"I have told multiple friends that if you only take one football road trip in your life, it needs to be to South Bend, because no other campus I've been to even comes close."
Aside from wanting to name this post "The Legend of Riley Nelson and The Holy Fail," what a weekend in South Bend. Even though Cody Hoffman is STILL open, this was one of my favorite Cougar Trips of all time. Simply amazing. My expectations were high for Notre Dame going in, but even then, the Irish surpassed them in every way. Since returning to Utah, I've told multiple friends that if you only take one football road trip in your life, it needs to be to South Bend, because no other campus I've been to even comes close. I'll just warn you now: because there was so much to see and do at ND, this post is going to get long.
Per usual, we had complications getting from Salt Lake to Chicago. As expected, direct flights weren't really an option, so we ended up heading for San Francisco to try and catch one of the three redeye's to Chicago. In usual standby fashion, that didn't work out so well. We ended up stuck at SFO overnight and didn't get out until around 8 the next morning. But no worries, I've got sleeping in airports down to a science! At least SFO had a new International Terminal that was fairly quiet, and life size video games to keep me entertained.
Our first stop on the ground in Chicago was Gino's East Pizzeria. It wouldn't be a legit trip to Chicago if we didn't get some authentic deep dish. I decided calling it pizza might be a stretch, a more accurate tag would probably be "hand-held lasagna". Everything about it was good, from the 2" of meat and cheese to the buttery, flaky crust... Sorry New York thin crust, I'm a Chicago deep dish fan!
From Gino's we headed straight for South Bend. We wanted to see as many ND Football traditions as possible, and in South Bend they start on Friday with the Pep Rally. We'd have made great time if it wasn't for traffic and the 6-8 toll plazas we had to pass through. For what Illinois/Indiana charge in tolls, I don't see why their streets aren't lined with gold, it's brutal! At one point we passed through three toll booths in less than five miles...on the same stretch of freeway. Lame.
Due to the Chicago traffic and toll delays we only got to the Joyce Center (BBall Arena) for the tail end of the rally. However, we still got enough of the experience to make it worth it. Fans pack the arena to listen to the head coach and a couple players speak. There are also performances by the cheerleaders and band. It's only about 45 minutes long, but the atmosphere is electric! After the rally, the entire facility is open for fans to explore, which I took full advantage of, exploring the arena, basketball offices and team areas.
I was extremely impressed with the Joyce Center. It's been remodeled recently and is a first class basketball facility. The entire arena has chair seats, the concourses are all covered in huge photo-murals, and the entrance is gorgeous! They also have a decent sized fan shop inside the entrance foyer that is just as big as many college bookstores. Hopefully Coach Rose and the boys can make the trip to ND in the near future, I'd love to see a game there.
What Time is It?
After our Joyce Center excursion, we headed for our hotel. The trick to traveling to ND is all in the logistics and accommodations. You see, hotels in South Bend are your typical Hamptons and Holiday Inn express type, nothing too fancy, most are $59-79 during the week. However on football weekends, suddenly they're $250-400! That's more than I usually spend on an ENTIRE weekend trip, so no chance that was gonna work.
Most fans stay at one of the many surrounding cities within 40 miles of South Bend, which isn't too bad of a drive (minus the tolls...again). The tricky part is knowing what time it is at your currently location, seriously. All of Illinois is on CST, however Northern Indiana is split. Some cities, like South Bend, are on EST. But other surrounding towns, such as the one we stayed in, are on CST even though they're less than 30 minutes away. With that said, the GPS on my phone and Ipad rarely were in agreement and usually didn't update back and forth because we were straddling the line. It's not often I've relied on a wrist watch to find the time, because my phone was usually an hour off. Ugh.
It became a mental challenge to plan when to leave the hotel to get places because not only did we have to plan for travel time, we also had to take into account what time it was at the venue, and adjust accordingly. For the most part we did well, the only hiccup came when we headed home. More on that later.
College Football Hall of Fame
We headed back into S.B. early Saturday morning so we could beat traffic and still see everything we wanted to. Our first stop was the CFB HOF. It wasn't quite the MLB HOF, but it was still very well done and had lots of information and exhibits. Each enshrined member has a sculpted tile with their information listed.
Surprisingly, the actual HOF inductees are kind of an afterthought that get lost in the midst of all the other displays. There weren't a lot of artifacts, but the displays were very informative and had a lot of interactive parts. All of the major bowl trophies are on display, as well as all of the individual award trophies. The displays are kept current with the team/player who is the current winner.
