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Sunday, Sept. 08, 2002 - 6:27 p.m.

Back to school

Eating Annie's white cheddar pasta to cure the hangover hunger and it's just like being back in college. And it's appropriate, of course, because this was a weekend to go back to school.

It's one thing to return to Notre Dame in December, as I did for Jess's 21st and 22nd birthdays, or in May, like I did for a wedding four months ago. It's another to go in July, when the campus is empty and quiet, and Casey didn't see the real Notre Dame. That is only on display in the fall, on and around home football weekends. I returned for a game this weekend for the first time since 1999, the home opener that year, a full three years ago. It's one thing to see the Irish play on the road and to see how the alumni come out when the team comes to them. It's another to go back to campus, to see how many fellow Domers return and mix with the students, from experienced seniors to wide-eyed freshmen. There's a reason Notre Dame does not designate one home game each year as Homecoming -- every game is a homecoming. On the flight home today, I pondered the wonderful event a college football game is. Each one I've attended has been a mini-reunion with friends. We meet in a parking lot at Rutgers, the Meadowlands, South Bend to talk, catch up, eat and drink. We swelter in the sun or shiver in the snow flurries. A berth in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago meant a New Year's vacation in Arizona and a small family reunion to boot.

College football games are more than events, they become productions. The game is just one reason for going, and in the end becomes a small one at that. It's the people who matter most. When your school wins, the joy is multiplied; when it loses, the sadness does not last long. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of postgame conversation for the frustration and anger to turn to laughs and even jokes about the team's futility.

There is no way professional sports can match those played by college students. Sure, there are some who prefer the "professionals," those who do what they do at the highest level. I'd be interested to see a survey of fans of professional sports teams (mainly football and basketball) who say they prefer the pros to college. I'd want to know how many of them went to college, or at least finished it. My hypothesis is that the majority did not.

Where else but in college football does the first game of the season against even the weakest of opponents elicit the same enthusiasm from the crowd as the most important postseason game?

I don't know if this weekend could have played out any better. I landed at O'Hare Field (as the pilot refered to it) before noon Friday, 20 minutes before the scheduled arrival time. Emerging from the jetway, I saw Heather immediately. We picked up the rental car and were on the road to Indiana within half an hour. It took even less time to remember why we became friends, why we crack each other up, why the best friendships stay strong despite 3,000 miles and two years between our last meeting.

Driving through industrial South Chicago on our way toward Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Heather laughed at the voices in her head.

"I think I've been away too long," she said. "Because I just thought to myself, 'It's so pretty here.'" She amends her statement to "It's such a pretty day," but I don't let her forget it the rest of the weekend.

At a rest stop for Dairy Queen Blizzards on I-80/90, we agreed that the sequel to my baseball-themed porn movie High Hard One could be called Foul Balls. Others that could follow in the series are Popped Up Fly, Up The Gap, Trip to the Mound and Mound Conference.

Before long, we had parked our rental car with Minnesota plates, donchaknow, in the shadow of Notre Dame Stadium and began our walking tour of campus. Remembering to bring (and wearing) my Lakewood BlueClaws "Got Crabs?" t-shirt, I posed in front of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome for photos to give to the team for the website and next season's game program, adding to my Wrigley Field and Field of Dreams contributions.

As we sat beside the peace fountain also known as Stonehenge, the deep chants of the men from Zahm Hall grew louder until they appeared, jogging over from the direction of God Quad and the Administration Building. Most were dressed in the hall's primary color of red, some were shirtless, many had on plaid skirts apparently meant to resemble kilts. They looked more like tablecloths or curtains wrapped around their waists, often held up with a duct tape belt. About half a dozen were shirtless, their bodies painted black from hairline to sockline. Some carried torches.

"Must be the freshmen," Heather offered.

"No, there's too few of them," I countered. "I think they're in a position of authority."

The mob stopped at Stonehenge to regroup and the men of Keenan Hall marched by chanting, "WE ARE! KEENAN HALL!" and carrying what looked like a University of Kentucky flag. The Zahmbies followed, as did a group from a women's dorm, and then Heather and myself. We walked past the Stadium and the nearby Joyce Center, where the students were headed for the 6:30 pep rally. A line of fans stretched along the sidewalk from Gate 10 and Heather and I got in the car to visit CJ's for the famous pub burgers.

After dinner we went to Kregg and Julie's to "check in" as Kregg said, joking about his house as a hotel. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

We got there as 10-month-old Jack was finishing his dinner, and I noticed he is more animated since I last saw him, in July. He smiles more, notices more. I also took note of a slimmer, yet still gigantic, Bergoff the golden retriever.

When Kregg asked, "So where we going?" the three of us went out to BW3 for tall beers and trivia.

Gameday began early. Kregg was gone by 7 a.m. to get to the Stadium for his NBC duties (he's a freelancer) and Heather and I left the house at 8:20. Half an hour later, we parked in the lot south of the Joyce Center and began the search for two tailgaters hosted by friends of mine. I first checked the field beyond the baseball stadium, but saw no sign of the Julie I graduated with (as opposed to the Julie of Kregg and Julie) and her parents. Having already called Mike and Barb and found out their location just across the street from the baseball stadium and our own parking lot, we went there next and enjoyed burgers and hot dogs and beer at 9:30 a.m. in the already 80-degree sunshine. Around 10:30, Heather and I decided to take another swing behind the baseball stadium to look for Julie, and as we neared the end of the last row of cars, she walked over and cut off our path. After just a short visit and not wanting to miss the pregame pomp and circumstance, we left to head inside the Stadium.

And I've now decided to serialize the account of the weekend. Check back for more.

Previous page: You want to praise me
Next page: College gameday

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