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On a Saturday morning in early July 2004, which happened to be the feast day of the apostle Thomas Didymus, Father James Riehle celebrated Mass at the alter adjacent to the Grotto. Fifty-two men sat in molded-plastic folding chairs listening to Riehle. By and large middle-aged, though a few had pushed sixty, and another had just become legal, they had traveled from California and Kansas and Texas and Louisiana and Florida and North Carolina and New Jersey—from twenty-five states and Australia and England—to be among Riehle's congregation. They had also paid $4,290 apiece.
Among them were one orthopedic surgeon, two accountants, three cops, a dentist, a chef, a nurse, a high-school principal, a mortgage broker, a produce distributor, a real-estate developer, a retired Army sergeant, a retired company controller, a retired college president, mid-level executives, financial consultants, attorneys, insurance salesmen, two civil engineers, an aeronautical engineer, a drummer in a London indie-pop band and a Baptist minister out of Decatur, Michigan. All were participants in the second annual Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp. All of them save three were fans of the Fighting Irish, only four were alumni of the university, and on this day of the Doubting Thomas, they were here to pretend to be Notre Dame football players for the space of four days, climaxing in a game of flag-football inside Notre Dame Stadium, which would take place this very afternoon.
Fulfilling dreams, of course, was the purpose of the whole operation: "This is your chance to live your lifelong fantasy of actually playing football at the University of Notre Dame!" reads the tagline on the camp's brochure.
Patrick Steenberge is the organizer and promoter of the camp. With a swath of silver hair and a baritone drawl and a self-deprecating sense of humor, he oversaw the fantasies of his clients all weekend. Among the campers, he had acquired a status akin to that of the most popular kid in high school. Everyone wanted to be his friend. This was perhaps not surprising, since Steenberge in the late 1960s in Erie, Pennsylvania, had been his high school's star quarterback. Another western PA QB with greatness projected for him, recruited by Ara Parseghian (and Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno), Steenberge, however, Notre Dame Class of 1973, had a career that was star-crossed in more ways than one. Injury-nagged, he began his ND playing days as a sophomore back-up to Joe Theismann. Injury-nagged, he ended his ND playing days when he tore up his knee during August two-a-days as a senior. The previous spring he had fought his way back to claim the starting QB spot, but with the injury he permanently relinquished his position to a sophomore named Tom Clements.
Steenberge now owns something called Global Football Inc., out of Fort Worth, Texas. As such, he stages "football events" around the world. He spends a good deal of his time in Mexico, for instance, where every year he puts on a game that pits a squad of Division III college All-Americans against the Mexican national team, comprised of Mexican college All-Mexicans. It might seem unlikely that there exists a Mexican national team of U.S.-style football, let alone one that lines up in an annual game, called the Aztec Bowl, against a group of players from colleges like Johns Hopkins. Steenberge, however, has over the years been involved in some interesting endeavors. He started an underground FM radio station in Fort Collins, Colorado. Fluent in Spanish, he once owned a business in which he guided adventure tours through the jungles of Guatemala. He has worked for Vision Quest, the program that takes juvenile delinquents on wilderness treks in Arizona and New Mexico. He was once director of the National Cutting Horse Association. Now, under the auspices of Global Football Inc., he has combined his athletic interests with what he calls his "wanderlust." Among the events he stages is a "Youth Jamboree" in Cancun, which is described on the Global Football web site as "a powerful demonstration of the spirit of competition and intercultural understanding through sport."
His latest venture, however, has taken him back to South Bend. Influenced by similar fantasy outings hosted by the franchises of Major League Baseball, Steenberge had come up with the idea for a Fighting Irish camp three years earlier, fully aware of the particular passions that Notre Dame inspires in its fans, and the lengths grown men might go to realize them. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the university at first resisted the idea. Some at the school felt that such a thing would tread all over tradition, not to mention a certain sacrosanct patch of grass upon which no other activity besides football had ever been conducted—not even, legend has it, a concert proposed by U2 and vetoed by the university guardians on the grounds of tradition. "A place like this doesn't let just anyone in," Steenberge said in a speech to the campers over the weekend. Then, of course, there were the liability risks—middle-aged men engaging in two-a-days did not seem like a particularly good idea. Indeed, in the camp's first year, close to half the campers went down with injuries of varying degrees—the price, evidently, of attempting to reclaim youth, if even for less than a week.
