The Notre Dame fans beside us collapsed into their seats, methodically compressing their hat brims into a tunnel as if it might blinker them to the bloodbath. “What can we predict for the rest of the game?” the guy behind us mused. “We need something to live for.” Kindly Alabama fans said, with the grace of an impenetrable lead, “Well, that one penalty was unfair.” And the kid to my right, no more than 9, curled up on the seat and tapped his giant blue-and-gold foam finger on his forehead, wearing a lost expression that Notre Dame fans know so well it might as well be our school logo. “What happened?” he murmured, fighting tears.
The game started, kid. That’s what happened.
Few of the Notre Dame fans I know expected us to beat Alabama in Monday night’s BCS Championship game, but we did think we could compete, despite a few decades of evidence to the contrary — this was Notre Dame’s first shot at an undisputed national title since Lou Holtz and the lads won it for the 1988–89 season. In fact, if you made a montage defining the experience of being a Notre Dame fan since that 1989 Fiesta Bowl, you’d have to set it to “Love Hurts.” Miscues gave way to dumb mistakes, years of inconsistent leadership, stunted potential, slapstick turnovers, and being written off and ridiculed by national media for daring to hope that things would ever change. In movie terms, we wanted to be Emma Stone — likable, adorable, just plain nice, likely to triumph on the strength of her moxie. The rest of the world wanted us to be Lindsay Lohan. Notre Dame Football means everyone yearns for you to cry, then cackles and salivates when you inevitably do. Just ask LeBron. Or maybe Rex Ryan.
This season seemed poised to be no different … until suddenly it was. As each win mounted, I watched games either in a fetal position, or like an American Horror Story extra, swaying glassy-eyed and muttering and punching my palm. I burned about a thousand calories from stress-trembling when we almost lost a triple-overtime thriller to Pittsburgh (my husband actually removed the kids from my presence because he thought I might scare them). But the other shoe never dropped. In 2012 Notre Dame returned to national glory with an improbable 12–0 season on the back of our first truly fearsome defense in memory, and it felt like being the stereotypical ugly chick in the movie who loses her glasses and overalls and is suddenly a supermodel. Nothing could blunt my exuberance at being invited to the dance, even, I told myself, if we spent the whole night standing by the punch bowl wishing it had rum in it. As I left the Coliseum after Notre Dame’s season-capping win against USC, I thought, “Will Smith is right. I’m going to Miami.”
Thanks to my psychic husband, who covertly gambled on a Championship ticket back in October and won, I actually was going to Miami. From the moment I hopped on the plane from Los Angeles, I saw twenty ND shirts for every one touting Alabama. South Beach teemed blue and gold and green. Alums paid in the mid-four-figures for travel packages and tickets. A broker we bumped into at a bar promised people “a deal” at $950 per, and the throngs at Sun Life Stadium on game day seemed to be a 70–30 split in favor of the Irish — many of whom didn’t even have a way into the game. My sister’s college roommate casually swung by Florida just because she’d been there when Notre Dame won the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, and hoped she might be good luck. (Just like my lucky boots from when we beat USC, the lucky pedicure I hadn’t changed since we kept on winning, the lucky pessimism that had been wrong every week … for a bunch of Catholics who aren’t supposed to worship false idols, Notre Dame fans sure love our talismans.) Two ticketless college newspaper chums of mine, in a fit of team spirit, began the drive down from Virginia at 9 p.m. Sunday night after the Redskins’ loss, arrived in Fort Lauderdale at 12:45 p.m. Monday, and still hadn’t slept when they cracked their first Yuengling at our tailgate. No one claimed blazing confidence that we’d win — to be a Notre Dame fan now is to manage expectations as a way of mitigating heartache — but everyone simply wanted to be there, just in case. We reveled in the strong Irish turnout. As downcast as I tried to be about our chances, I screamed so loud when the team buses pulled up that my head spun and I had to sit down; if anyone chanted “Roll Tide,” we didn’t hear it, because filing into the stadium the cheers for “We are ND” and “Here Come the Irish” were so loud that even the Mars Rover probably peeked out of its crater and wondered if it had company. “Act like you been there before,” we reminded ourselves, before remembering that it was way more fun to drink whiskey and hug each other and plan to name all our future children Manti Te’o (after our star linebacker), regardless of gender. I felt ecstatic, euphoric, blessed. I felt back, praying we would prove to the haters that we we right all along, and we belonged.
And then Notre Dame’s kicker sailed the ball into the humid Miami air, and when it dropped, so did that damn proverbial other shoe — or, more accurately, the entire contents of His heavenly shoe closet. Let me describe the feeling as eloquently as I can: It sucked. Think about when Clint Eastwood got up at the Republican convention and you thought, “This might be interesting,” until he started talking to that empty chair, and it just wouldn’t end, and you considered severing your own cable connection. Then multiply that by a thousand. I actually prayed for a rage blackout so that three hours of futility would not be etched on my brain, and if forced to choose between cleaning the stadium bathrooms and rewatching or reading about any portion of that game, I will pick Team Toilet.
Of course, when it went downhill, I became the paranoid, superstitious crazy fan that’s always lurking inside during every game. Seven points came easily to Alabama despite our vaunted defense. Did I forget my lucky watch? A first down conversion was erased by sketchy officiating; a turnover was wrongly negated; momentum gone. Maybe I’m wearing the wrong jeans? I wore long sleeves when we beat USC. Fourteen to nothing. Notre Dame’s defense tackled like eggs on a house: a perfunctory smacking sound, then sliding down the immovable object with an inglorious plonk. Maybe I’m a curse, a jinx? I have to apologize to every fan here for coming to this game and ruining their lives. Twenty-one to nothing. Our gassed, reeling defense never found its feet, and eventually our gassed, reeling crowd left theirs. I felt like Carrie Bradshaw, dumped by a Post-It. By halftime, at 28 to nothing, I had two things left to hope for: that our marching band would beat theirs (we did: the ND band forming a Delorean, complete with exhaust fumes, while playing the Back to the Future theme will win every time); and that we’d score so the infernal stadium announcer didn’t say “Notre Dame Fighting Irish: ZEROOOO” ever again. We did, although my road-tripping friends, who made it through three quarters of watching at a nearby casino, accidentally passed out in their car before our late second touchdown. By the time Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron got into a fourth-quarter scuffle with his own center that led to him being shoved in the chest, I let out a sarcastic cheer: At least SOMEBODY touched him. That was all I had left.
As we filed out, depressed and wondering when again it would be safe to watch ESPN or read the Internet without seeing analysis of the debacle, I saw a group of male students hugging each other and weeping, tears smearing their body paint. It didn’t feel like losing: It felt like being kicked back down the entire mountain and having to claw our way up again. Worse, we had to go home and pay our credit card bills.
But strangely, it was worth it for the camaraderie, the people, the war stories we’ll share next time and the time after that. And even after getting rudely waxed by a team with an elephant mascot, we do believe those times will come. On the way out, we asked an Alabama fan why she and so many others were skipping the celebration. She shrugged, “We’ve done three of these.” Must be nice. Or is it? Love Notre Dame fans or hate us, blasé is one thing we’ll never be, not after the last twenty years. So I am picking myself up, bandaging the Crimson cleat-marks on my soul, possibly burning my “lucky” everything, and talking about next year. In other words, say what you will about Lindsay Lohan, but the kid keeps trying. And so will we.