December can be lots of things to different people. For Christians, it’s the season of Advent that culminates with Christmas. Jews have Hannukkah. Sports fans have … lots and lots of college football leading into the bowl games that really matter.
The College Football Playoff introduced just a few years back has added that extra layer of excitement to the Bowl season and Heisman trophy contest that highlights the end of every season. The quartet of teams vying to be national champions this year are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
While Alabama is ranked No. 1 and the heavy favorite to win the title, the team that stands out from this group for reasons not at all associated with sports is Notre Dame. For sportswriters out in the field covering games and feature stories (and, more importantly, the editors who dictate that coverage), let’s not forget what can be called the “Catholic angle” to any Notre Dame team.
To cut to the chase: There’s more to this team than its iconic golden helmets, deep-blue uniforms and movies like “Rudy.”
That’s not to say the Catholic rituals and traditions associated with the school’s football team have been totally overlooked over the year. Michael Leahy, author and award-winning writer for The Washington Post, wrote a column in 2013 about the Catholic connection to the Division I school in South Bend, Indiana. Here is an excerpt from that piece:
If there is a single reason for Notre Dame’s enduring mystique, it is that — putting aside the perspectives of its alumni, students, professors and administrators — the place exists in the American psyche solely as a football team. The school has a top-notch faculty and notable graduates who never played a down, but who in Ann Arbor, Los Angeles or Tuscaloosa cares about that? To them, Notre Dame is the locker room where Knute Rockne exhorted his troops before they stampeded the opposition. It is the Four Horsemen. It is Ronald Reagan as George Gipp. It is a place where greatness, reality and fable mingle, and few know where one ends and the others begin.
For most of the 20th century, the adoration of Notre Dame also reflected the relatively favored status of Catholicism in American culture. Despite unfounded fears over whether a Catholic president could escape the Vatican’s influence, films from the era demonstrate a largely benign perception of Catholicism. The most memorable priests from the period’s major movies possess the same saintly qualities ascribed to Notre Dame: rectitude, hearts of gold and the righteous power to knock out a foe.
Leahy’s commentary is spot on. It captures a snapshot of the school’s religious and cultural relevance to American society like few pieces about Notre Dame ever have previously or since its publication. It is the backdrop and larger context for nearly every story regarding the Fightin’ Irish‘s football program.