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More respect than rivalry

| Monday, October 26, 2015

A few weeks ago, our son invited my wife and I to accompany him to the Notre Dame versus Navy football game in South Bend. We were anticipating a full-fledged, if not closely contested, college football rivalry. What we experienced was much, much more, culminating in a day replete with hope, gratitude and pride — a memorable celebration of God and country, Notre Dame style. The University orchestrated a gripping program that honored not only its deep Catholic roots but also the U.S. Military, as well as our unique American heritage.

You won’t find the Notre Dame/Navy rivalry on most any top-10 lists, or even top-20. Notre Dame has won 48 of the last 51 meetings. As such, this annual contest typically is too lopsided to qualify as a hotly contested, major rivalry. Preeminent college football rivalries are essentially about waging gridiron war annually against one’s most despised (and often toughest) opponent. Unquestionably, storied rivalries, such as Michigan/Ohio State, Alabama/Auburn, Oklahoma/Texas, Georgia/Florida and numerous others contribute mightily to major college football’s enormous popularity. But, such is not the case when Notre Dame plays Navy each year as they have since 1927. This annual clash is unique and much more significant than any football rivalry. It transcends the game.

For years both sides have considered this 89-year football series (our country’s longest, continuous intersectional collegiate football contest) more of a sacred tradition than simply a gridiron battle. The continuing series grew roots because of a perceived obligation and blossomed via mutual appreciation of those principles each institution holds dear. During WWII, Notre Dame faced a looming, likely fatal, financial crisis. As many students were sent off to war, the University was left financially destitute. Thankfully, the U.S. Navy made the campus a training center for 1,800 V-12 Navy College Trainees, paying Notre Dame for their use of its campus facilities. Those funds kept the University out of bankruptcy. “An annual payment on a debt of honor,” is how the recently deceased, 35-year president, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh put it. And so, honoring his wishes, the rivalry continues, likely indefinitely.

This year’s “Navy Week” celebration featured the theme “Respect.” Mutual respect was apparent all day long, throughout the campus, even during the game. Patrons were remarkably well behaved. Trash from a sea of tailgating was nowhere to be found except at designated receptacles. During the contest, we encountered no obnoxious yelling or swearing, and found everyone around us to be quite polite — the polar opposite of a typical pro football game (and of far too many college games). Respect for our military was a prominent theme featured both pre-game and at half time. The visiting Midshipmen were given a standing ovation when introduced. The attending Naval cadets stood proudly the entire game out of respect for their on-field mates, cheering tirelessly regardless of the score. And, never once did we hear the Navy team booed or jeered.

Because of the bedrock foundations of these two institutions, reverence to God was not neglected, as so often it is today either by bad choice or by misguided law. To the contrary, He was a central focus. I kept thinking that this day is perfectly reminiscent of the proud, passionate, polite and prayerful America I remember from too long ago — a Country I long to encounter once again.

The Notre Dame/Navy weekend began very similar to a typical home game. But, then, the day’s focus shifted dramatically to an affirmation of “Navy Week.” Two International Space Station astronauts presented the Colors, one a retired Air Force Colonel from Notre Dame, and the other a Captain from the Naval Academy. Everyone stood respectfully, engrossed in the solemnity. Precisely as the subsequent National Anthem culminated, four F/A-18 Navy Hornets screamed over the stadium, a Navy football game tradition. Then, Notre Dame and Navy-trained officers from the new USS Indiana nuclear submarine saluted the fans proudly upon being introduced.

A sudden pyrotechnic burst declared the arrival of first the Notre Dame players, followed by their Navy opponents, as both squads cascaded from the North tunnel and jogged to the South goal line. There all players, Notre Dame and Navy alike, kneeled, helmets off, and prayed. Where have you seen that lately, if ever? Sadly, religious “political correctness” is on a forced march throughout much of America, trampling Christianity’s symbols without shame. But, I am confident such plundering will never permeate this private campus. Honoring God is the very heartbeat of Notre Dame. And so shall it remain at all costs. Unfortunately, the Naval Academy must march to our Government’s drumbeat. We can only hope.

As the coup de grace, 90-year-old Johnny Lujack, the most famous Notre Dame player of all, walked gingerly to mid-field to toss the ceremonial coin. Just pinch me. Growing up, I thought of Johnny Lujack as some sort of deity in shoulder pads rather than a living, breathing All-American hero. Catholic schoolboys everywhere so idolized his persona, and spoke so unceasingly of his otherworldly gridiron exploits, that I had determined he had to be a figment of their imaginations. Later, of course, I learned that he was for real, a Heisman Trophy winner no less. And, here he was, in the flesh, 70 years later, traversing the very battlefield he once dominated. I was awestruck.

The half-time program began with a WWII tribute from the band, first a Glen Miller WWII-era medley, followed by a tribute to all Armed Forces branches. Then they struck up “God Bless America,” as they morphed into the outline of the United States. Within it, the Notre Dame ROTC unfurled the American flag. Dry eyes? Not many.

Finally, each team joined the other in singing their respective Alma Maters, a long-standing tradition. Where else in sports can one observe such an overt, moving expression of mutual respect? Reluctantly, the three of us bid this special day adieu at sundown, entirely satiated, and wishing that everyone in America could have tagged along. Would that it could be more than just a wish.

Oh, yes, Notre Dame won again this year 41-24, but I digress.


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

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