Why I Fell For Notre Dame Football Coach, Charlie Weis, In 2005

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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—-Notre Dame Fight Song 

It wasn’t until I was kneeling in front of the TV pounding my fist on the floor that I figured it out. It was October 15, 2005 and Notre Dame had just lost to USC, the #1 team in the country, thanks to some last second heroics by their Heisman Trophy quarterback. USC had won 27 in a row, so the loss wasn’t really unexpected. But for all 4 quarters I kept thinking that something about this game was different.

I became a Notre Dame fan several years after they won the last of their 11 national championships in 1988. My Notre Dame teams meant well, behaved well, were overly prone to helping opposing players to their feet, and consistently lost every game that actually meant something. They fit in well with my two other obsessions: the Astros and the Oilers (RIP).

But there is something about ND that holds me in its grip far more than the other teams I follow. Maybe, given my 16 years at hard labor in Catholic schools, it’s their name. Maybe it’s the high academic standards and graduation rate of its players. Or maybe it’s just the rubbernecking fascination of watching a yearly train wreck. But whatever it is, my identity with the team and its fortunes is complete.

At each bad break or zany misstep, my anguished, profane cries are so loud that every backyard dog in the vicinity howls right along with me. My football fan neighbors must think it’s a miracle that whenever Notre Dame throws an interception or fumbles the ball, the local mutts mourn.

In 2005 they hired a new coach, Charlie Weis, who had never played college football, never head coached above the high school level, and looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s “before” picture. And, incredibly, he really seemed to believe the Irish could be national champions again. I laughed at him along with everyone else.

But then a strange thing happened. The team started playing like they thought they could be champions too.  On both sides of the ball, they looked like they actually expected to win. And win they did. Going into the showdown with USC, they were a remarkable 4 – 1, and nobody was laughing at the chunky coach anymore.

Throughout the game, the Irish relentlessly battled on in spite of an overpowering USC running back and their own shattered plans and blasted hopes. If it had been any other school, you’d say they played like a team possessed. They fought the two time national champions to a stalemate, only to lose in the last few seconds of a game for the ages that drove me to my knees.

And that’s when it dawned on me. Something had happened that I’d heard of, but never actually seen before: Coach Weis had awakened the echoes. Echoes of championships, but much more than championships. Echoes of greatness, but far rarer than greatness. They were echoes of glory.

And on that one nearly perfect Indiana afternoon, they were honored.

How I Made Saint John Paul II Laugh, Twice

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In 1979, I spent a semester at the University of Dallas, Rome campus. A few days after we arrived, five or six of us decided to wander around the city to get our bearings. We wound up in St. Peter’s Square where we saw two parallel lines of barricades running down its center about twenty feet apart. When we asked why, we were told that when John Paul II returned that night from Mexico, he would be driven through the square in an open car. We hustled over to a spot right next to a barricade and began the long vigil.

As we waited, I thumbed  through  a little book of helpful foreign phrases for English speaking travelers. I sat up straight when I realized that some of them were in Polish. What better way to  stand out to a Pole in a crowd of screaming Italians than to yell something in Polish? We carefully studied the  book to choose just the right phrase and practiced it together all afternoon.

The huge crowd became electric when the Pope finally arrived. As his car drove slowly by, our little group shouted out in Polish, in unison, “Where are you going with our luggage?”  His head snapped around, and for a second his eyes flared with the burning indignation that would eventually smelt the Iron Curtain. But, when he saw it was a group of smiling, dumb – probably American – students  desperately trying to attract his attention, he laughed and gave us a blessing .

A couple of months later, we were working our way back to campus from the train station after a 5 day trip through several countries.  We were too broke even for youth hostels, but we did have Eurail passes, so we had slept on the trains.  We were tired, hungry, and didn’t smell great.

As we walked behind the Vatican, we saw several people obviously waiting for something. They told us the Pope was coming back from a dinner in town, and that this road led to his private drive. Just then, a large car drove up and stopped right in front of us. John Paul II popped out of the sunroof and everyone began taking pictures and wishing him a good night.
I threw my suitcase down, knelt beside it, and began frantically searching for my camera. I couldn’t find it. In desperation, I dumped its contents onto the street, but it was no use; it wasn’t in there. Then I noticed that all the cameras had stopped flashing, and that our little group had fallen into an awkward silence.

I looked up and saw that the Pope was patiently waiting for me to find my camera. As I knelt in the gutter, surrounded  by my dirty socks and underwear, I threw my arms out wide and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “That’s life.” And then the Pope, the Occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ threw out his arms wide and shrugged his shoulders as if to agree, “Yeah, that’s life.” He laughed, threw me a quick blessing, got back in the car and was driven away.

I miss him.