Sunday 25 June 2017

Thrilling spectacle guaranteed as Fighting Irish come to town

Notre Dame versus the Navy embodies a spirit that football fans miss in the NFL, writes John Greene

The annual match-up between Notre Dame and the Navy academy is a marked event in the American sporting calendar.

Even though it has been dominated by Notre Dame throughout its 84-year history, the game will still fill any stadium they care to play it in year in year out and television networks will still pay mega bucks for the honour of showing the game live.

CBS forked out over $1m for the exclusive rights to the most recent encounter back in October at Notre Dame's home stadium in South Bend, Indiana, even though all the omens were that it was one of the poorer Navy teams in a while and that the home side would record a facile victory, which they did, winning pulling up on a 56-14 scoreline. Navy finished the season with five wins from 12.

The Notre Dame Stadium on campus holds 81,000 and, as ever, it was full to capacity for the game. The next meeting between the two rivals will be at the Aviva Stadium in September, at the start of the new college football season. The Dublin encounter will in all likelihood prove the point: this game really will fill any stadium, anywhere. What is fascinating about college football, however, is less that the stadia are full for games -- although that is quite remarkable in itself -- but that, firstly, they are generally located on the campus; secondly, they are all 50,000-plus grounds; and, thirdly, that thousands upon thousands of former students go to these games.

And this is one of the things which sets college football apart, that identification alumni have with their alma mater in the US. It's probably not something we can readily identify with here. Most Irish students rarely look back in any meaningful way when they leave their university. This is far from the case in America where for millions of people their old college is very much central to who they are, and one of the expressions of this is in following their old sports teams and although Notre Dame is famed for its sporting prowess, its football team is number one and closest to the hearts of alumni.

College football is at the heart of American sport, evidenced by the huge crowds and big television audiences. For many football fans, disillusioned with the vast sums of money flowing through the NFL, this is the purest form of the game.

The film Rudy tells the story of a poor kid from the south Chicago suburbs who dreams of one day playing football for Notre Dame, not for the Chicago Bears. The problem is that he is too small to play football, he is dyslexic and he doesn't have the grades -- or the money -- to go to Notre Dame. Oh, and he's no good at football either.

Still, through sheer force of will and dedication, and with precious little else going for him, Rudy eventually manages to get into the college and onto its football squad. And in the final game of his final year there, he gets to play the last few seconds for what was his one and only onfield appearance for the Fighting Irish.

The film is based -- a little too loosely for some -- on the true story of Rudy Ruettiger, although depending on your point of view, it's either a heart-warming tale of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in pursuit of a dream, or just another in a long line of entries into the lexicon of corny sports films. Either way, the one thing that does come through strongly is the purity Americans associate with college football, an honesty and tribalism that many believe has long since vanished from the NFL.

Although it's just a flying one-game visit in September, this aspect will still be clear in the Notre Dame-Navy game. The curious thing about this rivalry is that it is not a rivalry as we would ordinarily think of one, as in a contest between two greats of the game which ebbs and flows one way then the other through the decades such as Dublin and Kerry in football, or Manchester United and Liverpool in soccer.

Since their first meeting in Baltimore in October 1927, the Irish have beaten the Midshipmen 71 times, including a 43-game winning run which began in 1964 with a 40-0 victory and was only ended by the hapless academy in 2007. Of course, Navy is naturally restricted in ways that Notre Dame isn't, and not just in terms of the requirements of its trainees to focus on a different kind of training, but also in the physicality of the players -- a 300lb defensive lineman is not much use in the military after all.

That's not to say that the Irish have a recruiting policy which puts football ahead of its academic reputation, because they don't. In fact, all the leading US colleges will not tolerate their leading athletes flunking class with the likes of Notre Dame, Stanford and USC boasting of graduation rates of 97 or 98 per cent among their sports men and women.

There was an old joke which said most colleges had a strict rule on sport: no student athlete could be awarded a letter unless he could tell which letter it was. But that joke has run dry. Last Thursday, for example, Notre Dame faced Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl game in Orlando and one of State's key men, running back Jermaine Thomas, was declared 'academically ineligible' for the game because he did not pass one of his classes. (Apart from the fact that this was a tough break for a senior in his last year, imagine a young student having the fact that they failed one class in college making the national news, and the impact that might have.)

This Notre Dame-Navy rivalry has grown out of a unique relationship, forged almost from the get-go at that first match in Baltimore, but which was truly cemented during the war when, as a private school, Notre Dame was in serious danger of going out of business until Navy came to the rescue. The academy sent almost 2,000 active-duty trainees to the South Bend campus in July 1943 -- by comparison there were just 700 civilian students there. "We were out of business during World War II," said legendary Notre Dame former president Rev Theodore Hesburgh years later, "and Navy came in and kept us afloat until the war was over." Hesburgh vowed that the football series between the two schools would continue as long as Navy wanted it -- and just last summer the colleges signed an agreement to extend the annual match through to the centenary.

Notre Dame of course is one of the biggest names in college football, with 11 national championships, but they are now a little like the Cavan of Gaelic football: the star has been on the wane for some time. Despite this, the brand remains stronger than ever, its following as passionate and dedicated as ever. The season, however, ended in huge disappointment last Thursday when the team threw away a 14-point lead -- quite literally, that is, threw it away -- in Orlando, losing 18-14.

The Irish had been plagued all season by a weakness at quarterback which had seen coach Brian Kelly switch two throwers between plays in an attempt to patch over the problem. Last week both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix suffered second-half meltdowns, turning over the ball and throwing interceptions, much to Kelly's obvious frustration on the line. "The turnovers were again the large reason for us not being able to win this football game," he said. "We have to solve this issue if we are going to be an elite team."

They will also have to find a replacement for the outstanding wide receiver Michael Floyd, who hobbled out of Thursday's game after a devastating first half which saw him make history with his 100th catch of the season. Floyd heads on now, probably to greater things, leaving the famous Irish to rebuild morale and personnel for next season's opener.

Typically, though, Notre Dame starts every season with high expectations born from the college's tradition in the game. That next season will begin for the Fighting Irish in Dublin, against Navy, will be all the added motivation they need. It is remarkable to see how strong the Irish links are in Notre Dame, and how proud the college is of those links.

So even though this is technically a home game for Navy, Notre Dame will bring a strong travelling support. For its part, Navy are not holding back. The traditional flyover before each Navy game will take place while thousands of Navy personnel will be shipped into Dublin for the game. It should be some spectacle.

Packages for the Navy-Notre Dame game in Dublin are currently being sold in the US through official tour partners and the response so far has been excellent, with sales approaching 10,000. Further packages tailored to the European market will be available shortly and corporate hospitality bookings have been very positive at this early stage. Tickets are expected to go on sale to the general public in March.

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