There are also two fully interactive sections that patrons can play. One is a scouting measurement room where you can test your strength, speed, agility and flexibility. The other is a physical skills room that you can push blocking sleds, kick field goals and throw passes. Overall it was a good way to spend 45 minutes.
Game Day on Campus
We made it on to campus just before 10 a.m. so we could beat some of the crowd and see all of the requisite sites and traditions. The atmosphere on campus that early in the morning was better than many campuses right at kickoff! There was probably 20,000 fans roaming the campus already, all decked out in ND gear. Throughout the day, it was impossible to count how many Irish fans would greet us, thank us for coming and wish us well. They were great to offer advice on what to see and help with directions on campus. Many would also let us know what their favorite part of campus was and encourage us to hit those sites. I've heard that ND fans are great hosts, but I was still blown away at how open and engaging they were. Well done Irish peeps, well done.
Our first stop was at the on-campus bookstore. I specify that because they have three different stores within half a mile, quite impressive. The physical building was gorgeous both inside and out. Most buildings on campus have been recently renovated, but each was done with the Old Irish look and feel. A very uniform and classy look throughout the campus.
Right as we stepped inside, someone yelled out "Hey, there's a Cougar fan, how you doing?" I chatted with the guy for a second and was a little perplexed what why he was so outgoing. He knew a TON about BYU and our season, so I finally asked him why he was so versed in BYU stats. He whispered to me "Oh, don't mind the ND gear, I'm actually a BYU fan. They just wanted me to wear this stuff while I signed puzzles and paintings."
I looked over his shoulder and saw a VERY familiar-styled painting of ND Stadium and campus. I looked back and him and asked if he painted it, he replied he had.
"Wait, you're Eric Dowdle?"
"I sure am, nice to meet you!"
Whoa, wasn't expecting that to happen. By chance I'd recently completed the BYU version of his puzzles and had a picture of it on my phone. He looked at it and then showed a bunch of people around the table the picture as an example of his work. He then asked if I'd noticed all the "hidden" objects in the painting, such as the Three Nephites, Gordon B. Hinckley, Moroni...etc. I said I had, and that they were a neat idea.
He then pulled me close and said "I'll tell you a secret that I can't really tell many people when I travel: I hide those kinds of objects in EVERY stadium painting I do. They're my own little hidden signature! In the ND painting, there are two missionaries on campus and a BYU logo being worn in the stadium." He went on to explain that missionaries and Y logos make an appearance in multiple pictures. The Three Nephites aren't in all paintings, but they ARE in more than just BYU's. Well played Mr. Dowdle, well played.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart
From the Bookstore we continued our tour with a stop at the Basilica. When you picture an old Catholic Cathedral, the Basilica is the exact painting in your mind. The architecture and attention to detail are amazing. We happened to be standing outside the Basilica as the football team showed up for their traditional pregame mass. Fans lined the walkway leading up as Coach Kelly greeted the Reverend and led the team inside.
The Golden Dome
Right next to the Basilica stands the Admin Building, more popularly referred to as "The Golden Dome". Outside, the dome can be seen for miles, especially when it catches the sun. Inside, the building seems like just a typical building when you first walk in, however when you get to the central rotunda, it becomes anything but.
The decorative railings that spiral toward the top and are capped with the hand painted mural inside the dome are awesome. The view looking up is something I'd expect at a museum in Italy, not on a college campus in rural Indiana.
Just behind the Basilica/Dome lies the Grotto. The pathway leading down to the Grotto is lined with trees full of colorful leaves. It seriously feels like you're miles away from civilization and headed into the woods. The Grotto is full of candles that have been lit by those passing by and is open to anyone to participate. I was impressed at the respect shown by all fans from both schools who were surrounding the area.
Though it was game day and everyone was hyped up and excited, the Grotto had a more sacred feel to it and the reverence was respected by all in the area. I thought about lighting a candle for Manti Te'o to help with a harder than normal sack early in the game, but apparently such things are frowned upon. I bet Cody Hoffman wishes I'd have done it.
One of the more notable landmarks on campus is Touchdown Jesus. The mural is painted on the side of a building adjacent to the stadium. In front of the mural is a large reflection pond and the quad that leads directly into the stadium. When the Irish arrive for the game, they are dropped off next to TD Jesus and make the walk through an estimated 20,000 fans who line the walkways towards the stadium.
