The 20th Century Limited pulled out of elegant Grand Central Station in New York as my brother Dave and I headed overnight to South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play Southern Cal in 1983.
Factoid: The ride left me with new found knowledge that most rural cemeteries are placed hard by railroad tracks, I guess the thought being the land is cheap and the sound of the train’s wheels and whistles will hardly wake the dearly departed.
In upstate New York, a conductor came through our car’s door, closing it and shouting, seemingly in iambic pentameter attuned to the rhythmic sound of the train’s wheels, “Schenectady, Schenectady, next stop, Schenectady!” No sooner had he exited the car than another conductor entered where the first one had appeared but a moment before, echoing the same mantra, word for word.
My brother turned to me and said, “Boy, these guys have one hell of a union!”
The Trojans, on probation for recruiting violations, had beaten the Irish five straight times and Irish coach Gerry Faust decided wearing green jerseys might snap the losing streak.
It did, with Notre Dame prevailing, 27-6, in such a lopsided win that my brother turned to me in the fourth quarter, saying, “One must surmise that if these Southern Cal players are the best they could get by cheating, they clearly don’t cheat very well, either.”
The game paled in comparison to the pep rally the night before, a tradition unparalleled at any school in the country. The convocation center was filled to the brim with cheering students, alumni and fans. I had wanted to go to a Notre Dame rally since I was a ten-year old kid listening to Notre Dame games and pretending I was the Fighting Irish quarterback in the sandlot game following.
The brothers Shea, students at the time, could have had no idea the song they wrote in 1908 beginning with “Cheer, Cheer, for Old Notre Dame” would set the standard for college fight songs forever. The band must’ve played the Notre Dame fight song ten times that night, with what sounded like a hundred trumpets, before the arrival of the team into the building “shook down the thunder from the skies.”
Players entreated the crowd to cheer as loudly the next day and the team would surely win.
It’s held that a young assistant coach at Navy implored his head coach to allow him to attend the pep rally on the night before the Midshipmen were to play the Irish because he had heard so much about it as a kid, as did I, growing up in the Northeast. He promised he’d stop by just for a moment to see what this rally fuss was all about.
He returned two hours later to his team’s hotel to find the Navy coaching staff going over final preparations for the game the next day.
The coach asked him how he enjoyed the pep rally.
Without hesitation, he answered, “I hope they beat you bastards!”