Mea Culpa: My Secret Season with The Fighting Irish

Michigan State Spartans v Notre Dame Fighting Irish

It’s best to just get this out of the way: I am an enormous hypocrite. Until now, only three other people knew just how enormous. There’s my wife, who walked in on me when I was in the middle of breaking a solemn, public vow I’d made just months prior. Then there are my friends Jonny and Emily, to whom I texted a cowardly confession of my shortcoming.

It all started with a blog post in which I reversed years of avid football fandom, admitted that I will not allow my son to play the game – even in youth leagues – and proclaimed myself “off football.” I would not watch a single down of pro or college football, would not attend any of the games at the high school where I teach. That was the plan. The spark for my one-eighty resulted from some fairly extensive reading (basically everything I could get my eyes on) about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by repeated blows to the head and suffered by football players at a much higher rate than the general population which increases the likelihood of depression, memory loss, early-onset dementia, and suicide. Since my greatest fear is Alzheimer’s, it felt disingenuous to continue actively cheering for people to suffer a fate that I am terrified of potentially enduring myself.

I endured a few (mostly good-natured) barbs from my devoted football-loving friends and had some lively conversations with several people (many of whom spoke to me from behind a mask of genuine anthropological curiosity, as though to a caveman recently reanimated and set loose on the world). But this isn’t about reliving my decision, it’s about how I lived out that decision. Or didn’t.

Things started off well enough. Weeks one and two of the college football season came and went (including a top-ten matchup between Alabama and Michigan which made me absentmindedly lick my lips when I thought about it) without incident. True to my word, not a down was watched. Then something happened which I knew would happen but which still kind of gut-punched me when it actually did happen. My first real itch, that initial pang of desire (You know the kind. Starts with a fuzzy little idea at the base of your skull and leaks its way forward from the purely emotional lizard part of your brain into the more rational parts. This process lets you justify behaviors you probably wish you didn’t want to exhibit. Some people would invoke the devil right about here.) didn’t come until the third weekend of the season, when Notre Dame played Michigan State in East Lansing.

As a converted Irish fan (It’s a long story, but the simple version is that my closest football-watching friend is a Die-Hard and has brought me along for the ride. I’ve been to more games at Notre Dame Stadium (six hours from my house) in the last five years than I have at Commonwealth Stadium (twenty minutes from my house.), I had been keeping track of their early score lines – wins over Navy and Purdue, but Michigan State was highly ranked, and last year’s loss was as soul-crushing as they come, and this was just the kind of hurdle Notre Dame had failed to clear in Brian Kelly’s first two years, the kind of game that they had lost nearly every time it looked like they might have turned the corner and… well, perhaps it isn’t hard to see that in September, a promise made in April weighs less than it once did. I made it through halftime, checking the score on my phone every ten minutes or so (like an alcoholic walking to his fridge to take sips of light beer while he can hear the neighbors throwing a full-blown Gatsby kegger next door), but then I put down the book I was trying to distract myself with and turned the channel. I kept the game on at a low volume (as though this would minimize the degree of my transgression – we humans are idiots). The Irish won that game 20-3 and I never looked back. Neither did they.

I watched every second of every Notre Dame game from that point forward. I still cringed every time a big hit was laid on a running back bottled up at the line of scrimmage or a receiver going hard across the middle. There were a lot of moments when I truly felt like a lout. I had much such a big deal about my moral concerns over football’s viability as a spectator sport in a society that alleges not to desire brain trauma for entertainment purposes (maybe nobody has actually alleged that, come to think of it), yet here I was, back in the familiar spot, cheering and moaning and sweating my way through 60 minutes of Fighting Irish football per week. I watched no other games. No NFL, no big SEC contests, not even any of lowly Kentucky’s disastrous outings. This, of course, was just another rationalization, a way of justifying my broken vow.

Now, of course, the Irish are playing for a national title, and my ambivalence has reached new heights.

On the one hand, Notre Dame is actually good! Yes, I know they’ve been lucky (Although spare me talk of the Stanford game being a “travesty.” Stanford doesn’t win the game if they allowed that TD; they still would’ve had to stop the Irish and score again. A dozen things a week more damning than that happen in college football.), but their defense has been astonishingly good all year, and Everett Golson has been, barring three or four brain-dead moments, an excellent game manager. After the smoke and mirrors of Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis’ best years, it’s refreshing to watch a Notre Dame team that actually warrants the place it occupies (and should occupy) in the national consciousness. If you’ve ever invested heavily in a team whose fortunes turn after a number of mediocre-to-bad years, you understand that there’s nothing quite like the feeling when that investment pays off with a return to greatness. As a Red Sox fan, 2004 meant so much more than 2007, simply because I had never known what it felt like to watch that team reach the top. I’ve never really known a great Notre Dame team, and so this one matters that much more.

On the other hand, Notre Dame’s excellence shouldn’t really factor into this. If they sported a poor record, that wouldn’t make football any less damaging over the long term. But if the Irish had lost to Purdue back in the season’s second week, would I have been so intrigued by the MSU game? Almost certainly not. It’s just much easier to pay less attention to a loser, even if it’s one you support.

The only conclusion here is a simple one. I let my love of the game – I never stopped loving the game, even if I have come to hate its effects – override my conviction. I found more value in the pleasure of watching Notre Dame football than I did in maintaining a behavior that I thought (and still think) right. But then I do this all the time. How many things do I know intellectually aren’t beneficial and yet behaviorally can’t be bothered to stop doing them?

Another helping at the buffet? Sure!

Hold on to that grudge and stay in a bad mood because wallowing in self-pity is so perversely enjoyable? Absolutely!

I am a dog returning to vomit. And how easy it is when the vomit you’re returning to looks like a juicy steak to everyone else. That’s actually kind of a problem in and of itself. I mean, usually, these kinds of confessional moments are supposed to be met by some degree of sympathy and encouraging accountability. In my case, I’m not sure I know anyone likely to say much besides, “Oh, you’re watching football again? Cool.” I’m like a guy who’s decided to ride his bicycle to work when all his friends are car enthusiasts. Mostly I think they’ll just be relieved that my sanity’s been restored. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an indictment on my friends. After all, I probably wouldn’t question someone about their diet even if I saw them stuffing their face with pizza unless they’d specifically asked me to. I didn’t ask anyone to help me do this.

Do what does any of this actually mean? Probably that conviction alone, especially conviction that you try to carry by yourself (If I’m totally honest, there was no prayer involved. It’s true that I felt I was making a moral choice, but on balance it seemed like a trifling thing to tack onto my dialogue with the Lord. I know this isn’t the way we’re supposed to think, but still.) isn’t going to carry any of us very far. Our promises are only as strong as our individual wills, and my will would get knocked over by a stiff breeze.

So what to do? In two days, Notre Dame plays Alabama in the BCS National Championship, a game in which I’ve been waiting to see the Irish play for about 12 years. I’ve watched them play all year, been moved by  Manti Te’o’s story, observed the growth of a freshman quarterback, been awed by their will to win, and cheered the thrilling ends to more than a couple of close contests. And yet every hard hit, delivered on or by an Irish player, brings my vow rushing back into my mind, waving its arms frantically and reminding me about Jim McMahon’s short-term memory loss and Dave Duerson’s suicide. The more knowledge, apparently, the more grief.

But then, as if a cavalry riding over the hills of my mind, comes this music: 

And then I can only think about my time in Notre Dame stadium and the painful losses and how much it will mean to those players and that school to win.

It’s going to be a long couple of days.

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Categories: Ground Ball Democracy

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