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A house divided: The Notre Dame family

| Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Five months ago, my little sister performed the ultimate act of betrayal upon our family – she chose to attend the University of Michigan instead of Notre Dame. Obviously, she has been disowned and written out of the will, and she is no longer welcome at family holidays.

Kidding (mostly). For those of you – and I’m sure it’s many – who grew up in a Notre Dame household, you know how much it means to be here. This is a school that prides itself on its generational character and traditions. If you’re like my sister Claire and me, you grew up wandering around campus every fall. Our experience was a little different than most, as our dad decided early on that the two of us would come to every – and I do mean every home game with him and sit in the same seats he did with his parents when he was a kid. I’ve tried to add up the number of Notre Dame games I attended before becoming a student, and my estimates are somewhere in the seventies or eighties. Suffice it to say that the two of us were Notre Dame babies, born and raised in the art of tailgating, bumper barbecuing and stadium navigation.

My late grandfather sent two children and two grandchildren to Notre Dame and another of each to Saint Mary’s. He now also has two grandchildren who are Wolverines – an unspeakable crime in many Notre Dame families, but a reality ours has been living for almost two decades now. To those of you who did not grow up in Notre Dame families, this whole thing may seem a little ridiculous and dramatic, but the rivalry is deep-seated. I watched my dad and uncle send their kids to a place they had been raised to hate – somewhat playfully, but on a fairly serious level as well. I remember not even considering Michigan, not so much because I disliked the school, but because I could never picture myself being friends with the dreaded Michigan fans.

So as I think about Notre Dame vs. New Mexico, the first home game in 18 years that I attended without Claire, I wonder to myself whether a Michigan student can still be part of the Notre Dame capital-F Family.

To me, my family and so many others, the Notre Dame Family – that giant network of graduates and students and “subway alumni,” of football fans and Irish Catholics and little kids with big college dreams, – creates a feeling of home and a sense of belonging wherever you end up in the world. We are all tightly bound to each other, endlessly orbiting the gravitational pull of the Golden Dome. And I think it would be foolish to ignore that a big part of the Family’s history and connection is centered around Fighting Irish football. When 80,000 of us gather in Notre Dame Stadium for our fall Family reunions, there is an atmosphere like nowhere else in the world. We are united behind our team and all it means to us, which also means we are united firmly against the other team – especially if that team is Michigan. This is the way that Claire and I were inducted into the Notre Dame Family, and this is the way that many people come back to reconnect with their beloved school.

My own divided family does our best to reconcile the rivalry, save for one awkward weekend a year during which we avoid talking football. We cheer for Michigan to beat The Ohio State University every Thanksgiving weekend (often in vain). Most importantly, though, as much as we joke about it, Claire is still just as much a part of our family as she was before she moved to Ann Arbor. And even though she may never go to Notre Dame, I don’t see why Claire should not also remain a part of the Notre Dame Family and all the support, love and shared memory its unofficial membership entails.

Though she now attends the home of one of Notre Dame’s greatest rivals, she has not erased the years of passing the volleyball around on South Quad, of lake walks and trips to the Grotto, of her place in our grandparents’ seats cheering on the Irish. For Claire’s sake, I hope that the Family’s support system can extend beyond our battles on the field. I’ve spent some time re-examining how I define the Notre Dame Family, whose importance in my life is second only to my actual family. Our unspoken and indescribable sense of community is both comforting and empowering to me. No matter how far I travel from home, the Family will always ground me and give me purpose.

And while I love Notre Dame football and understand its importance in the school’s identity, my past two years here have made me realize that we have a connection that goes beyond the stadium, that goes beyond even the Dome and the Basilica – something binding and powerful that lies beneath everyone who has ever loved this school. My hope for Claire is that the Family will continue to lift her up and to be there for her to lean on, even though she goes to (I know, ugh) Michigan.

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

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