I was in the middle of writing something completely different until the opening of college football season snuck up on me and Notre Dame was on a nationally televised opener over the Labor Day weekend.
Now, imagine an extended Catholic family living under the same roof where a grandfather who had been born in the middle part of the 19th century also dwelled — a man so tightly wound that he wore a suit and tie every day of his life, though he had been retired for decades. He had attended Notre Dame, and so it was only natural that everyone in that same household would be Notre Dame fans … or else.
That was my paternal grandfather, and although all that took place before I was born, the impression was so deep and the pull so strong that I, too, became a Notre Dame football fan.
During my grandfather’s time and even fairly deep into his grandchildren’s time, being a Notre Dame football fan was also a kind of Catholic identity thing. The school itself came into existence because, at the time, young men like my grandfather were not able to gain entrance in many elite schools due to their religious faith. So Notre Dame would become an elite school on its own, and one with a distinct Catholic identity.
Growing up in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles school system when I did meant there were also plenty of nuns who were either native Irish and just like the team’s nickname, or were Irish/American like us and had grown up with the same Notre Dame “gene” implanted in them by their own nattily dressed grandfathers.
My sixth-grade teacher, Sister Joseph Patricia, was as big a Notre Dame fan as ever was, and she used her knowledge of the team and the game to seize and maintain control of a baby boomer classroom with more than 50 students in it.
The premise that Notre Dame in the 21st century has a Catholic identity is open to debate … lots of debate. But it’s football season, and my heart and mind are not in rummaging through all those issues about how a school that calls itself a Catholic institution can give its highest award to a politician who promotes abortion all the way to the actual birth of the baby.
Instead, I will suspend my disbelief in the Catholicity of Notre Dame and choose to think about the biggest Notre Dame fan I have ever known, who never lost his Catholic identity.
No one in our family drank the Notre Dame Kool-Aid more deeply than our oldest brother Roger. And no one in our family was better at maintaining his Catholic identity to the day he died. He died too soon, and he’s been gone too long, but every football season, and most other times of the year as well, I think of my big brother and what he meant to me.
All of my other siblings could write the same thing about our brother Roger. You would be hard-pressed to find a better “big brother.” Being the youngest of 10 is easy … anybody can do it. Just stand around, take a little abuse at the hands of some siblings, but for the most part you’re going to be babied and spoiled in a kind of rotation by all your brothers and sisters.
Being the eldest of 10 takes a special sort of person — that was our brother Roger. He had to be father, friend, defender, and sometimes sage to all of us at one point in our lives or another. He did not sign up for it, but he put us all on his back at various times and carried us without a hint of complaint.
Whenever there was a crisis of any kind, it was made less scary whenever our brother Roger showed up. He had a sly sense of humor and the disarming talent of taking bad news in stride and then thinking about it before acting.
If he had one weakness, it was Notre Dame football. Every year, about this time, I could expect a call from my brother Roger telling me that this was the year Notre Dame had a great recruiting class of athletes and this was the year they would be competing for another national championship. Not many of those “great” recruiting classes ever amounted to much, but it never dented our brother’s insistence that “next” year would be “this” year.
And I would gladly give up every national championship Notre Dame has ever won to have my brother back for just one more day.
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. His column Ad Rem won second place in the “Best regular column: Arts, leisure, culture, and food” category at the Catholic Press Awards in 2019. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the director of communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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