One of my favorite differences at ND was they weren't just led by a coach, or by the band...they are led to the stadium by a drumline and bagpipes! At first you hear the fans at the top of the walk start chanting "Here come the Irish", then as they get closer, you hear the drums and pipes. It's awesome!
Notre Dame isn't known for the biggest or best tailgating scene, but they held their own. The parking lot immediately in front of the stadium is reserved for local tailgaters. For those who don't have their own tailgate or visitors who traveled to the game, the University Clubs use on campus tailgating booths as a fund raiser. All along the pathways and grassy areas on campus there are tons of booths setup for business. The best part, is they were extremely cheap! You could get a brat, drink and chips for $3.00. The only downside is they weren't the most efficiently run businesses so the lines were pretty long. Usually there would be 50-100 people in line, then as I walked by, I'd notice four brats and five burgers on the massive grill. Apparently ND students aren't as bright as I'd assumed?
Pregame Band Concert
90 minutes before kickoff the Irish Marching Band lines up on the steps of Bond Hall at the edge of campus. Thousands gather in front of the building to hear a full concert (Which turned out to be the halftime show for the day). The band concert is the "official" kickoff signaling everyone to get to the stadium. Once the concert ends, the band marches through campus and into the stadium to perform the pregame routine.
Waking Up The Echoes *Warning: Awkward sentimental description coming*
Probably my most memorable moment of the entire trip happened by accident. It was like my own little "Rudy" montage moment, if you will. After about 15 minutes of the band concert, we decided we'd seen everything we wanted to and were ready to head into the stadium to watch warm ups. We were talking on the way back across campus at how the entire day was almost out of a college football dream. The air was crisp (45-50 degrees), it was partly cloudy but the sun was out, every tree on campus was exploding with fall colors, fans were bundled up with scarves and jackets, leaves were crunching under our feet on the walkways, and the smell of grills and laughter of kids in the air. It was the perfect fall Saturday for college football.
I purposely took a random detour between buildings on the way back so I could see more of campus. We found ourselves on a quieter walkway that wasn't packed (like every other walkway had been). There were maybe 10 other people on about a 50 yard stretch. As we turned the corner, the band began playing the "Victory March". The sounds echoed off the buildings all across campus and surrounded us there in that little alley. The start of the chorus says "Cheer, Cheer, for old Notre Dame; Wake up the echoes, cheering her name". Never have those words rung so true as at that moment, on that fall day, on that campus, hearing that song literally wake up the echoes. It gave me chills. A father and two sons wearing BYU gear were standing nearby and commented on the moment as we passed, "Wow, did that just happen?" It was the type of moment that everyone around stopped to appreciate and will never forget.
ND Stadium is as classic as they get. No frills, not flashy, just a good ol' college football stadium. The wooden benches are quite aged and worn, the aisles are narrow, the field has no markings other than the yard/hash marks. It's old school and I loved it! I've never realized how much advertising really distracts from a game, until I watched a game with NO advertising anywhere in the stadium.
We were seated in the upper bowl, however there's really not a bad seat in the stadium. Odd as it sounds for a stadium that holds 80,000 fans, it felt rather cozy. My only complaint of the stadium was not having a video board. Having instant replays definitely improves the in-game experience and seeing those or stats would have been nice. Other than that, I hope the Irish never change anything about the stadium. It's comparable to a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. They aren't luxurious, but they're historic and revered.
It's not often I leave a game wishing we'd have lost by 20+, but that was the case here. I walked into the stadium expecting we'd lose and probably by 14-20, and I was surprisingly okay with that. I was content taking in the sites, knocking off a bucket list item and enjoying the journey. At least that was my thought when the game started.
Then BYU started to control the game....then took the lead....then held the lead....then we were still leading in the 4th quarter. Wait, hold up, we're beating #5 Notre Dame in the 4th, in their house?! Ok, screw the journey, we're winning this game. Period.
