I have two favorite college football teams: Navy and whoever is playing Notre Dame. I am a "homer" in the truest sense of the word which is to say that if Navy were playing against a team composed entirely of Nobel Peace Prize winners, I'd be trying to come up an appropriate taunt that rhymed with "Mandela". Now, I know that our natural rival, the team that should be the target of my most intense ire, is Army.
It is the most natural rivalry in sports, Army vs. Navy : and for four years, I lived and breathed "Beat Army". But graduation, and five years of service taught me that the only real difference between the boys on the field for Army and Navy is truly the color of their uniforms.
But to be a Navy football fan is to love an underdog. And the thing that really gets a perennial underdog (and its fans) angry is an overconfident opponent. So, I don't hate Army. I hate the Fighting Irish. Yes, I know hate's a strong word, and its hard to quantify- so let me put it this way: if Notre Dame was playing against the Fighting Husseins of Baghdad U, I'd be in the stands with an Iraqi flag and wearing a fake bushy mustache. Seriously.
Notre Dame has been playing Navy annually in football since 1927, a contest whose roots lie in Notre Dame's NROTC program. During WWII, the university was in severe financial distress, and the location of a training center there with the accompanying federal funding literally kept the school afloat. The invitation to play football against one another has been extended indefinitely, as a result. The series stands at 70-9-1 and Notre Dame has won the game for the last forty three years straight. Yes, you read that right - forty three years, an eternity in sports, an eternity in life. Last time we won, Navy's quarterback was Roger Staubach (who later that year won the Heisman Trophy), the president was John F. Kennedy, and Time Magazine's Man of the Year was Martin Luther King, Jr. The world was a different place - and the students at Notre Dame actually had some respect for their rivals from Maryland.
Notre Dame has a national following, maybe the largest following of any college football team today. And to me, it's nearly inexplicable. Is it a rich history and great game day traditions; nationally prominent and recognizable alumni? Is it the gold helmets; the catchy and wonderfully recognizable fight song; the crazy mascot? No, it's not, because Navy's got all those things (including having the gold helmets first) in equal measure to the boys in South Bend. All I can come up with is the "Irish" thing. Because, the shamrock, the green and St. Patty's have become the 21st century symbols of blue collar America. Whereas there was a time, not too long ago, that being Irish was to be in an identifiable and undesirable ethnic minority "just like that, it's cool to have a green Red Sox cap and a friend named 'Sully'". But, with this in mind, here's a heads-up to all you Notre Dame fans, none of those kids playing football are actually Irish! I mean, seriously. They're going to school in INDIANA, for God's sake! (You know... the place where they filmed "Hoosiers"?!)
I also know Americans love a winner. But Notre Dame last won a national championship in college football in 1988. And you know how I know that's a long time ago? Because, I was a FRESHMAN IN HIGH SCHOOL at the time! I'm pretty sure I was still "pegging" my jeans, and that there were "Esprit" bags being toted around by every girl in sight. Despite this overwhelming drought of victory, Irish fans remain delusionally optimistic about their national competitiveness.
This year, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame have started the season 0-3. And it's not the kind of 0-3 that could inspire any hope. They lost their home opener 33-3 at the hands of Georgia Tech. The following week, they got embarrassed at storied Happy Valley by Penn State, 38-10 (their only touchdown on a returned punt), and when they went to the "Futilty Bowl" against a then-winless Michigan, they were "dump trucked" to the tune of 38-0. You would think they could have learned a few things from the Wolverines. The boys from Ann Arbor are more qualified than any other college football team ever to speak on the dangers of underestimating a team. (For those of you who don't follow college football -- Michigan became the first ranked team to ever lose to a Division I-AA school -- initially ranked 5th in the country, they lost their home opener to Appalachian State, widely considered the greatest upset in college football history) Despite this start and this exposure, Notre Dame fans persist in talking about certain teams on their schedule as "easy wins"; and we're on their list.
Earlier this week on SportsCenter (which I dutifully refer to as "the news"), they ran a "student reaction piece" on Notre Dame's start. After interviewing a number of commendable students who pledged their continued support for the team despite their start, they came to an unfortunate-looking sophomore, named Matt Couture, who declared that the season would be considered "a success" as long as they "continued the streak against Navy." Really? Only a Notre Dame fan could seriously go through three weeks without seeing their team score a single offensive touchdown and still muster the chutzpah to talk smack. Seriously. Aside from Matt looking like a private-school knob who wouldn't know intestinal fortitude if it walked up and slapped him, I've got news for him: it's not going to be a "successful" season for Notre Dame; not even by his ridiculous, ill-informed, and ignorant standards.
I could sit and talk numbers to Matt. I could talk about how we've recently completed the greatest three consecutive seasons of Navy Football ever; about 8 and 9 win seasons, about consecutive bowl appearances, about consecutive outright Commander-In-Chief's trophies, and talk to him about doing it with the greatest recruiting disadvantage in the history of the sport. But he won't listen. He won't hear about how his team hasn't won a bowl game in 13 years. He won't hear about how close the Navy game has been -- about how we've covered that famous "point spread" in eight of ten years (evidencing their underachieving, our overachieving, or maybe a little of both), and how in 1999 and 2003 they needed a miracle and a lot of luck, respectively, to keep his precious "streak" intact. He'ss a "gold domer" and just like all the little left-wing John Kerry disciples he goes to school with, he believes (as Mr. Kerry so eloquently put it) that the military is something you do if you're too stupid to get into a "real college". He, and they, think the Navy game is a cute little charity event that the good Samaritans on campus throw to show their support for the idiots that keep them free by dying in the desert. Don't worry, buddy, I know you're not the only one -- you're just the one pompous and stupid enough to say it on national television.
You want to know about real tradition? It lives in Annapolis, West Point and Colorado Springs. You want to know about a "streak"? Read the names of the battles listed around the walls of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. You want to know what's great about college football? It'™s the kids who play with no hope of the NFL, and knowing full-well that they'll be called upon to defend their country a few months after graduation, and who stand for the other school's alma mater before their own when the game is over, win or lose.
November 3rd, Matt. That's the day. In the immortal words of the Karate Kid, "It's coming around!" I won't be in South Bend, they'll be far too much crying and despair to allow any real celebration on my part, your tears included. But rest assured I'll be screaming and shouting, and celebrating with every former mid that I can find. I'll also be sending a short note into the campus paper over there in the "Bend" -- we'll see if they have the guts to print it.
And although the mutual respect which bore this rivalry has long been lost on blue-blooded neophytes like you, see if you can't stick around the final gun, take your ridiculous hat off, shut your mouth and stand up for our alma mater: "Blue & Gold", because we'll have earned it, it'ss the least you can do after that mess that tumbled out of your mouth earlier this week -- and we had the colors first.