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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer


The long road to Grand Rapids

Most people who know me on even the most basic level know this: I have an insatiable appetite for reporting on Notre Dame sports.

Any competition, any time, anywhere. There’s a reason my Twitter bio reads “if Notre Dame plays it, I cover it.” I attended 110 Irish games last year, and I’m on pace to easily outdo that number this year.

Softball game at Michigan State? I was there. Hockey has a series in Wisconsin? Easiest three-hour drive of my life. And when women’s soccer announced they’d be playing a meaningless scrimmage in Evanston, Illinois, you could have put your mortgage down then and there that I would be in attendance.

I’ve seen stretch after stretch of pothole-ridden pavement grind itself under the ever-wearing tires of my Honda Clarity. I trek outward with such frequency that I’ve reached a point of repetition where I can recall basically every major roadside landmark and feature on the Interstate 90 corridor that brings me from South Bend to the doorstep of Chicago and everything in the upper Midwest beyond.

Some people call my ever-growing slate of destinations commitment. Others have jokingly called it a sickness.

Personally, I think it’s somewhere in between the two. 

Regardless of the characterization, my journey to becoming a ubiquitous presence in every press box on campus is one I’ve never been able to fully explain.

There’s the generic answer: I want to be a professional journalist, and it helps my development as a writer to get as many reps in as possible. That’s not wrong by any means. There’s the sappy answer: I grew up an Irish fan and I want to soak in every opportunity I get to be on campus watching the teams I worshiped growing up. That’s definitely not untrue either.

But those explanations feel incomplete. They’re the answers I want to give, but not the ones I truly believe. In all honesty, the most on-target theory for my perpetually stuffed schedule is how often it gives me an excuse. 

From the start of my college career, my social calendar has been … somewhat unconventional. My freshman year at the University of Wisconsin was more or less socially bare — an isolation only compounded by a world and campus still reeling from COVID-related restrictions and changes. Some people adapted to the new reality of college, but I dove into what I already knew — spending more time catching buses across state lines to watch soccer games than being outgoing and making friends. I enrolled at Wisconsin always knowing that transferring to Notre Dame was a possibility — perhaps more of an inevitability than I would ever admit — but my near-complete lack of social interaction certainly didn’t help matters. 

Once I arrived at Notre Dame though, things didn’t change much. I immediately threw myself into work with The Observer and other student media outlets like NDTV, Scholastic and WVFI radio. 

Being a transfer student, the prospect of trying to find “your people” is always a little more difficult. Just about everyone else has spent the last year determining their friend groups and making memories. People in my graduating class often cite the 2020 win over Clemson as their defining Notre Dame moment. I watched that field storm from my dorm room in Madison.

I wasn’t blind to how hard it would be to find a group, but I didn’t want to accept this reality either. Instead, I drowned myself in Notre Dame’s athletic schedule. Be it soccer or volleyball, the sport didn’t matter. I jumped at any event I could find to give myself something to do on Friday nights.

I may not have had a car on campus yet, but what I lacked in conventional transportation I made up for in spades with pure vigor. Whether it was trains to Michigan or rental cars to Chicago, if there was a roundabout way for me to get to a Notre Dame sporting event, I was there. It gave me a place to be. I had purpose, and it let me ignore the fact that while everyone was at a dorm party or exploring South Bend, I was alone.

Eventually, largely by pure fortune rather than any sort of respectable effort on my own part, I did manage to amass a small, but certainly legitimate, collection of friends at college. Granted, midway through junior year is pretty behind the curve by all accounts, but it happened! But still, my insane travel and coverage schedule didn’t stop. 

I still needed my excuse — just for a different reason. Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t more often than not still need a place to be on Friday and Saturday nights, even as a senior with full access to the assorted array of South Bend nightlife. But I was also finding ways to excuse myself from the future. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: local senior has mixed emotions about leaving college. Very original, groundbreaking stuff, I know. Feel free to roll your eyes.

No matter the distance traveled, my expeditions north, south, east and west of South Bend all shared a crucial commonality: they took me further and further away from the inevitable. There was always another highway to be traversed, another campus to be explored. I kept on stacking my calendar, turning my schedule into an ever-rising wall that I couldn’t — wouldn’t — dare peer over.

I’ve spent most of my life to this point working, both in the classroom and out, to be exactly where I am now, and where I have been for the last three years: a sports journalist attending Notre Dame. That’s an identity that brings me tremendous satisfaction and motivation every day. There’s yet to be a morning where I haven’t woken up proud to simply be a Notre Dame student. But in three months time, this identity will need to be redefined. I’ll receive that diploma I toiled so long for, and hopefully will turn professional in the industry I’ve so long dreamed of being a part of. So what comes next? Answering that question is hard, but there’s no need if I’m too busy working on the question of which softball player is most likely to play well on a windy day in East Lansing.

Now, if you read this far hoping that this musing led me to some sort of wistful metaphysical reflection on what drives me, or a detailed answer for how I intend to make the most of my continually shrinking time in college, I’m afraid you’ll be let down. If anything, I can tell you with even more confidence than usual that my next three months will be just like my first three years — racking up miles and miles of car time to write articles dozens of people, at least on a good day for viewership, will read.

I’ve traveled over 3,000 miles for Notre Dame sports. If you add in assorted flights I’ve taken as part of my duties covering Irish football for The Observer, that number balloons to over 8,000 miles. It’s probably taken longer than it should have, but I’ve come to terms with the role sports play in my life. 

It isn’t simply a catalyst for yet another weekend road trip. More often than not, it’s my only source of entertainment, the one thing I can rely on being in place when I’m uncertain about everything else. There’s a definitive nature to my athletic travel schedule that my social life has forever lacked — my team may not win every game (in professional sports, more often than not, they lose) — but barring a freak accident, the game will always be played. Every new contest is an assured opportunity I will get to try and write the forever-elusive perfect article.

So for the next 70 or so days, my calendar will continue to go as Notre Dame’s athletic calendar goes. 

What will come after that? Who am I to say. 

All I know is that volleyball just added a pair of scrimmages in Grand Rapids to their spring schedule.

You can contact J.J. at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.