I had never seen so many fans at a midnight drum circle, so I turned it into a bonus pep-rally for all those diehards who didn’t want to let sleep interfere with “Beat SC Week.” At one point, our “Gooo Irish! Beeeat Trojans!” chant grew so loud that hundreds of students came running out of their nearby dorms to join the mob. The drumline showcased perfect timing, per usual, when they ignited their cymbals with eerie green flames just as I started into my speech about the “Green Jersey Game” of 1977. The early morning air may have felt cold to some, but I was almost certain I could tell the exact moment when chills overtook our fans once they finally submitted to the hype.
Crying became my favorite activity of the day. I couldn’t control it. I had packed way too much emotion into this one event. My tears watered a 100-yard stretch of grass while I ran down our field with the extra-large blue, gold, and green flag donated by the Notre Dame Alumni Association for this special occasion. The football players followed me through a human tunnel formed by members of our Monogram Club. As I sprinted past heroes like Mike Brown, Reggie Brooks, and Rocket Ismail I sobbed some more. Then my waterworks really let loose when both teams lined up for the opening kick. All that passion, all that hard work, all that hype, and all that belief came down to this.
Though we looked outmatched athletically at almost every position, our defense refused to back down. I stood on the sideline screaming at the top of my lungs before every defensive snap, enticing the students to test the limits of their vocal chords every third down by waving my arms wildly. The Trojan defense entrenched itself while ours bent dangerously close to the endzone. Still, we wouldn’t break. It took a miracle, but we managed to remain within striking distance when the first half ended and we only trailed 13-7. I refused to leave the field during halftime. Instead, I ran furiously around the entire stadium to tell everyone how much we needed them to give us all they had left during the second half. I hoped at least a few of the fans watching me would see how much I cared. Maybe witnessing my passion would make some of them believe.
The Trojans scored again before anyone even knew the second half had started. Down 20-7, the faces around me started to reflect that doom and gloom attitude I hated more than anything. I tried to raise their spirits by keeping my chin up. Then Jimmy tossed a perfect deep ball to Golden, who came down with it despite tight double coverage by two of the most highly touted defensive backs in the nation. I made sure they both knew they couldn’t handle Golden by getting in their faces as they sat in the endzone after the touchdown. One of them looked up at me and said, “Scoreboard.” I responded with, “Don’t call it a comeback, ‘cause we’re only down six!” An official pulled me off the field before we got too dicey, yelling, “Get out of here! You’re not part of this game!” After pondering his words for a few minutes, I decided he was wrong. We were all part of this game.
The score didn’t stay 20-14 for very long, but I still felt confident enough to tell Southern Cal’s stud tight end not to get too comfortable as they kicked an extra point to go up 27-14. The throat slashing gesture he directed towards me would’ve landed him a hefty fine in the NFL. I reminded him how slow he was by getting the hell out of his way in a flash. As fate would have it, that same tight end burned our secondary a few minutes later to make the score 34-14. He even took the time to seek me out and stare me down after crossing the goal line. It couldn’t end like this. Not after I worked so hard to make everyone believe. Not with my foot in my mouth. I asked Our Lady to bail me out just this one time. Then I prayed ten straight Hail Marys to atone for my trash talking sins.
Jimmy answered my prayers by willing us back into the game. He scrambled on his one good foot to make big play after big play as he literally wrenched the momentum away from his fellow Californians. A quick score preceded a strong defensive stand, and we found ourselves back within striking distance. Another perfect touchdown pass from Jimmy to Golden ended with that same safety falling onto his back once again. This time I restrained myself from entering the field of play in order to avoid the officials who had their eyes on me. I couldn’t have lived with myself after costing us the game with a penalty. It would have been the ultimate disgrace, worse than death for a Leprechaun. I bit my lip and clapped politely like everyone else.
Our defense gave us the ball back down 34-27 with two minutes to go. I looked around while Jimmy broke the huddle to start the final drive, taking it all in. Without warning I resumed my uncontrollable crying. I didn’t even know why or how it started, but I knew the powerful beauty of that moment would stay with me forever. The spirit of Notre Dame swallowed the whole scene, and it was a sight to behold.
Everyone believed, but no one could breathe as we drove the ball down to their four yard line with just nine seconds left. It didn’t matter who anyone was rooting for, we all contributed to one giant collective hyperventilation. The ball hung in midair for a century before it glanced off Kyle Rudolph’s fingertips in the endzone on what looked like the last play of the game. Just an inch closer or a split second sooner and we would’ve had ourselves an overtime shootout for the ages. Video review put four seconds back on the clock, but another incomplete pass left us with double zeros. Then, like a reverse version of that nightmarish game back in 2005, the officials extended the game by one more second. It looked like destiny at first, but we fell one play short when the ball sailed wide on Jimmy’s last heave into the endzone. Smug smiles spread across the Southern Cal sideline.
My tears kept falling when I finally realized we just lost the one game I had put my entire heart into, but the anger and sadness I expected never came. Rather than hatred, love filled my field of vision. Everything seemed so immaculately bright as I looked up at my fellow students swaying arm in arm to our Alma Mater. I sent one final “Beat SC Week” letter that night:
Dear Notre Dame Family,
The recent realization that I will only serve as your Leprechaun for three more home games has me in a panic. Before I take my final steps on our hallowed field, I want to share the most important lesson I have taken away from my experience here at Notre Dame.
Rocket told us “some legendary stuff” would take place when our Fighting Irish took on Southern Cal. He was right. I came out of our tunnel ready to be all that I could be for Notre Dame, our student section came out in full force like a loyal green army, and our team came ready to play like true champions.
I shed quite a few tears while we fought back within yards of tying the game. They were not tears of sadness, but of joy as I stood in awe of that moment. When the game ended my tears continued, not out of disappointment, but due to pride. I had never felt more proud to be a student at Notre Dame than I was when I stood facing the student section with tears streaking down my face while we all sang our Alma Mater together. I felt the spirit of Notre Dame at that moment, and I hope you all get to feel that way about something at some point in your lives.
Soak it all in, enjoy it, and let yourselves get swept away by the spirit. We forget so often what it feels like to truly live in the moment. Notre Dame has taught me that doing so with love and gratitude in my heart will fuel me with an energy I never knew I could possess. When it is all finally over, I hope I will have shared that lesson with as many members of my Notre Dame Family as possible.
Love thee Notre Dame,
Your Fighting Irish Leprechaun