It’s About the People. A fan’s first visit to Notre Dame

-Sgt Shamrock

Last weekend I had the pleasure of finally meeting James Ketara in person after communicating with him over twitter for over a year. Most of you know James as @JAK0107 on twitter. James has been a huge supporter and reader of Down the Tunnel so I was very excited to finally meet him. James was making his first ever trip to South Bend this past weekend and it was an honor to be a part of it. James wanted to share his story of his first time at Notre Dame and we here at Down the Tunnel were more than happy to help him share it. Enjoy.

 

By: James Ketara

I’ve been alive for 46 years, been to a few Notre Dame “away” games, but there was always something missing…..Actually visiting the campus, and seeing the Irish play at home. I’ve always considered myself a “subway alumni”, but I suppose you can’t truly wear that title unless you’ve made that pilgrimage. That was all about to change, though.

The back story goes a little something like this. I spent time in the Navy, couldn’t play football anymore because of injury, decided to be a chef, and Lord knows, we don’t get any weekends off. It’s simply not possible. Then, through the course of the least 14 years, I put on a gross amount of weight, and even though I could have attended a game being comfortable enough to experience it all, much less getting there would have been interesting to say the least. Actually……..nearly impossible. Gastric bypass is a wonderful thing my friends. I took off a decent amount of weight, and the plan was set in motion. Come to think of it, it was about a year ago from my writing this that it all started.

I was warned not to build Her up too much, and although it was difficult at times, I didn’t. I went there with the expectation of enjoying myself, and being amongst the brotherhood and fraternity of Notre Dame fans that, needless to say, runs deep…..really deep as I found out after arriving. Every single one of my brothers and sisters that I met there, I was meeting for the first time in person. Yes, crazy, right? I befriended them in one way or another through either twitter or facebook. Remember, I didn’t leave the house much at nearly 600 lbs. These people were my friends, eyes and ears, and not just because of our common interest and affection for Our Lady, and her loyal sons. Suffice to say, most of us are even closer now, because there was no drop off in appreciation and or respect for one another in person.

I flew into Grand Rapids on Friday (September 28th), because I was staying with my friend Steve Neuman, who, along with the rest of his fine family, graciously hosted me throughout the weekend. Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep much that night, and we were off and running on our two hour drive at 8 am the following morning. We drove two separate cars, and were traveling at breakneck speed down 196, to the 31 into South Bend. Steve knew I just couldn’t wait to get there. To say I was anxious would be a gross understatement. The plan was to park the car I was driving and jump in with Steve to go down Notre Dame Avenue. Well…..He just kept driving. When I made that turn to go down ND Ave., and the dome came into sight, the emotion poured out of me in a way that I hadn’t been prepared for. Fact is, I actually had to try to hold it together. Classes were in session, and the fine students at Notre Dame were crossing through the crosswalks, and my eyes, filled with tears, needed to recognize that so I didn’t hit one! So many years, so much build up, and now, it was finally in front of me. Ara Parseghian once said, “Driving down Notre Dame Avenue there was a charge of electricity that went through me, and I felt I had a responsibility to this place”. I paraphrased a little, but that’s pretty close. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, and right then, at that very moment, I understood more that I had before. The spirit there is very much alive and well, and this was just the beginning.

We then drove to the Joyce parking lot, because I was about to get the tour of all tours. A  wonderful friend, once again, from twitter, was gracious enough to set up a locker room tour, and then head down that legendary flight of stairs to touch the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign. Upon entering the locker room, though, I literally, unconsciously stopped in my tracks. It was pristine. Full of tradition. Full of lore. Where did Rockne stand when he told them we were gonna “Go Go GO, and we’re not gonna stop, until we get across that goal line”. Where did Coach Holtz stand, when he said, “Save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me”. I know the locker room has changed throughout the years, but you can’t help but to wonder who’s locker was where, and that glorious day when Rudy was handed a jersey because he finally got to dress for a game.

After which, it was down the tunnel (yeah, I did that on purpose) to what I, and many other Irish fans consider to be “The Holy Land”. The field at Notre Dame stadium. That brand new turf was a thing of beauty, but looking up and around at the bleachers, press box, the gold seats, and the bricks those things were set upon, it spoke to me. This was the house that Knute Rockne built. This was where the magic happened. At one time, National Championships, and Heisman’s spawned from this amazing place. I wanted to thank all those coaches that built the tradition that this place was known for. I wanted to thank Father Sorin for his vision, and his persistence. His quote “This university cannot fail to succeed” was evident in everything I saw throughout the campus.

I broke away after spending some money at the bookstore, and meeting up with some friends there as well. We made tentative plans, but the flight had gotten to me, and I had to decompress a bit. That didn’t last long though, and before you knew it, I was at O’Rourkes with a group of people that I’ll consider friends for the rest of my life. Actually……Check that. They’re family. I took pictures with Mike Golic Sr., and Jr., as well as the family of friends that I felt like I’ve known all my life. Or, at least all my twitter life. This was another emotional moment for me. I think it had something to do with the fact that I had really liked these people in our social media world, but it went to another level that I hadn’t expected. And no, it wasn’t just because we love ND, and her football team, with gusto. They’re just good people. They’ve got your back, and are smart enough to know that you’ve got theirs. Unspoken.

