Every sports fan has a small, exclusive aisle of “those games” in the mental library; comprised of the short-listed contests we hold near and dear to our heart regardless of outcome.
Some bring memories of joy and happiness, while others we dare not speak of (unless beer and pub-talk have given us no other choice) invoke feelings of anger and frustration that force sounds out of our mouths only Lou Holtz could effortlessly imitate.
By now you should know when I refer to “those games” I’m speaking of the ‘I remember the exact time, date, and location of where I watched” games. From there we can expound even further by detailing sounds of other spectators, the smell of the bar, and even where the grass stains on a player’s pants were located. And, if you’re an arrogant, annoying, and biased Chicago fan like me– you spare no expense in telling your friends no less than twelve times about how much you loved, hated, and in some cases both hated AND loved anything related to your teams, and “those games”.
Here, I’m going to talk about one of my games, if not THE game for me; and what it would mean for my life as a sports fan forever.
The date was October 15, 2005. I was 14 and working as a busser at Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery in a southern suburb of Chicago called, wait for it… the Village of Flossmoor.
It was a busy night, especially in the bar, so lucky for me I got to spend most of my time bussing pub tables and refreshing water glasses with TV’s all around me. It was a packed house because all of Cook County it seemed was out to watch the annual Notre Dame-USC rivalry game.
The match-up was pegged by ESPN as the “Game of the Century”. USC would come into the game as defending national champions riding a 27 game win streak. Notre Dame, conversely, despite a national ranking of 9th having won four straight road games, was on a three game home losing streak and had lost three straight contests to USC by at least 31 points. The pre-game pep rally in Notre Dame Stadium featured speeches by Joe Montana, Tim Brown, and Master of Ceremonies—Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger.
Needless to say, one of the clearest things I remember of that night is the noise. Everyone was waiting in angst to see The Irish take back the Jeweled Shillelagh.
Touchdown Jesus was watching.
The other is that everyone was so busy they didn’t notice the spectating schedule I had set for myself which was; for every ten minutes I worked– I watched for one, uninterrupted. It seemed as though all the employees were doing the same thing on a slightly different schedule, as for the customers their fixated eyes were taking care of their generally impatient nature.
However, despite my efforts to miss nothing, at times I would have to turn my back only to hear a loud unified “OHHH”, “AWE”, “WHAT?!” or some variation of exclamation (I was at work after all). And, just to give this oral history an accurate justice, go ahead and add a four letter word of your choice before and/or after any of those examples.
And so as I remember it:
A back and forth first quarter gave Irish fans hope this would actually be a rivalry game rather than a rout, the Trojans led 14-7.
In the second Brady Quinn capped off a 72 yard drive with a touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija to tie the game at 14. The place blew up.
Forcing USC to punt on their next possession, Irish safety Tom Zbikowsi took that punt 59 yards to the house to put Notre Dame ahead 21-14. “Bartender, get us another round! The Irish are here to stay and so are we.”
Matt Leinart seemed to have had enough and was trying his damnedest to reverse momentum, leading USC 69 yards down the field on the following possession. That drive was capped off by a pick in the end-zone. Drive over. Game over? An overly optimistic Irish fan would certainly say so, and plenty were. As for me, I had been wiping the same table for about 6 minutes. Score, 21-14 Irish at half.
The Irish still had the momentum to start the second half, intercepting Leinart for a second time. The place was electric. Employees and patrons alike were all smiles and cheers. Highfives and Rudy references for everybody! However, the Trojan-D stepped up and forced a punt. This is when Bush finally decided to show up, with a 20-yard return and a subsequent 45-yard touchdown run. But, neither team would score for the rest of the quarter. Here comes the fourth, tie game.
The fourth quarter came just as advertised with all the hoopla and hype that came before the game. There were fumbles, missed field goals, another Reggie touchdown run, and after a clutch 5-yard touchdown run by Brady Quinn the Irish were leading 31-28 with just over two minutes remaining. All we had to do now was hold on and stop the herculean tandem of Leinart and Bush, simple task right? I’m sure the boys in green and gold could feel the pressure of one million tensed up white knuckles. Everyone could tell they wanted this one BAD.
Montana, was watching.
Tim Brown, was watching.
For the love of all things Irish, RUDY WAS WATCHING! Seated under Touchdown Jesus, who was also, you know…
You wanted to be silent but it was too late. What starts loud in Chicago, ends loud in Chicago. It is our nature. We are never quiet, and rarely humble.
