-fight, his speeches marking either the end or the beginning of pep talks. Now give the Fighting Irish another powerful football team, and one with something extra special—The Baby Bombers. Why, you haven't got a chance. The most accusing, cynical, irreverent infidel among us would be choked into submission by what Notre Dame is and what Notre Dame was. So here lies me, another simple, limpid captive, whistling the Victory March as I struggle up to write.
Even the jokes don't help you very much. Go ahead and try them. Ask if the Gipper ever had a last name, by the way, or if the Four Horsemen have cut a new folk album lately. Why did the university swipe its fight song from Webster High in Oklahoma City? How many students are trapped in the underground steam tunnels trying to escape for dates? Ask if the school developed that synthetic rubber only because it might produce better shoulder pads, if it founded the first germ-free laboratory in order to manufacture halfbacks who wouldn't fumble, if the Sacred Heart Church is where everyone goes to seek forgiveness for beating Purdue only 26-14, if it really takes graduates three years to get married because girls figure it will be at least that long before they recover from the pep rallies. And ask if a perfect 10-0 season would be what Father Hesburgh ordered when he said his goal was "the attainment of excellence."
Notre Dame will only retaliate with a humor of its own, a humor it can well afford now that it again has an instant legend in the passing combination of Terry Hanratty to Jim Seymour. It is a natural humor the campus derives from a football past that includes eight national championships, 19 undefeated teams, 23 teams with only one loss, 18 teams with only two losses, 110 All-America selections, six Heisman Trophy winners and just six losing seasons out of 77.
Someone in South Bend, Ind. will show you the statue of Father Corby outside a priests' residence near Sorin Hall, the aging bronze mold of a man holding up his right arm ("There's old fair-catch Corby"). Someone will point to a more modern chunk of metal, Moses, near the library, an arm uplifted, forefinger gesturing to the heavens ("We're No. 1"). Someone will show you another figure, this one in the huge mosaic on the library—Christ raising both arms ("Six points"). Someone will point to a deserted patch of grass adjacent to the big brick stadium. Vacant now, it is where old Cartier Field stood, the rickety wooden plant of 20,000 capacity in which Rockne's teams played. As recently as three years ago it got one last historical footnote. While the new library was being built, excavation work resulted in a large mound of dirt on Cartier Field, on the ground where George Gipp (some say Ronald Reagan) had trod. The students gave it a fitting name: Mount Excellence.
Finally you will be led to the Old Council Oak in a shady cemetery near the campus. There, beneath the ground where La Salle once sat smoking a peace pipe with the Indians, rest the bones of Knute Rockne, who, as every self-respecting football fan knows, died in a plane crash at 43, having given the sport most of the glamour it thrives on today. There is, of course, nothing funny about Rockne's death, but inasmuch as the grave site has been visited in recent years mostly by out-of-town newspapermen it has become known to some as The Department of Journalism. Rockne would love it.
So Notre Dame will outjoke you, too. It can even joke about those two rampaging sophomores, Quarterback Hanratty (see cover) and End Seymour, who were so stupendous, so fantastic, at midseason that they had the Fighting Irish up there again, the echoes awakened, the thunder shaking down from the sky and all of the loyal sons marching, marching, out of their insurance offices, accounting firms and good, solid suburban-citizen obscurity with a pride that never really has to be resurrected—only controlled.
It happened so quickly. The first time Hanratty drew back and sidearmed the football roughly 50 miles in the air and Seymour caught it without breaking his long-gaited style, a natty, subtle little fellow who resides in a cellar office on the Notre Dame campus knew he would be in dire need of a suitable nickname for the combination. Roger Valdiserri is the new sports publicity man in South Bend, and he is a good one. When he replaced oldtimer Charlie Callahan, he said, "They finally got an Irishman." Roger has been a lifelong sideliner at the school. He was once secretary to Boy Coach Terry Brennan and still does one of the superior Frank Leahy imitations.
After that first game Roger went right to work.
"Without Grantland Rice, we might be in trouble," he said. "I've already read a Dynamic Duo somewhere."
"Well, it doesn't have quite the ring of The Bard of Staten Island," he was told.