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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

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Those unseen forces

My first Notre Dame memory isn’t much of a memory at all.

I was eight years old when I first stepped on campus. Notre Dame was playing Boston College, and my parents presumably decided it was their duty as Catholics to make my first college football game as a young lover of the sport a battle between my mother’s alma mater and, well, the school basically every other Catholic in this country roots for.

The game itself was about as forgettable as can be, which is just as well given I only remember snippets of the day. It was chilly and wet. YouTube tells me a then-freshman by the name of Manti Te'o made a couple of big plays on the game’s final drive to help the Irish secure a 20-16 victory, an ending corroborated by a grainy photo of the stadium scoreboard that lies in the deep annals of my family’s desktop computer. We stopped at the Wendy’s on North Michigan Avenue before driving back home.

But I was hooked. Something felt right. Maybe it was the friendliness of the students running the table of whatever organization was on South Quad that morning that offered me and my younger sister bagels. Maybe it was the regal atmosphere I soaked in as I watched the band walk across campus and into the stadium. Or maybe was the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus gazing down at me as I walked out of the famed confines of Notre Dame Stadium and into the inky night.

As I grew up, my Irish fandom slowly progressed, incubated by countless hours of stress and jubilation watching NBC and ESPN. I’d get a Michael Floyd jersey the next summer. In fourth grade, I attempted to put Holy Water (obtained weeks prior at a CCD event) on our living room TV with Notre Dame trailing 28-0 in the 2012 national championship game. By eighth grade, I had named my FIFA Ultimate Team “Notre Dame SC” and dreamed of one day attending the school myself. By my senior year in high school, it was clear that dream was probably just that — a dream.

My grades were fine, but not where they’d need to be. I applied — hey, you never know — and was summarily rejected. And I assumed that would be the end of the story. I prepared to enroll at the University of Wisconsin where I’d be a proud Badger but a subway alum at heart.

But Wisconsin never felt like home to me. I wasn’t blind to the prospect of transferring being an option (in retrospect, it might have been an inevitability) but promised myself I’d put my whole heart into Wisconsin and see if I could shake Touchdown Jesus’ long-casted gaze. And try I did, earnestly. But it didn’t work. It took me all of a few months to realize that no memory I had made as a student even came close to the emotion I felt sitting alone at a Madison sports bar watching Notre Dame run onto the field for their first game of that strange 2020 season against Duke.

So I went all-in on school. I locked myself in my dorm room and fervently blazed through classwork until I reemerged with a perfect GPA. I worked tirelessly to write and re-write my transfer essays. And then, one cold day in March, I hit submit on a second application in as many years. And I waited and waited.

Much like that October afternoon almost a decade prior, I don’t recall much about the day I got accepted into Notre Dame. There was no Rudy, “my son’s going to Notre Dame!” moment. I just remember being unable to stop smiling. 

Once in South Bend, it was far from the fairytale sort of story I’d love to tell. I wasn’t the first transfer student, and won’t be the last, to struggle to fit my way into friend groups that had already been established. I struggled, to the point where my “social life” essentially became entirely contingent on Notre Dame’s athletic schedule. I hailed cars, buses and trains on a fruitless search for something greater than a quality article, following Irish athletics to every corner of the country on a never-ending quest for the identity and community I was struggling to find on campus.

And yet even at my most lonesome, I never thought twice about my choice to transfer. 

It’s worth noting here that I, notoriously, overthink everything. Was the question I asked in class stupid? Did I tip an appropriate amount at the Backer? If a choice has even the most minuscule impact on my life I will wring my hands over and over again about it during the day and lose sleep about it at night.

Unless it’s coming to Notre Dame.

There was and is an assuring magic about Notre Dame that rises above even the greatest heights of my anxiety. When welcoming viewers into the 1993 “Game of the Century” in South Bend, Bob Costas remarked that Notre Dame players draw their inspiration from forces “seen and unseen.” It is through such a characterization that you can understand the mystical, unwavering allure of Our Lady best. 

The forces you can see hardly need to be verbalized. Ask anyone what they picture when they think of Notre Dame and watch the answers coalesce around the university’s grand national identity: gold. The statue of Mary, glimmering high atop the Dome. The iconic chrome football helmets popping against a floodlit Saturday sky. 

But the forces you can’t see are the ones that make Notre Dame such a truly special place to those who embrace it. The enticing mythology of the legends of the Gipper or Four Horsemen that haunt the hallowed concourses of Notre Dame Stadium, casting an overhanging aura of glory past and daring you to dream of glory future. The solemn peace of the Grotto when the only lights shining through a black winter night are its candles flickering across snowy ground, beckoning you to bask in its tranquil solitude. The serenity of kneeling beneath the crucifix off the Saint Joseph’s Lake trail when you need a moment of silent prayer in a time of stress or chaos. The feeling I’ll never have the words to describe in the pit of my chest when I talk about being at Notre Dame with my great aunt and she tells me how proud my grandparents would be of me.

These are the forces that make me know, that no matter my situation, I am home. I wake up every morning with peace of mind that no matter what might happen, I’m honored to just be a Notre Dame student. That I’ve made my grandparents proud. That I’ve made my eighth-grade self proud. That I’ve made what was once a dream become reality.

Thank you, God, for making me Irish. 

Pé áit a rachaidh tú, beidh mé leat // Wherever you go, I will be with you.

J.J. is a senior from Mountainside, New Jersey graduating with a major in political science and a minor in journalism. He’s best known for attending just under 250 Notre Dame athletic events across his final two years at the University. After graduation, he’ll be continuing his reporting career with ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut. He’s not especially likely to respond to an email at, but is extremely likely to discuss niche Notre Dame sports with you on Twitter/X via the handle @JayJayPost.

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