Fighting Irish can win this one for the Gipper

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

SIDELINE CUT:Today’s meeting between Notre Dame and Navy is not just about winning a game. It’s about celebrating a rich and proud tradition that has defined a generation, writes KEITH DUGGAN

WOULD AMERICA even be navigable in our imaginations without its sports teams and stadiums? If you scan a map of the country and try to fathom the thousand of miles that separate its coasts, there is no doubt that the scale is made more manageable by the presence of its most enduring names and houses – Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Candlestick Park, Madison Square Garden, Wrigley Field – which have become places of pilgrimage for the millions of visitors and residents of those cities over the decades.

Some of the most beloved American sports grounds – the Polo Grounds, the Boston Garden, the original Yankee Stadium – no longer even exist. But their mythology alone helps to make sense of the geography and the vastness of the country. Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, where the college football team have played their football games since replacing neighbouring Cartier Field in 1930, shines as brightly as any of the big city fields or arenas. In fact, Indiana has made its voice known through sport more so than most of the American states.

No single phrase encapsulated the small town/big city contrast as neatly as Larry Bird did when he joined the Boston Celtics in 1978 after emerging from obscure town in middle America as one of the most preternaturally gifted basketball players ever: “No matter how good I become, I’m still just a hick from French Lick,” he said in tribute to his Indiana home town.

And not too many people had heard of Bobby Plump when a modest sports film starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper was released in 1987. Because its title – Hoosiers – was deemed too foreign for this part of the world, it was released as Best Shot in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It was, like most sports films, an idealised portrayal of a moment that had passed into mythology – in this case an immortal jump shot with which Plump won the 1954 Indiana State school championship for Milan, with an enrolment of 161 pupils against the mighty Muncie Central.

In the decades since, it has become one of those enduring films – a Christmas perennial – that people with no interest in basketball have somehow found themselves watching, perhaps for the thorny romantic subplot between Hackman and Hershey or for Hopper’s achingly hopeless drunk or for the magical tracking shot of the trail of car headlights returning home across the flatlands after a game: it is a scene still replicated on the roads leading to Irish towns and villages after big GAA days in the capital.

For most Irish people, that fabulous tale is as close as they will ever come to visiting Indiana just as Knute Rockne, All American introduced a generation of Irish people to the existence of Notre Dame. When Ronald Reagan, then just a rising actor with cobalt eyes and a clarity of voice that would serve him well in later years, lay on his deathbed as poor old George Gipp and uttered his immortal phrase “Win just one for the Gipper”, he couldn’t have guessed how that the phrase would follow him.

But that 1940 film has shown up on Irish television countless times down the years and the story – a romanticised portrayal of George Gipp, the Notre Dame quarterback and punter who died from pneumonia days after the final game of the 1920 season – is a heart-churner. Gipp’s sad and dramatic tale helped to build the legend of Notre Dame football but it would have flourished anyway.

Just five years later, a Notre Dame-Army game inspired Grantland Rice to dash off perhaps the most famous lead in American sports journalism: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden.”

Down the years, other myths flourished: it hardly mattered whether or not Frank Leahy was given the last rites after falling ill during a tense Georgia Tech game in 1953: the fact is that he cared so much is what endures.

By then, Notre Dame football had woven itself into the fabric of American sport, the jewel in the crown of the heartland. Slowly but surely, its fame spread across the Atlantic, even if it was little more than a vaguely heard rumour for decades. The Fighting Irish! Why so? For decades, it must have been a question that the hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants asked themselves when they read about the exploits of this college football team or saw the pageantry in television bars: gold helmets playing the rough game under a crisp blue sky and in front of an adoring crowd.

Ask any of the Notre Dame fans in Dublin today why that boxing leprechaun has become their symbol and you will probably hear half a dozen different stories. Maybe it dates back to the Civil War. Maybe it comes from a casual remark made from a football game in the 1920s. There is no definitive reason.

The college was founded by a French priest but it was Catholic and that helped draw plenty of Irish-Americans down the years; Terry Brennan and Dan Devine would serve as head coaches after Leahy and Brian Kelly is the current coach, all stalwart Irish names. The connection between Ireland and Notre Dame acquired a sharp and significant aspect when Séamus Deane helped to establish the Keogh-Naughton Centre in the early 1990s, where Notre Dame students have immersed themselves in matters Irish since.

But on the football field, the Irish connection was tied into the pageantry and the symbolism and the name that followed the famous team which gave this small patch of Indiana a chance to make its voice known across America.

And even now if you attend a football game there, you soon see that it these days are about the perpetuation of tradition and of the pattern of life in that part of the world: the college team is at once about producing a vital revenue stream for the college and recreating an intense form of nostalgia and pride for the 80,000 fans who show up for every home game of the season. Navy versus Notre Dame has become a lopsided annual tie and is based on an historical attachment between the two entities rather than on even competitive rivalry: the Notre Dame football programme is almost always too strong for Navy teams to compete against.

And the advent of satellite television and ESPN means that nowadays, any Irish person can watch as much NCAA football as they like for a small subscription fee. There is no mystery to what Notre Dame football is all about. Perhaps the true value of today’s game in Dublin between Notre Dame and Navy is that it gives the Notre Dame devotees who would normally spend this Saturday cooking up barbeques and wandering around their campus where both the foliage and architecture have this magical gold sheen and which like all rich, prestigious university campuses possesses the sense of being unaffected by the passing of time – a chance to actually set foot in this other land whose name has come to mean so much to them.

It is a deeply impractical and stunningly expensive operation, hauling two American football teams and attending equipment and personnel and bands and cheerleaders across an ocean just to play a single game which Notre Dame will almost certainly win. But it is not just about the game. It is about celebrating their tradition.

So next time you scan a map of the America and your eyes roll across those neatly parcelled vast states, you might find yourself pausing for a second on IND and remember that there it is: the home of Knute and of the Gipper and of those vast legions of Fighting Irish.

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