Perhaps worst of all, though, was Steenberge's timing. He had proposed the idea to the university during Bob Davie's final season in 2001, when the head coach was striving to salvage his job. "Things weren't real positive in football land," Steenberge says now. But he lobbied the right people in the Monogram Club, Notre Dame's alumni society of varsity athletes, he agreed to take on all the liability risk himself—each camper, of course, must sign a waiver—he offered to give a percentage of his revenue from the camp to a university scholarship fund, and ultimately he prevailed, and the first ever Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp convened in 2003.
To lend verisimilitude to his camp, Steenberge went out and recruited several current assistant coaches at Notre Dame, several assistant coaches from the Dan Devine and Parseghian years, and 12 former Irish players. In 2004, they included Jim Seymour, Walt Patulsky, Tom Gatewood, Gary Potempa, Kris Haines, Bob Crable, Mark Green, Reggie Brooks, Derrick Mayes and Ron Powlus, among others. All these men would help run the practices and help coach from the sidelines during the game. They were, in effect, the camp's counselors.
It was Steenberge's mandate that all the rituals of the real team's progress through game week and game day be observed at his Fantasy Camp. This was high-concept artifice. In addition to being forced by hollering football coaches to sprint suicides, drive blocking sleds, scamper through complicated DB back-peddling drills, and cram playbooks comprised of Xs and Os printed like equations on sheets bound by three-ring binders, these campers would also split into Blue and Gold squads, grab-ass in the honest-to-God Notre Dame home locker room inside the stadium, suit up at oaken lockers with their names engraved into plaques temporarily pasted overtop the names of varsity players—Brady Quinn, Ryan Grant—listen to Father Riehle say the Hail Mary, descend the stairs to the tunnel, slap the famous "Play Like a Champion Today" sign, run through the tunnel after bouncing around and yelling, in unison, "Go Irish!" and, of course, play the climactic four quarters of flag football inside the House that Rockne Built on a Saturday afternoon. In between the third and fourth quarters, Officer McCarthy would even say over the PA system, "Always remember—you get the best mileage home by not getting half tanked."
Father James Riehle's presence here at the Grotto's pulpit was also an act of verisimilitude. It had been well advertised, in the itineraries and information booklets handed out to each of the fifty-two men on their first day of camp. The pre-game Mass was, perhaps, the most profound ritual of the weekend—even if the pre-game Mass for the real team took place not at the Grotto, but up in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Nonetheless, the Fantasy Camp Mass could be thought of as arch-traditional: Many years earlier, in the era that immediately followed Rockne, the team celebrated the sacrament at the Grotto.
Riehle hovered over the lectern, heavily stooped. In profile he had the shape of a question mark. He was 80 years old. Strands of white hair stood up on his head and moved in the breeze. Next to him he had a three-footed cane, its prongs tipped with rubber stoppers. Not long before Mass began, he had driven his golf cart right up onto the slate terrace in front of the Grotto and parked it there.
Above and behind the altar, above the seated congregation, rose the spire of the Sacred Heart, visible through canopies of oak and maple in full bloom. Its bells rang the hour in a descending third, ten o'clock in the morning. Riehle was dressed down in his summer blacks, short-sleeve shirt, white collar, white stole. He withdrew his tools of the sacred sciences—holy water, fruit of the vine, chalice, paten, corporal, purificator, sacramentary—from a black bag that could have belonged to a doctor who made house calls. He decanted the water from its cruet into a plastic cup. The cruet had a cross on its side, the cup had the interlocking N and D. The campers, for their part, were dressed almost uniformly in khaki shorts and yellow polo shirts, party favors from the Fantasy Camp organizers, with the Fantasy Camp logo—the Dome and the ND monogram over a kind of chevron—embroidered on the breast. Before Mass began, as the campers took their seats, a chorale of digitized bleeps sounded as the campers shut down their cell phones.
All no nonsense, Riehle tore through the liturgy. He spoke into a miniature microphone attached to his shirt, and his voice amplified out over the Grotto.
"You are my God I give you praise oh my God I will extol you, for you are my savior. You were sent to heal the contrite of heart, Lord have mercy."
The campers murmured their response, "Lord have mercy," and Riehle began his next line before they could finish.
"You came to call sinners, Christ have mercy."
"Christ have merce—."
