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Eden’s ‘Touchdown Jesus’ good for all

Sean Sweany | Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Wake up the echoes. Shake down the thunder. Win over all.

These legendary lines conjure various images of greatness for any Notre Dame football fan. Notre Dame fans, however, are different from any other college football fans because to root for Notre Dame means cheering for much more than just a football team.

“Touchdown Jesus: Faith and Fandom at Notre Dame” ($25, Simon and Schuster, 2005) by 1997 alumnus Scott Eden is a book that explores exactly what it means to be a Notre Dame fan from the perspectives of students, alumni and the sometimes neither Irish nor Catholic “subway alumni.”

“Touchdown Jesus” accomplishes this while telling the story of the turbulent 2004 football season and controversial firing of former Irish head football coach Tyrone Willingham three years after his hiring. Eden narrates through the season by introducing readers to various groups of Notre Dame fans from all walks of life who make weekly pilgrimages to South Bend every fall. Readers witness the passion of these fans that organize cross country trips and set up massive tailgate parties before games. One amazing story tells of a parish celebrating a Mass with their pastor from the back of an SUV amidst hundreds of other fanatic, beer-drinking tailgaters.

Eden devotes much of the book to fandom on the Internet, mostly on the NDNation.com fan website. NDNation, considered the number-one place on the Internet for Notre Dame news and talk, is a place where Notre Dame fans increasingly congregated during the 2004 season to armchair quarterback, coach and administrate. While Eden uses NDNation as the starting point for his examination of the 2004 season, he also tells of the storied history of Notre Dame football and its particular struggles in the past decade.

It is at this point where Eden relates how football is one of the key components to the University. His description tells of the political machinations at Notre Dame in recent years. He takes a no-holds-barred approach in telling the intertwined stories involving the end of careers for both Willingham and former University President Father Edward Malloy. The stories give much more flavor to the messy situation than the media reports of the last year. Eden covers sensitive issues including the commercialization of Notre Dame, Willingham’s alleged unwritten performance clause in his contract and Malloy’s infamous “embarrassment” by the University at the firing of Willingham.

These stories and others are certainly captivating since Eden does not sugarcoat them, but the real focus is on the response from the Notre Dame fan base to the trying times of the past decade. Most of the fans in “Touchdown Jesus” never lose faith in the University, even though they may question. From Lou Holtz to Bob Davie, Kevin White, Malloy, George O’Leary and Willingham to Charlie Weis and University President Father John Jenkins, Eden notes that Notre Dame fans never waver in their loyalty to Notre Dame simply because Notre Dame is greater than any of these men. The central message of this book is that Notre Dame is not just about football or academics or Catholicism, but that it is all three of these things form the pillars of the University. Eden believes and argues that Notre Dame fans by nature do not support just one of these, but rather believe in all three.

Although this is Eden’s first writing effort, his book has a distinct flourish that makes it very easy to read. The tone is very conversational, almost as if Eden is telling the riveting stories in person. Eden’s best writing trait, though, is that he understands Notre Dame. He “gets it,” as people like to say about various Notre Dame personalities. He is able to capture the spirit of the combination of secular football and the Catholic religion in his book just as the Touchdown Jesus mural does on the face of the Hesburgh Library. This book shows the character of Notre Dame fans and what it means to be a member of the “Notre Dame Family.” In this new chapter of Notre Dame history, “Touchdown Jesus” is one book every family member should read.