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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

DeFazio: The boys are back but not alone

Notre Dame fans seek high-fives from Irish football players after their 45-24 defeat of NC State at Carter-Finley Stadium on Sep. 9, 2023.

By the time the Friday of a home football weekend rolls around, all thoughts among the student body completely shift to the Saturday festivities. Instead of discussing what homework they had due that day, students begin asking the more important questions: Whose family is hosting this weekend? What time are we planning on heading into the game? Is it Irish Wear Green this weekend? (In case you missed it, it is). Yes, there is nothing quite like the anticipation of an Irish football tailgate. 

Let alone a tailgate in the wake of a College Gameday broadcast. 

That’s right — the time has finally come. The date that has been circled in our calendars since the moment the schedule was announced. It is a clash of the undefeated, an opportunity for revenge a year in the making. Especially given how many teams have fallen from grace so early in the season (*cough* Bama *cough*), Saturday’s matchup against Ohio State shapes up to be one of the biggest games of the season. And College Gameday knows it too.

At this point, it can be easy to put it all on the team’s shoulders, attributing the outcome — whether it be outrageously joyous or too sore to talk about — to their gameplay in its entirety. The level at which the Irish play is, undoubtedly, the most important aspect of the day. However, though the boys are most certainly back, they cannot do it alone. We fans also have a role to play.

The atmosphere in the stadium can have more of an effect on the game than anyone can anticipate. The term “rally” has been coined for a reason. Members of the team have praised the crowd for their high energy that they in turn feed off of, which can ultimately influence their gameplay. This energy that has such power to embolden the team often starts at the tailgates. 

The O’Leary family tailgates every game of the season, a tradition that started when Pat (Notre Dame ‘90) and PJ (nee Drew, Saint Mary’s ‘90) O’Leary were students in South Bend. They arrive at their parking spots armed with a full grill and charged speaker, attracting not only their friends and family but those from neighboring setups. And new this year, they fly a “Tailgate of the Week” tote bag as a banner of honor, showcasing the award they earned for the home win against Clemson last season. Pat cites the football team as a primary reason they continue to return and tailgate so regularly.

“I want you at full strength for the game,” Pat O’Leary said. “I want [the students] to be refreshed, and I want [them] to stay at the game the whole time and cheer as loudly as [they] can and help the football team.”

One of those students is their daughter, Molly O’Leary (Notre Dame ‘24). She has inherited her love of both Notre Dame football and South Bend tailgates from her parents. Molly O’Leary said she can see just how important creating that culture is after not being allowed to do so her freshman year due to COVID-19.

“I think tailgating is an essential part of Notre Dame football. Seeing what it was like to not have that freshman year, and then sophomore year suddenly experiencing it, was like … we didn’t even know what we were missing,” she said. “It’s the Notre Dame community. Everyone just loves the school so much and loves showing their school spirit.”

PJ O’Leary said that one of her favorite memories was that first game back the season after the pandemic. For her, seeing her daughter and the community finally come together was really impactful.

“It really stuck for us,” she said. “It was just ‘Oh my gosh, we’re out of the pandemic. The pandemic is over, and we can be normal again.’ So I just remember that very first game. And it was beautiful out. The sun was shining.”

This community that the O’Learys described as essential to the Notre Dame football experience comes from the connections made in the hours before kickoff. Whether it be wistfully strategizing for the team or praising her father’s famous burgers, Molly O’Leary noted the Notre Dame spirit is what energizes everyone heading into the stadium. One of her favorite aspects of game day is when that energy rises just before students enter through their grade’s gate.

“I think one of my favorite parts is when we’re tailgating in Bookstore Lot and are walking over to the game when we’re all super excited for the game, and my parents send us off with last-minute food,” she said. “I think there’s something about those parking lots outside the stadium that is special. And I know that’s what I’m gonna miss most next year when it’s fall Saturday, and I am not in South Bend. I know I’m going to be wanting to be back in that parking lot.”

PJ O’Leary also named the collective energy as one of the parts she most looks forward to experiencing each year. She said experiencing the culture of Notre Dame Football makes it all the more rewarding. 

“I often say there is nowhere I would rather be on a Saturday in the fall than on campus tailgating,” she said. “Saturdays are football, you know? There’s just such a happy, joy-filled aura around. And that’s the beauty of sports.”

It is that tradition that is iconic and unique to the Notre Dame football experience. At any given tailgate, a professor, priest and underclassman can all be in conversation about the team. And Pat O’Leary said he loves to see that tradition continue during his children’s college experiences.

“I absolutely love it when I see you guys mingle. I think it’s fantastic. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s about getting to know people and having fun and getting ready for the game. So that’s why we’re there.”

It is this spirit that must be brought to Saturday’s primetime matchup. With a strong quarterback at the helm and a diverse offensive and defensive roster to rally behind him, if there was a time to pull off a win against the college football powerhouse that is Ohio State, it is now. But it is not only the team that needs to pull their weight. What does that mean for us fans? 

In this case, I think Sam Hartman said it best: “Show up. Be early. And be rowdy!”