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Fans cheer Irish on nationwide

Claire Heininger | Friday, October 31, 2003

When Paul Kress attended Catholic elementary school in Rochester, N.Y., rooting for the Irish was not a matter of choice.

“Every fall Friday, the nuns would gather us together outside,” Kress, now 72, recalls. “We would all kneel down, concentrate hard and pray the rosary for Notre Dame to win.”

The earnest prayers of Kress and his classmates were a microcosm of the loyalties shared by Irish-Americans and Roman Catholics across the United States, as evidenced by his encounter years later with a California fan of the same generation. With a stoic straight face, the man responded to an innocent question about his Notre Dame T-shirt with the outburst that “This is God’s team – if you don’t cheer for this team then you’re rooting for the devil!”

While God’s team represented the pinnacle of football prowess, Notre Dame represented the height of educational achievement for a generation of immigrant European Catholics. For the first half of the 20th century, very few Irish – or any other heritage – could aspire to attend college. Thus Notre Dame began to stand out, earning a reputation that Catholics could take pride in and establishing itself as an institution they could revere.

Dubbed the “subway alumni,” the fans of this era earned their lighthearted nickname from the South Shore Line train that wound its way through the immigrant boroughs of Chicago and Northwest Indiana on its way to South Bend, the Basilica and Touchdown Jesus – a football fan’s paradise and a transplanted Catholic’s holy grail.

The late Herb Juliano, author of the 1993 book “Notre Dame Odyssey” and self-described former organizer and leader of the subway alumni, has written that on these trips, arriving at “the football stadium … I could almost feel the presence of the great ghosts.”

The mighty ghosts of George Gipp, Frank Leahy and the Four Horsemen are not all that keep the subway alumni coming back. The intense football spirit of today’s students and the overwhelming atmosphere of the campus itself have inspired Kress and his family to return for at least one Notre Dame home football game in every year since 1977.

“It was the fourth game of the season against Michigan State, Joe Montana’s first start ever,” Kress remembers. “The students hung coach Dan Devine in effigy and draped sheets on the sides of the dorms that said ‘Play Montana or die.'”

Montana played. Devine escaped. Notre Dame went on to win the national championship, and Kress was hooked.

“The next year, I took my son to the Pitt game and Montana pulled it out in the fourth quarter,” he said. “The excitement on that campus on that day was unforgettable. My son grabbed my shoulder after the game and said ‘Dad, this is where I want to go to school.'”

For many subway alumni and their children, one such moment of identification with the University was enough to win their lifelong support. Joseph Bringley, 81, also of Rochester, N.Y., had difficulty putting his own defining moment into words.

“I only first visited about 10 or 15 years ago, but I had been a fan long before that time. I was always just so impressed with the school in itself and the spirit of the school – the fact that it’s a Catholic college, the tradition of Notre Dame football over the years – that type of inspiration is very hard to describe,” he said.

Arthur Wilson, 80, of Newark, Ohio, agreed that the Catholic appeal was at once captivatingly intimidating and undeniably inclusive. “[My family and I] were cradle Catholics,” he said. “Ever since I came back from Navy service in 1945, I felt very close to the Irish. It was the draw of something Catholic that sparked my interest … Even though I went to a commerce college in Ohio State territory, I was a part of Notre Dame and I felt a loyalty to it.”

Wilson’s loyalty continued across decades of winning and seasons of losing, Heisman trophy winners and washed-up coaching failures.

“It’s something about the mystique surrounding it – if they lost every game, I’d still be loyal,” Wilson said. Like other subway alumni, his periodic visits to campus buoyed his hopes and kept his Irish connection afloat.

“I’ve been coming out to Notre Dame every year for the charismatic renewal conference in May, and I always go down to the Grotto,” Wilson said. “A few years ago I also walked across the field – you could say I like being on sacred ground.”

The collective draw of these holy places, both godly and gridiron, remains unmatched among American college campuses. Decades after the descendents of Irish Catholics began to attend and graduate from universities across the nation, Notre Dame has not lost its initial appeal. Kenneth Scott, 64, of Newark, Ohio, recently earned the coveted position of a stadium usher, which he said felt like the crowning honor for a lifetime of devotion to Fighting Irish football.

“They were the first football team to get syndicated TV coverage,” he said. “The more I watched the Lindsay Nelson replays on Sunday mornings, the more it grew on me.”

After several seasons of watching the games on television every weekend and “scratching around to get tickets,” Scott’s loyalty was rewarded three years ago when a fellow parishioner at his church who worked as an usher at Notre Dame offered him an application. He got the job and attended the following spring’s Blue and Gold game, filled with exhilaration and anticipation.

“They were assigning sections, and they put me in section 27, which is on the 45 yard line – right behind the Notre Dame bench,” Scott said. “I can’t tell you how emotional it was – what an amazing blessing. I still feel so fortunate to have the pleasure of being an ambassador of Notre Dame. At the USC game [Oct. 18], I wished a visiting couple a safe trip home, and they couldn’t stop praising what a class act Notre Dame is, couldn’t stop complimenting the students. I take a tremendous amount of pride in that.”

Scott’s pride extends to a younger generation of subway alumni as well. Matt Minor, 47, of Austin, Texas, was completely shocked when his friends surprised him with trips to two football games in the last two years.

“My boss told me that I was supposed to go to the airport on a Friday morning and pick some guys up,” Minor said. “He told me to go by the office first and when I walked in, the Notre Dame fight song came on and the lights started flashing. My friend Tom was standing there saying, ‘We’re going to the Notre Dame game!'”

At first, Minor didn’t understand the surprise.

“I said, ‘Don’t rub it in.’ Then they said, ‘No, Matt, we’re all going to the game.’ And everything else is history,” he said.

Minor, who has lived in Japan, Alaska, Florida and Texas, said that he has been a Notre Dame fan since he was 12 years old and that his friends tell him he is the epitome of the label “subway alumni.”

“They say ‘subway alumni,’ and I say, ‘That’s me,'” Minor said. “I’m a Notre Dame fan no matter what – win, lose or draw … I love them, and I always will.”