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God, Country and Notre Dame football

Meghan Martin | Friday, September 5, 2003

Mel Williams began singing “God Bless America” at Gate D of Notre Dame Stadium right after Sept. 11 two years ago. It began as a solo, a subtle tribute before the raucous throngs that would follow, but has since become a chorus, a new pre-game tradition at a place where such things are held sacred.

Williams, who has been an usher at the stadium for the past seven years, has since been joined in song by a number of his co-workers, and their pre-game performances have generated their own following of fans and fellow ushers.

“All those people get there early to come and sing with us,” he said.

Williams and the Gate D ushers are simply a handful of the nearly 4,000 people who will be admitted to the Stadium on Saturday without tickets, those for whom Irish football games are all in a day’s work.

“Logistically, it’s a big undertaking,” said Russell “Cappy” Gagnon, stadium personnel coordinator. “Joe Fan thinks he just comes in at 12:30 and we put on a show, but I was there at 5 a.m. to unlock the gate.”

While fans are still waking up, Gagnon and hundreds of others will be at the stadium Saturday morning, getting it ready for the 80,795 fans expected to pass through its gates for this weekend’s sold-out game against Washington State.

With the 5 a.m. opening of Gate B, game day has officially begun, and Gagnon and his small army of ushers, ticket-takers and other personnel will have to hit the ground running, as the day begins to run off its own momentum.

“At 7, I unlock Gates A and D, the tunnel, and the press box,” he said. “The team equipment people come around 7:15 … the press people come in at 9.”

The rest of the morning is spent meeting with ushers, addressing logistical issues that arise and ironing out the final details of the day.

“By noon, we’ve got to have it ready so that by the time we open the gates you guys think it’s always been that way,” Gagnon said.

While Gagon said that the week leading up to each game is particularly hectic, preparing for football season is a constant undertaking. Dan Brazo, athletic facilities manager for the Athletic Department, agreed.

“There are a million things to do,” he said. “On game week, it really starts on Monday and lasts all week.”

Brazo oversees all University athletic facilities on campus, and is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the stadium, particularly during the fall season.

Brazo and his crew of twelve were busy all summer preparing for this weekend’s game, improving the looks of the stadium, with waterproofing and repainting seats and fertilizing and mowing the turf itself. After Saturday, Brazo said, the improvements will become more routine.

“For each individual game, it’s a matter of repairing the field from the last game: mowing the field, raking the field, re-turning it,” he said. “We started painting the lines this Wednesday, and it takes two days to finish. Painting on Wednesday gives us the best-looking lines on Saturday … If we’ve planned properly and the weather’s good, we’re 90 percent ready by Saturday.”

Often, Brazo and his crew are finished with their work by Friday afternoon, when both the home and visiting teams conduct a “walk-through” on the field.

“The individual teams will come down … and walk around on the field,” he said. “It gives them a chance to get a feel for the field … and they usually run a few plays in tennis shoes … They get to be a part of the hype.”

On game day, Brazo and his crew – plus a few additional temporary workers he has brought on to help during football season – will arrive at the stadium hours before even the most stalwart of fans begin to tailgate. They address all of the last-minute details that inevitably arise, he said, and then prepare themselves for the game itself.

Even after eleven years, Brazo said the stadium still hasn’t lost its mystique for him.

“There’s something about walking in there on Saturday morning before the stadium fills up – you can just feel it … it’s just unbelievable, the excitement in the stadium on game day,” he said.

Brazo said the same holds true for other teams as well, whether they would like to admit it or not.

“Whenever a team comes to play at Notre Dame, they get so hyped, just because it’s Notre Dame,” he said.

Student managers for the football team can attest to that sentiment, as well. As a personnel manager, senior Matt Kerls is responsible for coordinating the 21 juniors and over 100 sophomores who are participating in this year’s program. For Kerls, the job of a manager is never complete.

“[Thursday] night we’re wrapping and painting the helmets to get them ready for the game,” he said. “On Saturday, we set up the locker room to get it ready for the players when they get back from the Basilica.”

Once the team arrives at the Stadium from their traditional team Mass, Kerls said that the managers are responsible for making sure the game on the sidelines runs smoothly.

“We basically just help out wherever we can,” he said.

As a senior manager, Kerls spends his games on the sidelines, where he is likely to bump into usher Dean Payne, the field supervisor.

Payne manages the 33 ushers on the field, who maintain the bandstand and the home team and the visiting team benches.

“Our job is just to make sure everything goes smoothly on the field,” he said.

Payne has worked as an usher for nine years, during which time he said he has met ushers from as close as South Bend and as far away as California. Five hundred and fifty of the stadium’s 875 ushers are volunteers who make the football-weekend pilgrimage to Notre Dame as devotedly as many fans and alumni.

“We have one guy who comes up from Kentucky for every game,” fellow usher Jim Foghino said. Foghino works at the top of the stadium in Section 130-135, which he refers to as the “overflow section” because it is often used to relocate fans from elsewhere in the stadium.

Foghino, like many of his colleagues, said he was drawn to the Notre Dame usher program seven years ago because he liked football, particularly Irish football.

“The best game I’ve seen in this stadium was the Michigan-Notre Dame game, when Rocket kept running it back,” he said, referring to former Irish flanker Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. “They kept trying to get it past him, but Rocket just kept running it back.”

Stories and memories abound among this group, the largest usher program in the world, and established by Knute Rockne at the University’s old Cartier Field in 1930. The original 1,000 ushers recruited took the place of the Boy Scouts that had formerly seated fans at Irish football games.

The program has come a long way since its establishment, but Section 19-24 usher Eudell Spon said it’s all about the love of the game.

“I’ve always been interested in football,” he said. “Most ushers are there because they want to be at the game.”

Spon, who has been an usher at the stadium for 33 years, said the best part of his job has been to interact with the fans, mostly season ticket holders, in his section.

“We make sure all the fans are greeted when they get in,” he said. “We want to make sure they know they are welcome at Notre Dame.”

That kind of dedication is what Gagnon likes to hear.

“If you go to another stadium, for better or for worse, it’s different – you don’t get the kind of attention and service you do at Notre Dame,” he said.