Saturday was the beginning of a new era—the Brian Kelly era. The Notre Dame football team faced off against Purdue, and Brian Kelly won his first game as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
Saturday was also the beginning of my third season in the student section. Game days are always busy, but they’re always fun, too. I decided to kick off the football season by waking up early and wandering over to the gym. I figured I’d get in a quick workout before making the rounds through the tailgate lots and consuming every calorie I burned off while exercising.
I was on the rowing team for most of my freshman year at Notre Dame, and every Saturday morning, we’d have practice on the river. I would sleepily bike off campus and through South Bend, toss my bag on a shelf in the boathouse, row, and hustle back to Notre Dame. I was always amazed at the way Notre Dame transformed in those few hours. When I’d leave my dorm, campus would be quiet. Nobody was ever outside, except for a few University employees picking up trash. When I returned, campus was a different place. Students had woken up and stumbled to the dining halls, families had swarmed the bookstore, and tailgaters had commenced drinking in earnest.
This past Saturday, I must have been walking around campus at some in-between time. Most of the students were still asleep, but some had already started doing silly game day things. A few of the boys’ dorms traditionally sunbathe and lounge in the blue-dyed waters of the Reflecting Pool in front of the library. They bring floaty toys and inflatable rafts to splash around in the shallow water. It’s easy to tell which dorms the boys come from—they leave a drippy blue trail all the way home. Besides these early risers, I was one of just a few students wandering around campus on Saturday morning. I walked in a lazy loop around the stadium, cruising near the perimeter of the tailgate lots and past the dedicated fans in folding chairs in line at the box office.
When I arrived at the student recreation center, I made a beeline for the recumbent bikes. Much to my chagrin, 2 old guys had spread out and taken over the row. There are 5 bikes in front of the TVs—the old guys were on bikes #2 and #4. Of course. Earbuds in, I plopped down on bike #1 and began my workout. The man on the bike next to me started ribbing me, “Ah, you’re not gonna be the rose between 2 thorns here, eh?” “Ahaha… I like the end bikes…” I replied awkwardly.
My reply was all my neighbor needed to launch into genial conversation. We exchanged pleasantries and names (he’s John, from outside of New York City) and went through all of the standard grown-up questions. Where do you live, what’s your major, where’s home. All that. When I told John about my favorite class this semester, my Sinatra course, he got a funny look on his face. “I caught up with Frank a few times, back in the day. We used to go to this bar in New York, a place called Jilly’s. We’d be there til all hours.” And with his gloppy, sticky New York accent, I believed him.
John mentioned that he has a son who is a junior at Notre Dame, just like me. “He’s an engineer. Lives in Knott. A nice boy—you should get to know him. Don’t you ever have dances or dorm socials or anything?” He started doing that dad-ly kid promotion thing that all dads do, so I changed the subject to football and asked what he thought about the team and Brian Kelly. “Well, I think they’re looking pretty good,” John said, motioning to his buddy on bike #4, “and me and George here were on Ara’s team in ’66. We’re excited for Coach Kelly—lots of people have been making comparisons between him and Coach Parseghian.”
John talked a little bit about the undefeated 1966 season, but he didn’t dwell on his status as a former football player. We talked about the university and game day traditions, about seeing the world and growing up. After 45 minutes or so, we finished our workouts and parted ways. I shook hands with John and George. “God Bless—Keep the tradition alive!”
Of course, when I got back to the dorm, I looked up the 1966 team roster. John and George were centers for the National Championship team. How fitting that I met players from Ara’s Era, just as Notre Dame begins a new chapter of football history.