BYU travels to face Notre Dame on Saturday, and those fans lucky enough to travel to South Bend, Ind., are in for the experience of a lifetime.
Notre Dame may not be the birthplace of college football (that title, interestingly enough, belongs to Rutgers), but it is the most iconic program in history. From Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen and "Win One for the Gipper" to Rudy, "Play Like a Champion Today," Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, no other school has the same level of history and traditions.
Last season, I traveled to South Bend to watch BYU play the Fighting Irish. I left with a newfound sense of respect and admiration for the beauty, majesty, spirit and faith of Notre Dame.
I got up early on game day and drove out to the tailgating grounds hours before the game. I began my Notre Dame experience in White Field located just north of campus. Before taking the bus that took fans outside of Notre Dame Stadium, I decided to see what the early bird tailgaters could tell me about the wonders of Notre Dame.
Some of the first people to whom I spoke were Marcus Hemsley, Marcus Hemsley, Sr. and Rob Kline. Hemsley Jr. and Kline drove up from Nashville to see their Irish play the Cougars. They cited the tradition and atmosphere as what makes Notre Dame unique.
Shane Whalen told me the best thing about being a Notre Dame fan is the camaraderie.
"We're from Minnesota. You can find Notre Dame fans everywhere," Whalen said. "You can always get a 'Go Irish' wherever you're at. It's great."
When asked about what first-time visitors need to do, he told me, "Get out with the peasants at the White Lot. This is where the real fans hang out!"
There was certainly no shortage of enthusiasm even away from the tailgating sites just outside of Notre Dame Stadium. However, Whalen did give me the best bit of advice that morning: "Just walk around the campus. Everybody's friendly. You can ask anybody anything," he said.
And he was right. In all of my wanderings that morning, the Notre Dame faithful treated me with the utmost respect.
I left White Field and took the bus to Notre Dame Stadium. It was still early, but the fans were already there setting up everything for the festivities to come. Being a college football fan, I was in awe of the historic stadium and everything it represented. Figuratively speaking, I had arrived at Mecca.
The House that Rockne Built stands as a testament to this legendary coach's vision. When the university expanded the stadium in 1997 to add more than 21,000 seats, it also built the expansion around the original stadium. It seems that the place that Rockne envisioned all those years ago was too special to disturb.
I walked around the stadium to see the Theodore M. Hesburgh Library with its giant "Word of Life" mural. Fans often refer to this mural as "Touchdown Jesus," and it is an awe-inspiring sight. One thing that Notre Dame hasn't forgotten is that it is a religious university, and that mural is a large reminder of its faith.
As I came closer, I was surprised to see a bunch of college-age men lined up in front of the reflecting pool in front of the library dressed like they were going to a combination costume and pool party. One was even wearing a Romney/Ryan campaign poster over the top of his swimsuit. A small crowd had gathered around the reflecting pool to watch this interesting spectacle.
Then, the University of Notre Dame Band marched by for its morning practice. The costumed college kids jumped into the reflecting pool just as the band reached them playing the Notre Dame Fight Song. After the last of the band passed by, these same men got out of the pool and ran to the Clarke Peace Memorial, also known as "Stonehenge." That has a fountain running through it, and once again these college kids jumped right in. The band marched around the memorial and the men in the fountain cheered them on.
It wasn't what I expected to see that morning, but it was a lot of fun to watch.
I tracked down the ringleaders of this tradition, and they were gracious enough to talk to me. Bobby Weltner told me that all of this started with his friend Marko Pesce. Mike Lucente went on to tell me the full story:
"He had a bunch of buddies that were in the band so he wanted to support them. Everyone comes to support the football team, but no one cheers on the band. They do this little march-out every Saturday morning."
Goes to show that there's plenty of new traditions, even at a place as rooted in history as Notre Dame.1 comment on this story
I made my way over to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It is a beautiful building, and it is a place of reverence. It was refreshing to watch hard-core Fighting Irish fans and BYU fans alike take a moment to reflect inside that beautiful church.
I also paid a visit to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes as well as the Golden Dome. Both are well worth your time and attention.
But if you ask me what you should experience at Notre Dame, I'd recommend that you take some time and just talk with the Fighting Irish fans. Most will be more than happy to tell you about what makes Notre Dame unique.
Lafe Peavler is a sportswriter intern at the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @MasterPeavler