Jim Jenkins

A North Carolina Baptist hears the echoes at Notre Dame

Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.
Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Getty Images

Dating to the glory days of Coach Knute Rockne, cynics whispered that human sacrifice, outlawed by The Church, was still in fashion on football Saturdays at Notre Dame when visiting teams rolled into the Indiana countryside to play the Fighting Irish.

On this Saturday my mates on this football weekend were philosophical about the chances that their alma mater would ever return to those golden days of yesteryear, save in the bright, freshly painted helmets their men wear for the games. Notre Dame does not bend much on academic standards, they said, and thus they accept that the rise of perennial winners who do might deny them another dynasty.

And indeed, fulfilling a “bucket list” wish to see the Irish on their home turf — they clobbered Nevada, by the way — my visit to Notre Dame was a revelation (apologies to those who use the word only in a religious context) in the way in which a legendary football behemoth carries on the legend without the ridiculous grandeur that is common today in college football programs.

I’d imagined, prior to the trip with an old buddy who is a “Domer,” which is what alums call themselves, that Notre Dame Stadium would be a palace, gilded and teeming with luxury in all corners, perhaps with 120,000 seats, more flashing, giant video screens than the Vegas strip, and populated by alums adorned in the latest from Milan and more gold jewelry than Zsa Zsa Gabor on any of her wedding days.

I asked my pal if the fraternity boys deck out, as they do at my alma mater in Chapel Hill, and if the alums do likewise. “First,” he said, “there are no fraternities at Notre Dame, just dormitories. And the alums wouldn’t have anything to do with that kind of stuff.”

Indeed, he was right. The alums and students did have all manner of clothes featuring the Notre Dame logo, in a larger percentage than any place I’ve ever been. Pride, it seems, goeth before a Fall (the season, not the stumble).

And the stadium. A throwback to the 1950s it is. There are no flashing video screens. The seats are narrow wooden bleachers with faded numbers. The arena is a plain bowl shape lacking multiple decks and Hollywood sound systems (the P.A. didn’t even work at the beginning). Doubtless some visiting teams’ fans are aghast at the old-fashioned concession stands and bathrooms.

Ah, but the Domers have an answer to silence all critics: The stadium was opened in 1930, and was in large part designed by Knute Rockne. Go sit on the bleachers, ye critics, and be quiet now. Yes, statues stand and campus sites recognize by name the chemist who became the greatest coach of all time before his death in a plane crash in 1931.

More notions were exploded on a campus tour. I’d expected grandiose Gothic styling similar to a certain campus eight miles from my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. But the buildings were a light brown brick, functional but hardly pretentious, and the fellows in our group noted the dormitories were cinder block inside and designed for little more than basic comfort. There are lakes and a golf course, and some spectacular art and sculpture, but as a whole, the campus seemed simple, well-planned, with an understated elegance. Notre Dame is diverse, and seems to have Midwestern values at its core.

The romance of “The Irish” (as known to alums) has reached far and wide, however, sometimes even to Baptists in North Carolina. I thought about enrolling myself those years ago, intrigued by the mystique of this school behind that greatest of fight songs (“wake up the echoes cheering her name...”). But my late grandfather was a conservative Baptist minister, at one time president of a Baptist college, who was already displeased that I’d declined to attend a good Baptist school.

My final stop at Notre Dame was the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, modeled after the French shrine where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in 1858. University literature notes that its founder wanted that shrine reproduced and it was in 1896. A statue of Mary stands at the Grotto, and students, alums and others come there to light candles and pray. On the way out of town, I did likewise, even making the sign of the cross.

Hope that was OK, Pappy.

Jenkins: 919-829-4513 or jjenkins@newsobserver.com