SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Beneath a blue-gray October sky, rain fell on the eve of today's BYU-Notre Dame game, and sales of ponchos and umbrellas with the ubiquitous Fighting Irish logo were brisk.
Despite the inclement weather, it wasn't enough to dampen the enthusiasm of Cougar fans that flocked to Notre Dame's historic campus Friday.
For them, this is not just a game. It's not just an event. It's an experience. And for some, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Six members of Earl Christensen's family arrived here this weekend from Alpine. Instead of spending money on BYU season tickets, the Christensens decided to put that money toward this Notre Dame trip. They're renting a house six miles from campus.
Besides the rain, they are soaking in all the tradition and history that Notre Dame has to offer.
"This is my first time here. I've always wanted to come for years and years. I've been thinking about it since I was a little kid," Earl Christensen said at the Joyce Center, which is the home of the Irish basketball team, located adjacent to Notre Dame Stadium. "It's one of the best places to see college football. We've been to cool places, but we've never been here. It's awesome. The people are nice. We received a warm welcome. We've hit it when the leaves are turning, and it's pretty."
The Christensens came to see the home of a proud program that has won 11 national championships and seven Heisman Trophies, a program that produced Knute Rockne, Joe Montana and Rudy. They came to see the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and the storied Notre Dame Stadium, where the grass was covered with a tarp Friday to protect it from the steady rain.
BYU fans also streamed into the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, a shrine that recognizes the Cougars' contributions to the sport and honors legendary coach LaVell Edwards and numerous BYU players.
Today marks the beginning of a six-game series between BYU and Notre Dame — two private, religious schools that have a lot in common, including the fact both football programs are independent.
"As soon as BYU and Notre Dame scheduled each other, I think Notre Dame picked up 2 or 3 million fans — BYU fans, who now root for Notre Dame," said Christensen, who was decked out in BYU gear. "What BYU fan doesn't want to be at this game, that doesn't follow Notre Dame?"
Because Notre Dame announced recently that it is going to start scheduling teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the other games in the series are in doubt. Besides, changes abound in college football these days.
"I'm worried BYU is going to jump into a conference and the series with Notre Dame will end," said Kyle Johnson of Springville, who was on campus Friday. "So I figured to get out here while I can."
Bill Brennan is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he is very familiar with it. Brennan is the director of MBA program initiatives at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. He graduated from the MBA program in 2001. "Some of my very best friends in the program were LDS guys," Brennan said Friday. "They come here to Notre Dame and say, 'Hey, this feels right. It's about faith and family.' It's a lot like BYU in that regard."
Brennan and his wife are hosting six LDS friends at their home this weekend, including the parents of backup BYU wide receiver Brett Thompson.
Brennan also knows Notre Dame's star linebacker, Manti Te'o, a native of Hawaii who is LDS. Te'o has been embraced by Fighting Irish fans.
"Everybody knows he's Mormon," Brennan said. "Everybody."
The way Brennan sees it, Te'o is serving a mission for the LDS Church by playing at Notre Dame.
"The guy's playing on national television every week as a Mormon playing at Notre Dame," he said. "How much publicity do you think he's going to get for the LDS Church by doing that? He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. As far as I'm concerned, him being here is his mission. Think of all the people that Googled the Mormon faith because of that. He's absolutely loved and respected on this campus."
During the Michigan game on Sept. 22, thousands of Notre Dame fans wore leis to support Te'o, whose grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other.
"In the whole stadium, that's all you saw were those leis," Brennan said. "It was phenomenal. He's a phenomenal kid. He deserves it and he was going through a very difficult time. In my personal opinion there are very, very few schools where that would happen, an outpouring of support. The only two — and I'm not trying to sound elitist — would be BYU and Notre Dame. I don't know that it would happen anywhere else."
This week, Jim Rome interviewed Te'o on his national radio show. Brennan texted Te'o afterward: "I heard your interview with Jim Rome. You make your family proud, you make your LDS faith proud, you make Notre Dame proud and you make us as your friends proud."
Though the Notre Dame students aren't in school right now because of fall break, there is a buzz on campus because of the way the season is going. Notre Dame is ranked No. 5 in the country.
"Everybody's incredibly excited," Brennan said. "After Notre Dame beat Michigan, people were so thrilled. They were jumping up and down, screaming, singing songs, high-fiving each other, hugging each other. It was exuberance. As Notre Dame fans, we've waited a long time for this, to be back. We're just inspired by the way this team is playing."
And BYU fans that are in town for Saturday's game are inspired by what can only be described as the Notre Dame Experience.
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