SOUTH BEND, IND. — Sam Henley met us at the door and ushered us in, making sure it was locked. We stood surrounded by the hush of history.
On the left were rings from 11 national championships. Henley opened another door which led down a narrow stairway. Just where the steps turned left to meet the field was the most famous sign in college football: "Play Like a Champion Today."
"You," he said, just above a whisper, "are in a sanctum."
He told me to go ahead, go down the stairs and touch the sign, the way every Notre Dame player has done on every game day, in every season, since coach Knute Rockne designed the stadium 80 years ago.
Once again, my luck was running strong.
If only it was that good in Vegas.
I don't know what it is about me and Notre Dame. I walked from our hotel to the famous stadium on Friday, accompanied by Deseret News writers Dirk Facer and Tim Buckley and photographer Ravell Call. They were there for the atmosphere, I was there for a column, which for me is often the same thing.
I figured it couldn't hurt to hit campus a day before the Utah-Notre Dame game and wait around until an idea struck. Sometimes that takes an eternity. My wife says I haven't had a really good idea since I asked her to marry me.
The DN bunch originally had gone down the ramp to the field, where the tourists gather at a gate near the end zone. They come by the thousands. On an average game weekend, 5,000-6,000 fans a day come just to see the stadium. On game day, aside from the 81,000 people who have tickets, another 10,000-15,000 come only to tailgate and walk the campus.
I had been to two previous Irish football games — both against BYU — and once for basketball. Whether it was the famous Grotto, the serene lakes, the Golden Dome, the basilica or the Knute Rockne Memorial, I loved it.
Not that I consider myself a sports geek. I was never even a Notre Dame fan. But I've been to enough college campuses to qualify as the secretary of education.
None has as much atmosphere as Notre Dame.
Every time I'm on campus, I can hear a dying George Gipp telling Rockne "sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper."
First time I was there for football was 1994. Then, too, I told my colleagues I was going to campus to gather atmosphere. I had decided to talk to students about the football team, which that year too was having an off season (6-5-1). The Irish had already lost two early games and I was wondering if locals were losing faith.
It was an achingly blue October day when I started doing interviews. A billion Catholics in the world and the second person I stopped — this is no lie — was the granddaughter of one of the famous Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.
I asked what she thought her grandfather would say of the Irish struggling that year, and she gave me one of journalism's classic gifts: a good quote..
"I think my grandfather will forgive them," she said, glancing skyward. "Maybe he'll even help them out.'"
With that in mind, I headed to campus again on Friday. After my stop at the field, I randomly picked one of the stadium's 850 ushers to get quotes. Fortuitously, he was coordinator of stadium personnel. His name was Cappy Gagnon.
I asked about the number of people who come just to see the stadium, then asked if they always come in those numbers, good year or bad.
"Just look at the stands tomorrow," he said.
After a little more talk, he — for some reason unbeknownst to me — glanced conspiratorially over his shoulder and said, "You got a minute?" When I said I did, he told me to go stand by four or five fans separated from the crowd.
"We don't usually open this to the public ..." he began.
Then he unlocked the door.
Inside, it was tomb silent. It was updated and immaculately carpeted. The uniforms and helmets hung in perfect rows, the shoes neatly cleaned and stored at each locker. Along one wall, in a display case, were pictures of each of Notre Dame's seven Heisman winners. So were the 11 championship rings.
It might seem odd the rings aren't on display in some big public building on campus. But they are in the stadium's heart, where the spirit of Rockne is strongest. Gagnon said other than the necessary updates, the locker room isn't much different than it was when Rockne coached. Along the walls I could still see the old-style windows that served as the original air filtration.
"Not many people are allowed in here," said Gagnon.
Not even the media is allowed in the locker room after games.
He then turned the tour over to Henley, who waited as I ran outside to get the others. Henley let us walk down the steps, gave us some history, then handed off to John Braniff, who later lateraled to Gene Jagler, who has been conducting similar tours for 50 years. Jagler showed us the president's box — corner spot with a commanding view of both the field and the famous Golden Dome — the press box and another display area.
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Later, we checked out the rest of the campus, almost like regular fans, minus the monogrammed hats and the green t-shirts that say "There's Magic in the Sound of their Name. Here Come the Irish."
On the way back to the hotel, it dawned on me that I had always thought I was mostly Scandinavian. But a few years ago, in researching the family, my brother found that if we went far enough back, we were Irish.
I believe that all the way.
When it comes to Notre Dame, my luck has never been better.