It’s 7 am on game day, and I’m a passenger in the car that is about to host the most elaborate tailgate I’ve ever been to in my life. Setting this thing up took nearly an hour and a half. These people take pride showing their pride and loyalty for our Irish, and it showed. It was, without question, epic. I met even more people that I had only known 140 characters at a time, and each and every one of them I liked even more in person. No drop off, and I wasn’t surprised. We went hard for a few hours, and as they say, time fly’s when you’re having fun, and I did. In all actuality, I can say without hesitation that this is the most fun I’ve had in quite a long time. Perhaps longer than I care to admit. I posted at one point that my cheeks were starting to hurt, and I wasn’t lying.

About 30 minutes before game time, and we’re heading into Notre Dame Stadium for my first game. Let me stop here and just say that I didn’t expect what I was about to experience, and if anyone says that they did, they’re lying. First, I was four rows off the field, and second, the electricity was palpable, and our boys hadn’t even gotten in the tunnel yet. Once they did, though, it ramped up another notch, and from then on, as Coach Holtz once said, “…..no explanation is necessary”. This was the moment I had dreamed of. Those gold helmets shined, even though it was cloudy. The energy was high, even with the threat of severe weather, and every soul in that stadiums’ love poured out onto the field in the form of cheers and rhythmic clapping……and then it happened. “And there’s a magic, in the sound of their name, here come the Irish, of Notre Dame” blasted through the speakers, and it was on. Most everyone that will read this is a Notre Dame fan or alumni, so I won’t go into what happened with the absolute woodshed we took Rice to.

After a great win, we tailgated a bit more, and it was time to bring this party into the evening hours at Kevin Burke’s house, where a large contingent of the “Twitterati” gathered to revel in our season opening win. As I sat with Stan Cherry, it became more evident that the people I was surrounded by would instrumental in making this first visit so special. It just didn’t hit me until later.

Sunday morning my only goal was to get to the grotto. I had blinders on after having breakfast at the Pancake House with Stan and his boy Garrett. It was off to find my way to to grotto, and although I did, it was a hike. This turned out to be a good thing, though. As I walked past Stanford hall, I noticed that the back door to the administration building was opened, and that would be my next thing to do when I was done at the grotto. As I walked along the path leading up to it, I had to slow down a bit. No pictures, no video, no words, can do this place justice. You feel something when you’re there. I’m not sure I can put it into words. It’s almost as though there’s a calm……a sense of peace that is unfamiliar. I lit a candle, I knelt, and said my prayers, I took some pictures, and just stared. As I was walking away, I kept looking back. I didn’t want that image to even smudge in my visual memory bank. I didn’t want to leave that place.

I was greeted by an older gentleman as I entered the administration building, and promptly asked him what floor I had to go to to see where they did “trumpets”, so I could take that iconic picture of the underside of the dome. I did, walked around of course, and it was off to Father Hesburgh’s library to meet up with my friends. We were taken on a very special tour, one that I’ll never forget. One that, if I had done alone, would have still be awe inspiring, but not as special. Every single one of us appreciated in a special way. As we stood in the lobby area of the library, I said goodbye to these people that I now consider family, and man did the emotions flow. One of these people was instrumental in helping me with my weight loss so I could even get there, and hugging her goodbye was tough. Hugging her sister goodbye was tough as well. She was there for me all weekend too. They all were, in one way or another.

Everything I believe in was encapsulated in this weekend. I believe in God Country Notre Dame. I believe in the Father, the holy spirit, His son, and His Mother. I believe in loyalty, friendship, and being generous when you’re able. I believe in family.

The biggest thing I brought away from this weekend is something that Reggie Brooks alluded to once. He said it’s not about the place as much as it is about the people because they make this place what it is. I agree, wholeheartedly, and always will. Don’t get me wrong, the place is awe inspiring. I was absolutely thunderstruck at the beauty and history behind it, and the buildings that are firmly planted on it.

As I shared earlier I had always wanted to be considered a true subway alumni, because I think there’s a certain honor in that. I am now……

I’d like to mention a few people, that made this trip what it was. That make Notre Dame what She is. I know I’ll miss a few, but I hope that you know who you are, and that you belong in this list.

 

Steve Neuman, and his entire family

Michele and Jimmy Harlow

Stan Cherry

Amanda Bender

Kevin and Stephanie Burke

Lynne Regan Gilbert

Rich Maynhart

Joshua and Erin Lee

Lamar

Shannon

George Jonas

Emily Metz

“Packy”

Ross Ferguson

 

“And our hearts forever, love thee Notre Dame”

 

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