Try telling a University of Notre Dame football fan that it’s only a game, and you just might be invited to put up your dukes like that leprechaun guy in the team logo.
Example A of Fighting Irish fervor is the third-grade classroom at Seton Catholic School in Brighton. There, Mercy Sister Carolyn Rosica has erected all sorts of Notre Dame posters and other memorabilia, including a leprechaun music box that plays the school fight song. She also makes a regular practice of guiding her students through Notre Dame chants and songs.
Example B is Keith Bunker, who carried his childhood love of Notre Dame into his romance with the former Karen DiDomenico, a 1980 graduate of the college.
“I always used to joke that I was dating her because she could get Notre Dame tickets,” Keith remarked.
Apparently Karen took the humor in good stride: She and Keith have now been married 22 years. They were both decked out in Notre Dame garb Sept. 2 at The Distillery in Greece for a telecast of the season opener at Georgia Tech, won 14-10 by the Irish.
Example C is Father Larry Murphy, another person with a lifetime love for the Irish.
“I go back to being a little kid, always following Notre Dame and crying when they lost. That was a tough scene,” said Father Murphy, a retired diocesan priest.
He hasn’t required a tissue box very much this season. Through late October, Notre Dame had posted a 3-1 record and — despite a 47-21 home loss to Michigan Sept. 17 — added another chapter to its legacy a week later with an amazing 40-37 victory at Michigan State, erasing a 16-point deficit in the final nine minutes.
With all this local mania, one might think that South Bend, Ind., is right in the Diocese of Rochester’s back yard. In fact, it’s actually some 500 miles to the west. What gives?
For starters, Father Murphy and Sister Rosica admire Notre Dame’s high academic standards.
“It’s not just a football factory,” Father Murphy said.
In addition, the Catholic connection is a main ingredient here and in much of the rest of the United States.
“For Catholics, it’s America’s team,” explained Karen Bunker, whose family attends St. Lawrence Parish in Greece. The Bunkers’ daughter, Kim, is now a sophomore at Notre Dame.
Ties to Notre Dame are especially strong at Rochester’s Aquinas Institute. The high school’s nickname is “Little Irish,” and Aquinas is well-known as the “Little Notre Dame of the East” — a tribute to AQ’s national powerhouse football squads of the 1940s and 1950s that drew tens of thousands of spectators to games.
Bob Ebert’s passion for both Aquinas and Notre Dame recently put him in a dilemma. Ebert is president of AQ’s sports-booster club, but on Sept. 2 the Little Irish’s season opener was scheduled opposite the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech telecast.
So Ebert wore a radio headset for the college game — slipping into his car at halftime to hear more clearly — while watching Aquinas win 35-6 over Eastridge. As soon as that contest was over, he popped over to nearby Bathtub Billy’s Sports Bar to watch the final minutes of Notre Dame’s win.
Wouldn’t it have been simpler to set up the ol’ VCR?
“But I also did tape it,” said Ebert, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Cathedral.
One hundred miles to the south of Rochester, Elmira Notre Dame High School has a natural link to the university based on its school name.
“Certainly the majority of people at our school, as well as alumni, are avid (University of) Notre Dame fans and supporters. There’s tons of bus trips every season to go out and watch the games,” said Mike D’Aloisio, head football coach.
How about this connection: Rob Bush, the father of current Notre Dame High player Brian Bush, is a University of Notre Dame graduate. You may have heard of Bush’s college roommate, a fellow named Charlie Weis.
Weis, the second-year Irish head coach, has fans revved up after posting a 9-3 record last season. In 2006, behind star quarterback Brady Quinn, Notre Dame is again among the nation’s elite.
Father Murphy was in South Bend Sept. 9 to view the team’s 41-17 rout of Penn State. He said he attends about one game per year, and actually crossed paths with the Bunkers after a contest last season when he celebrated an on-campus Mass that they attended.
The Bunkers plan to journey to the Notre Dame-UCLA game Oct. 21. Meanwhile, Sister Rosica is itching to see her team on display when she visits Notre Dame Stadium for the contest against Stanford Oct. 7.
“It’s really a pilgrimage when you go there,” Sister Rosica said. “Walking up the steps of that stadium, there is just such a reverence and respect. I had tears in my eyes walking up the stairs.”
Sister Rosica credits Mercy Sister Sheila Geraghty for turning her on to the Notre Dame craze many years ago. One day, she recalled, Sister Geraghty inquired if she was watching “the game,” and Sister Rosica wondered which game she was referring to.
“She said, ‘Notre Dame — it’s the only college football game there is!'” Sister Rosica said.
The two Mercy sisters fall into a category commonly known as “subway alumni” — people who never attended or graduated from Notre Dame but love the school just the same. They’ll travel to the Stanford game with Sid Wilkin and his wife Angela, parishioners of Brighton’s Our Lady of Lourdes, where Sister Geraghty serves as social-ministry coordinator.
Wilkin, a 1956 Notre Dame graduate, is former president of the Notre Dame Club of Rochester that gathers at local pubs to watch games. The Bunkers are regulars in that group, which often draws in excess of 30 people. Wilkin noted that when Timothy Patrick’s in Penfield was a regular stop, “We used to take the place over.”
Wilkin admitted that he doesn’t get to many of the alumni-club outings these days.
“For older guys, it’s easier to watch it in your easy chair with a beer,” he remarked.
It should be duly noted that not everybody tunes in to Notre Dame to watch them win. D’Aloisio, Ebert and Karen Bunker acknowledged that the Fighting Irish are a team you either love or hate.
“There’s no gray area,” D’Aloisio said, observing that the very things he admires about Notre Dame — particularly its winning tradition — engender resentment from others.
“Everybody’s shooting for No. 1, gunning for No. 1. I think people see Notre Dame University as an aloof institution,” he added. “But any institution of higher education that is proud of what they accomplished is going to have a little swagger.”