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Manning brothers’ Halloween special showcases history of Notre Dame through haunted lens

“Notre Dame’s a university, but it’s also a story,” said Neil Zender, the show runner for “Peyton & Eli’s Spooky Adventure,” a Halloween television special featuring the Super Bowl champion Manning brothers.

The special, which currently streams on ESPN+ and airs on ESPN2 after tonight’s “Monday Night Football” “Manningcast,” tells the story of famed Notre Dame football player George Gipp and the legend that his ghost haunts Washington Hall on campus.

Peyton and Eli headline a cast starring class of 2022 graduate Jerome Bettis, quarterback Drew Pyne, wide receiver Braden Lenzy, former head football coach Lou Holtz, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, “Sportscenter” host Scott Van Pelt and current head coach Marcus Freeman.

“Peyton & Eli’s Spooky Adventure” uses a “Ghostbusters” theme and showcases the Manning brothers and Bettis breaking into Washington Hall to try to catch the ghost of “the Gipper.”

“When you’re the head coach of Notre Dame, you’re supposed to wake up the echoes. But this is something else,” Marcus Freeman tells Peyton and Eli at the beginning of the episode.

Pyne and Lenzy start the episode by seeing the “Gipp ghost” ride into Washington Hall on a horse. The opening scene is the last viewers see of current players, but the rest of the special contains appearances by students and campus figures — notably Campus Ministry director Fr. Pete McCormick — and scenes from all across the campus.

Students read a copy of The Observer in “Peyton & Eli’s Spooky Adventure” detailing a sighting of the ghost of “The Gipper.” (Courtesy of Neil Zender)

“Whether it be professors on campus, priests that are in our dorms, our students on campus — not just student-athletes — seeing staff members around being able to interact with all these different celebrities like Jerome and Peyton and Eli, it all just comes together and really shows off Notre Dame in a unique way,” senior associate athletics director of media communications Aaron Horvath said.

The trio of Notre Dame ghostbusters travels around campus in the Ectomobile — a replica of the car used in the original “Ghostbusters” — and don jumpsuits modeled after the film’s. Zender, a 1998 Notre Dame graduate and now a coordinating producer for NFL Films, said the special tries to combine different television show genres to tell football stories in the most interesting way possible.

“The shows are sort of one part ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, one part Anthony Bourdain travel show documentary where you’re going to a place and one part sports history documentary,” he said. 

Zender works on both “Eli’s Places,” which profiles different college football programs, and “Peyton’s Places,” which details historic moments in the NFL. The Halloween special was the first time Peyton and Eli combined their two ESPN+ programs, Zender said.

“We thought it would be neat to get Eli and Peyton together to do something, and the best place to do that was Notre Dame,” he said. “What we’d like to do is make history interesting by doing it instead of just talking about it.”

Peyton and Eli take a deep interest in all the campus landmarks, from the statues around campus to the locker room, Zender explained.

“They love everything about football and everything about quarterbacking, and you could tell it was special to them to be at Notre Dame because it’s such a special place for football,” he said.

The half-hour special was shot in one day in late April, Zender said. The crew set up filming at legendary former head football coach Knute Rockne’s house at about 6:30 a.m. for separate content for “Eli’s Places” before wrapping up filming at around 7 p.m. Zender said most productions of this volume take around a week.

With a cast ranging from students to priests to athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Horvath said the production took a wide-ranging effort from lots of people on campus.

And Peyton sums up the effort at the end of the show, “I think we just tell them we did all we could for the Gipper.”

Contact Ryan Peters at rpeters5@nd.edu