First of a two-part summary of the first full weekend of football.

Two years ago, I put together a list of things I wanted to do in my life. I included running a marathon (check), work from home (yep), kayak in the Pacific (some day), see live penguins, and a long list of places I wanted to see sporting events. Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Neyland Stadium, and Michigan Stadium were all on there. After Saturday, I can mark one more thing off as accomplished: See a football game at Notre Dame stadium.

I went to Saturday’s Notre Dame – Washington State game with S’s high school friend J. who played hockey at Notre Dame and has season tickets. We had been talking since last fall about going to a game together, so it took me about five seconds to reschedule my yard duties to Sunday and say “Yes” when he invited me to the season opener.

South Bend isn’t exactly close to Indy, so we departed around 7:15 so we could get a decent tailgating spot. We pulled into the lot where J’s hockey buddies were at 10:30, cracked open our first beer, and began enjoying the perfect day. The beauty of the private school is absolutely no prohibitions on tailgating. Included in our area were old people with huge, refurbished buses, recent alums our age in SUVs and minivans, and a huge group of students, all sporting green shirts. We threw the football around, ate brats, stared at college girls, and went through a couple cases of beer. We also marveled at the group of students, who were drinking like their lives depended on it. I remember several very stupid drinking efforts in college (most notably Thanksgiving Eve, 1989) but I never went at it like these kids did.

Concerned that we were making fun of her drunken friends, a junior from Seattle named Lindsey came over to make sure we didn’t think all her friends were idiots. This girl was awesome! She had the guts (alcohol enhanced, of course) to walk up to a group of ten plus thirty-somethings and strike up a conversation. She told us all about her group’s traditions, slammed those of us who didn’t go to Notre Dame, and beat our friend Craig (you may remember him as presiding at our wedding) in a shotgun contest. We also learned all about her sex life (She’s a virgin, and will be until she’s married, but is “very sexual” and keeps her boyfriend very happy; draw your own conclusions.), which proved that nothing good can happen when drunken, mostly married old men start talking to college girls.

Finally, it was almost game time and we made our way to the stadium. J. and I were sitting in the northwest corner above the student section (Touchdown Jesus was directly behind us). What a view! A perfect bowl stadium without an empty seat anywhere. The classic Notre Dame field: natural grass, free of logos with only the simplest chalk work. No video boards. Minimalist scoreboards. Seats close in to the field all the way around. Only two visible advertisements (one for NBC, of course). 80 degrees, nary a cloud in the sky. Someone described this as Football Weather once upon a time. It was absolutely brilliant.

(You know what’s really stupid? I just realized, while putting this together, I didn’t actually see the Golden Dome. I bet there are some who would argue I haven’t really been to South Bend since I didn’t bother to look around for it. In my defense, I was stumbling a little bit when we got in, so I was concentrating on where I put my feet, not checking out the sites. I never thought about it after that.)

The student section was fantastic. As I said earlier, they were almost all dressed in green shirts. For every tune the band played, they either had a different dance or hand motion to go along with it. Imagine Cameron Indoor or Allen Fieldhouse student seating areas expanded to include about 10,000 or so people all completely into every play. I don’t think the student even sat down during timeouts, and while it wasn’t super hot, the sun was pretty warm (as my burned face, forehead, and neck will confirm).

If you took all the college fight songs and tried to rank them, “I’m a Jayhawk” would far and away be the finest in the country. If you had to pick a second choice, Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors” would be my choice. And I suppose USC would earn the bronze medal. All that said, I have to admit each time I heard the Notre Dame fight song in Notre Dame stadium, it sent chills down my spine.

So how did I handle sitting among Notre Dame students and with a former Notre Dame hockey player? I pretty much sat in awe of the setting and kept my mouth shut. That was easy to do when Washington State stormed out to a 19-6 lead. It really should have been 28-6 or even 35-3, but the Cougars were unlucky and settled for field goals too often. They were storming up-and-down the field on offense and completely shutting the Irish down on defense. Halftime came with en eerie silence. I did want Notre Dame to come back; I felt like I was being cheated of the full experience by sitting among 80,000 quiet fans.

The proverbial Luck of the Irish reared its tiny, green head and scruffy, orange beard in the second half. The Notre Dame offense started to move the ball. Washington State’s receivers were suddenly blanketed. The Cougar defense began to lose its cool, getting at least four personal foul penalties in the second half. It was 19-12 and the crowd was buzzing. 19-19 and the stadium was rocking. A phenomenal Julius Jones touchdown run, in which he pinballed through almost the entire WSU defense, sent the place into hysterics. 26-19 on a day when the Irish looked like a bad high school team for the first 30 minutes. Wazzoo found a little luck of their own with an indescribably great touchdown catch to tie the game with just under 2:00 left. Now it would come down to an extra point, and WSU had missed a PAT earlier. The kick was perfect, Notre Dame did nothing in their possession, and we were headed to overtime. J. asked me, “So what’s the headline in the paper tomorrow?” I thought about it for a second, then said, “Irish come back, win in 2OT.” He just smiled.

I was off by two possessions. WSU went three and out on their possession, Notre Dame got one first down, and then chose to attempt a 40-yard field goal on third down for the win. I’ve only been to college football games in Lawrence and Columbia, and I never felt the confidence for a crucial play I felt in South Bend for this field goal. We tend to wish a lot at the bottom of the Big 12. The Irish fans knew the kick would be good. Good snap, good hold, kick waffles then sails inside the right upright. Game over. Ecstasy for Irish fans. Students hugged each other. The team piled on top of the kicker and then they raced to our end and saluted the student section for sticking with them. “That’s college football!” is how John Madden would have summed it up. I must admit, I was glad Notre Dame won and excited to be a part of it. Rest assured, though, I hope Michigan kills them next week.

It was an experience akin to going to my first game at Allen Fieldhouse. The venue makes the game different than your average game. I love the understated way the tradition of the program is presented. It’s not like Nebraska where they hit you over the head with it (“NCAA Record 8,000,000 Academic All-Americans!!!! No Major Arrests in Two Years!!!!”). If you buy a program, you get a lot of “Only at Notre Dame” vibe, and outside the stadium the history is tangible. But inside is a holy place that the school has rightly decided to keep pure rather than ruin it by garishly displaying all their successes. That allows the ghosts of the past greats to roam freely and for each fan to get their own, personalized perspective. On top of that, the people were great. I was wearing a KU shirt and several people stopped me and asked if I had gone to the Final Four. I talked with Marquette alum for several minutes about last season. People knew their football, too. Even with all the Subway Alumni (and today, Learjet Alumni), the midwestern humility and gentleness is still very apparent.

From a football perspective, I think Notre Dame is still doing it with smoke and mirrors. Their defense isn’t as good as last year, so I don’t think they can keep the Michigans and USCs under control. Carlyle Holiday is erratic, at best, at quarterback. Yet they find a way to get it done. I guess Ty can coach a little.

All in all, it was a great day and a great experience. Having no real rooting interest allowed me to sit back and take everything in. If I had come four years ago when KU played Notre Dame, I would have missed a lot of the elements I saw yesterday (that game was tied at halftime!). While I’ll enjoy marking another entry off my to-do list, I’ll also look forward to going to another game in Irish Heaven.