My whole mind set had slowly changed at about halftime. I was liking our chances, and as the typical BYU fan I am, I actually started to believe it could happen. My bad. I sat there and watched as little by little the dream slipped away. Our offense sputtered (shocker, I know), ND started to march and gain momentum. Only two plays will be burned into my memory for the foreseeable future, one of which will be for life. The first came on a 3rd and Goal, after ND had marched into scoring position. We looked like we'd made another classic goal line stand and would hold ND to a game tying FG. They ran to the right, we sniffed it out, Joe Sampson was all..over..it. There he was, one-on-one with the RB at the five yard line, ready to blow up the play...until he didn't. RB goes one way, Joe goes DERP, RB finds endzone...ND up by 3. Ugh.
But it's all good, we've got time, we've got Jamaal Williams, we've got Cody Hoffman, we'll be fine. We managed to march into ND territory and looked poised to be at least in position for a tying FG, but we had a play or two to get closer. And then it happened. THE play. Riley drops back, the line actually gives him time, Cody makes a cut, Cody's defender DOESN'T make a cut. Oh my gosh, he's wide open, there's no one behind him, we're gonna score a TD!!! Riley sees him, STILL WIDE OPEN, Riley throws....
...and the second the ball left his hand, so did honor code violations from Indiana to Utah....$$($&%(@($)#*@()$. The ball landed all alone about 8 yards behind Cody. We got Riley'd. Just when I started to believe, just when I thought we could win a big game...we didn't.
The TV replay doesn't show the image I'll forever remember this game by: Cody with his palms up, shoulders shrugged, looking back toward the line in utter disbelief. He stood there for about five seconds in that pose, before bending in half, hands on his facemask, standing all alone on the 20 yard line as everyone else walked back to the line. He knew that TD was his. He knew that TD woulda beat Notre Dame. Ultimately, he knew we had just lost.
The ND fans were so shocked they couldn't even celebrate their fortune. An ESPN analyst on Twitter called it "The most wide open missed throw in college football history". The NBC announcer exclaimed, "He had Hoffman all alone for a TD...I don't know how he missed him?" Ouch.
Notre Dame came in, ran a few plays and killed the clock. I was almost numb, just 10 minutes ago I was sure we'd pulled off one of the greatest upsets in BYU history. Now I was sitting there in Section 122 wondering what just happened. It hurt. The Irish proceeded down toward the student section to sing the Alma Mater while the entire crowd hummed along. I just sat there dazed.
Sports are funny like that, one minute you're on cloud nine, the next you get kicked in the gut. I guess that's why I love college athletics so much. There's so much emotion and passion, yet it's never predictable. You never know when the next "I was there" moment is going to come, so you just have to make sure you go to everything you can and hope today's the day. For 3.5 quarters I thought Saturday was that day. It wasn't. With that said, it was still an amazing experience and easily my favorite football trip I've taken.
On our way out of the stadium we had numerous ushers, policeman and fans thank us for making the trip, compliment our team and wish us a safe trip home. Notre Dame fans were class acts in every aspect, I've got nothing but respect for them. I enjoyed this trip so much, that I'm actually adopting the Irish as my #2 college football team. The fans, the academics, the staff, the team, the culture, the campus, the tradition...I respect it all. I can only hope that BYU can develop a gameday experience like that in my lifetime. It's a very tall task, but a boy can dream can't he?
Once we got back to Chicago, we spent a few hours in the hotel trying to find available flights to get us back to SLC. Around 2 AM we realized we better just get to the airport around 6 and get on any flight possible headed West. We planned to leave the hotel at 5:45 to turn in our rental car and be checked in by 6:15. The alarm went off, we loaded up and headed for O'Hare. I was absolutely drained and almost fell asleep on the rental shuttle. As we pulled up to the airport curb, I noticed why: The LED clock on the door said 5:19 AM. The phone clocks hadn't switched back to CST. Damn GPS time zones! It didn't get much better from there. We were stuck at O'Hare for a few hours and ended up flying to LAX. From LA, we got on a flight to my hometown of St. George, where I literally was on the ground 45 seconds as I sprinted across the tarmac to get on the flight to SLC that had already boarded. That whole transfer was blog worthy itself. I made it home just before 9:00 and thus ended the incredible journey.
* * * * * * *
Though BYU didn't win the game, my trip to Notre Dame will go down as one of the greatest trips I've ever taken. I'm already planning to go back next fall and trust me, you need to start planning now to come with me. You'll be glad you did. I've rambled on long enough, time to go re-pack my bag, because speaking of rambling, now I leave tomorrow for The Ramblin' Wreck of Georgia Tech! ATL, here I come.
PS: Cody Hoffman is STILL open