What came next was one of those rare moments in sports that defines you, never leaves you, and forces one (despite their nature) to be silenced.
Matt Leinart fumbled the ball out of bounds with seven seconds remaining. The clock continued to run down to zero and the students rushed the field. The referees righted the wrong hurried the students back to their seats and gave Leinart the ball with the correct seven seconds remaining. We thought we had it, and it was at this moment I got that tickle, standing in front of a TV in the bar with seven seconds left on the clock with nothing in my hands and no intention of moving, I knew something was about to happen.
Everyone knows what happened next, so I’ll go ahead and spare you the regurgitation (myself the pain) and just type the call as it was heard when all of ND Nation fell silent.
“USC will get one more play. Leinart gonna try to sneak it ahead. Did he get it?…..TOUCHDOWN SC!”
Actually, I don’t mind anymore. Here it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62P8_Ik7NlE
I walked away from my 10:1 schedule spot immediately after the push, with no words. I turned around to a collective mosaic of faces in palms and calm before chaos. The rare silence was awkward and infuriating. This was supposed to be a night of celebration. And so brief as it was, there was silence before the bashing.
Despite the outcome, this was the moment I became a true Notre Dame fan. Sure, I had always been a “fan”. But my investment was never really my own, so to speak. I was a fan by geographical osmosis.
I had three logical choices. There was Northwestern, University of Illinois, or Notre Dame. I grew up with family and friends loving the Irish, reliving the glory days of the “horsemen” and growing up during Lou Holtz’s successful reign. But, I was young and knew nothing more. I lived through years of mediocrity in the late nineties and 2000’s rooting and cheering with little excitement or expectation. So when I was coming into my own as a man and growing in literally every way humanly possible it was only fitting that I witnessed this game as a newly minted high school freshman.
At the time I didn’t quite know what was happening to me but still somehow appreciated the mysterious enormity of the moment. High school if nothing else is a very curious and adventurous time of self-discovery. And at that moment, disappointed as I was, I fell in love with the way the Irish battled and thrust themselves back into the national spotlight right before my eyes.
In Charlie Weis’ first season Notre Dame would remain at #9 despite the loss to USC, and win the rest of their games. They earned a spot in the Fiesta Bowl where they would eventually lose to a damn good Ohio State team, a disappointing end to a promising year.
But, what if Notre Dame won that game? What if, they stopped the Bush Push, it was ruled illegal, or if they just made a 34 yard missed field goal that would have put it out of reach? Now, considering USC entered the season heavy favorites to repeat as national champions, the hype surrounding that game, and assuming they still swept their remaining schedule; is it reasonable to assume Notre Dame would have been chosen to play Texas for the National Championship?
And, if that happened (even though Weis experienced all of his success with Tyrone Willingham’s recruits) would Charlie have been given the benefit of the doubt when it came to firing time? If they went to the Rose Bowl that year, win or lose, would he have been able to get some 5-star recruits that otherwise passed on him, allowing him build a program of his own?
Okay, probably not.
After all, having been given all the opportunity in the world Big Chuck has time and again proven himself to be a pretty average head coach at best. But, I think the big boys at Notre Dame may have given a little more thought before throwing him $19 million to just go away and die.
In sports don’t we all love a good “what-if”?
And of course all of those wins, Reggie’s Heisman, the National Championship from the previous year; everything would be vacated.
That push kept my team from an opportunity to play for the crystal ball. That push from the kid that (according to NCAA rules) shouldn’t have been playing, cost my team a win against the team we have circled on the schedule every year. And, for years crushed us.
That push silenced Chicagoland.
But, that push made me a fan.
Am I bitter? Hell no. Poetic justice was served and now we have a nice little win streak of our own going against the University of Spoiled Children as my Dad likes to call them.
History is cyclical and therefore success comes in waves. Brian Kelly has a nice thing going and I expect Notre Dame to make me proud for years to come. Sanctions brought the Trojans back down to Earth to mingle with the mortals and the Jeweled Shillelagh back to us. But, I can’t help but feel that success is just as tainted as Pete Carroll’s Trojans. I want to see Notre Dame beat USC at full strength with no strings attached. I want a real rivalry between powerhouse teams that beat the hell out of each other.
I want battered, bruised and broken with pride win or lose. We are arguably the two most successful and storied college football programs in the land. And the Bush Push game was the only time I really got to see it as it should be. It was the day I was convinced I would be a fan for the long haul.
Despite all the failures and controversy that will be forever linked to the BCS era, I am still thankful it brought me that game.