There's something about college football. The NFL has never sparked that great an interest in me, but college football brings to the table an intangible that I'm unsure I can, as of yet, adequately describe. It's awesome - that much I know. Perhaps it's the marching bands. Somewhere around the 2005 season, I realized during the Thursday night opener on ESPN that I love the sound of the drumline. It's one of the distinct differences between college and pro football. When I flip on a college football game, I can get wrapped up in the atmosphere just by hearing the rat-a-tat-tat of the home team university's raucous instrument-wielding cheering section. Whatever it is, college football has had its hooks in me for a long time.
Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame
Wake up the echoes cheering her name,
Send the volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky,
What though the odds be great or small
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
Onward to Victory.
When the first string of sentences that you can ever put together as a child are the words to the Notre Dame fight song, then college football is likely to be one of your passions down the road. As a kid, I would sing that chorus to whoever would listen. I distinctly remember singing it to a preschool teacher. To my father, who caught the Fighting Irish bug when he was young, it was a moment of pride. If my daughter sings the fight song to her teachers in a few years, I'll be proud, too.
We'll have to give credit to my dad for starting the Irish football craze in our family. Nobody in our family has, as of yet, made the choice to go to South Bend for schooling, so the origins of the McIntyre-Notre Dame connection go back to the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. My dad was a big fan of their star halfback, Paul Hornung, who was a Heisman trophy winner at Notre Dame. Once he discovered that Hornung played for the Irish, then Notre Dame became his second favorite football team...and soon #1. College football was king back in those days. That may be hard for some to believe given the ridiculous current popularity of the NFL (whose preseason games draw as strong a Nielsen rating as the MLB's World Series), but it was the college game that built the football empire in the United States and Notre Dame was a big part of that. Irish Americans around the country had a sports "franchise" to get behind as Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy's teams of the '20s and '40s created a legion of "Subway" alumni - the name given to the fans of the team that didn't attend the university.
Of course, the mystique was still very much alive for the Golden Domers when my dad started watching. It was the Ara (Parseghian) era and, before my dad ever graduated from college, the Irish had racked up two more more national championships in '66 and '73. Many a Notre Dame fan was produced from those teams.
My dad's passion was contagious - the entire family became Irish fans. From my grandmother to my uncle to my cousins...dad started a trend.
Despite the early penchant for singing the fight song, the 1993 season was the first that I vividly remember. I decided to be a little rebel and pull for a team besides the Irish. My dad and I happened to be watching a game in September featuring the Florida State Seminoles and their superstar quarterback, Charlie Ward. Bam! I was a 'Noles fan. FSU became my team for a good while. I could have created an entirely new tradition for my family, but something happened late in that season that plotted the course for my college football fandom.
THE GAME OF THE CENTURY. November 13, 1993. #1 FSU vs. #2 Notre Dame. Chad vs. Dad. As fate would have it, the Irish got the win. It really wasn't even close, despite the 31-24 final score. My dad would turn the volume way up and blast the ND fight song after every Irish score, which aggravated the you-know-what out of me. My love for the Irish inadvertently started that day. There was just something about that team, in general. Some x-factor that was difficult to pinpoint. That was actually the very first live, on sight broadcast of ESPN's now famous College Gameday, by the way.
A week later, my dad and I were watching the newly #1 ranked Notre Dame squad play Boston College - the Holy War, as they call the rivalry. We didn't turn the game on until the fourth quarter, assuming that the Irish were walloping the Eagles. As my dad would later tell during his best man speech at my wedding, that was the day that 'ole Chad became a diehard Irish football fan. To our surprise, ND was down 38-17 with 11-minutes left in the game. WHAT?! A national title almost a certainty and they're staring a first-ever loss to Boston College in the face? As my college buddies would also come to learn, that game also started my extreme distaste for BC - friekin' Boston College.
I looked at my dad and said, "If Notre Dame comes back to win, I'll be an Irish fan." Notre Dame stormed back and took the lead, 39-38. I couldn't believe it. The emotion and drama was unbelievable. I had watched maybe 5 football games in my entire life that I could remember and that was the first COMEBACK that I'd ever seen. I got sucked right into the "Luck of the Irish" and turning the volume up to listen to the fight song. It was like God was watching over the Irish Catholic school, willing them to win.
And then they lost...
41-39 on a last second field goal. Guess who coached that BC team? Two-time Super Bowl winning New York Giant coach, Tom Coughlin. I don't like him either.
It didn't matter that they lost, though. The comeback was enough to sprout the previously planted Irish seeds and, though my allegiance was split between Notre Dame and Florida State for the rest of the 90s, eventually Touchdown Jesus converted me to a religious ND follower. Credit also to that band and that fight song. As much as I dug the Tomahawk chop, it simply had nothing on "Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame."
So, here I sit, some twenty years later, as big a fan of college football as there is. Every fan has there origin story and that's mine.