Bob Birge's Irish Eyes Are Smiling

August 24, 2009 3:47 PM

A son recalls his father's love of Notre Dame

Like many fans of the Fighting Irish, I cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame because of my father. My dad, the biggest Notre Dame fan I have ever known, was Irish and Catholic, so I probably didn’t have much choice in the matter.

My dad never yelled at the television – something that cannot be said about his oldest son – and I strongly doubt he would have wasted his time calling a 24-hour sports radio station even if there was such a medium before he passed away in 1987.

But my dad expected Notre Dame to win every game – not most games, every game - and merely winning wasn’t good enough. The Irish could be beating up some hapless opponent, 35-3, early in the third quarter and he’d mutter: “They gotta put some more points on the board!”

My dad also could convince himself that Notre Dame was worthy of a bowl game even if it finished with a losing record (“They’d still get great ratings,” he’d rationalize). Of course, in those halcyon days of the 1970s, the Irish never finished with a losing record.

My dad thought Ara Parseghian was the greatest coach who ever strode across a football field. He believed that Ara could discover the cure for cancer and walk across Lake Michigan.

There were two coaches my dad despised. One was John McKay, the face of the Southern California program when the rivalry between USC and Notre Dame was the best in the country from 1964-76.

The other was Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant. Whenever anyone brought up Bryant’s name, my dad would get that mischievous glint in his eyes, reminding anyone who would listen that the Bear never beat Notre Dame (Bryant was 0-3 against the Irish, including the epochal a 24-23 loss in the 1973 Sugar Bowl that my dad always said was his favorite Notre Dame game).

On New Year’s Eve at Tulane Stadium, Parseghian risked everything. With the Irish facing 3rd-and-long from their 2-yard line and just over two minutes remaining, they could have played it safe. But quarterback Tom Clements dropped back into the end zone. He completed a 36-yard pass to Robin Weber down the left sidelines - one of the most famous plays in Notre Dame history.

The Irish ran out of the clock and won their second national championship under Parseghian, who was vindicated after being heavily criticized for playing for a 10-10 tie against Michigan State in the “Game of the Century” seven years earlier.

I don’t think my dad ever was prouder to be a Notre Dame fan. Not only did the Irish win, but they prevailed in the swashbuckling style he had come to expect.

You see, my dad believed in the Notre Dame mythology, believed that Notre Dame Stadium was hallowed ground and believed in all those Irish ghosts. Like a lot of Notre Dame’s “Subway Alumni”, he never actually stepped foot on Notre Dame’s campus, but was there every week in spirit.

Born in 1924, the same year that Grantland Rice penned the greatest lead in the history of sports writing about the Four Horsemen (“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky”), my dad died nine days after the New York Giants won their first Super Bowl. He was just 62 and missed Notre Dame’s return to glory under Lou Holtz.

Every year at this time, I got melancholy, thinking of my dad and thinking how excited he would be with the start of another college football season on the horizon.

Each year, I mark the start of Notre Dame’s season by performing a silly ritual. During the week before Notre Dane’s first game, I visit my dad’s gravesite and quietly sing “The Victory March”, which he loved so dearly. I stay for only a few minutes.

I began this ritual on the morning of one of the biggest wins in Notre Dame history – the 31-30 triumph over Miami in 1988 that propelled the Irish to their last national championship.

Since it worked for the Miami game, I made the trip back to my dad’s grave on January 2, 1989, hours before the Irish defeated West Virginia, 34-21, in the Fiesta Bowl, and have been doing it ever since to start the season

The ritual, of course, hasn’t brought Notre Dame much luck in recent years, but it is my way of keeping my dad’s memory alive.

Of course, if my dad was still alive, I’m sure he would be leading the chorus to get rid of Charlie Weis.

“We need another Ara, a man’s man,” he’d said.

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