In 2001 Riehle suffered a stroke, ending his 35-year tenure as chaplain of the Notre Dame football team. It was a period marked by his striding presence on the sidelines of nearly every game, home and away. Often as not he would have a cigar of heavy gauge moving to and from his lips, and depending on the weather, his Roman collar was visible beneath a wool greatcoat that draped to his shins luxuriantly. In addition to patrolling the sidelines, Riehle's duties as chaplain entailed saying the pre-game Mass. Through this and other roles, Riehle has over the years become semi-famous. In the locker room before the kickoffs of real games, before the team stormed onto the field through the tunnel, Riehle would lead the players in a recitation of the Hail Mary and the Litany of the Virgin Mary—just as he would eventually do on film in a scene from Rudy. Later on in the Fantasy Camp Mass, when Riehle gave his homily, which had a tendency to morph into autobiographical sketch, he would say, "I just cashed a check yesterday for Rudy. Every time they show it on television, I get a little something. This time it was twenty-one dollars, but the check was only for nine dollars and seventeen cents. The income tax took everything out of it."
A hearty masculine chorus of laughter rose from the campers. It lasted a good 15 seconds. Riehle had hit his rhythm, and he concluded his homily with another anecdote: "The first game I was chaplain of was the ten-ten tie, if you remember that."
There was a pregnant pause, and then there were "ha"s and "wow"s that indicated the campers' awe, sitting here experiencing a Mass celebrated by the man who oversaw the spiritual needs of the 1966 national championship team, chaplain during one of the more famous football games ever played, billed at the time "The Game of the Century," in which Parseghian decided controversially to play for a tie, rather than go for the win, in the waning minutes of a game against Michigan State. Riehle continued, "I was going to Detroit a couple years ago with Ara Parseghian, and I said, 'You probably don't remember this, but I was the chaplain for the ten-ten tie.'
"And he said, 'You gotta be kiddin me! I been catchin' hell all these years! But I coulda been blaming you!'"
Marty Allen sat on the altar next to the priest. An old friend of Father Riehle's, an undergraduate at Notre Dame in the late 1950s, Allen had, as student, been the chief manager of the football team during the time of Paul Hornung. He was on the sidelines in Oklahoma when Notre Dame broke the Sooners' 47-game win streak, and he was at the Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp this weekend in order to lend a hand—to blow the air horn during practices signaling the end of one drill and the beginning of the next, the manager's duties—and he was here, in his words, "because I'm curious to see what this is all about. These guys, they're fans. They're very seriously dedicated to Notre Dame. Man, I'm telling you; you can see it in their eyes."
Allen had a chance during the camp's three days to widen the eyes of these ND fans a little more than usual. During a break between morning and afternoon practices the previous day, Allen got up in front of the campers in the locker room. In his hands he held a gnarled stick, lacquered a deep chocolate brown. The stick was in the shape of a club, and the club was a shillelagh. Near the center of its length, two green shamrocks were painted beside a gold plate that read:
Notre Dame 7 – Oklahoma 0
November 16, 1957
Allen said, "I want everybody to touch this. It's very special. Maybe it'll bring you good luck," and then he related its story, which began in the visiting-team locker room at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on that November day in 1957. A box had arrived in the room sometime earlier. Scrawled on its side were the words, "Notre Dame Football Team, University of Oklahoma, Norman Okla." It had no return address. The team's record the previous season was 2-8, and the response from the fan base had been an enraged howl; Allen half expected the box to contain a piece of creative hate mail. A little confused upon opening the package, Allen went to the head coach, Terry Brennan, and asked what he should do with this lacquered stick with the shamrocks.
Allen continued with his story: "And Brennan said, 'Bring it out on the field. We need all the luck we can get.' So this was on the field the day that Notre Dame beat Oklahoma in 1957 and broke their 47-game winning streak.
"One day later on at Notre Dame, I learned the story of where the shillelagh had come from. An old Irishman up in northern Michigan had sent it to the Irish locker room in Oklahoma, and he himself had received it from another old Irishman, an immigrant, a fellow from the Old Sod, where it had originally come from. And this other Irishman, he was ticked off that his friend had sent it away—until he learned where he'd sent it to, and what had happened, and then he was all right with it.
"Until today, the shillelagh has never been back to campus, not since 1957. One day I hope to return it to Notre Dame, and maybe it'll be on display and you'll be able to bring your children and grandchildren to see it, and you can say to them, 'I played a game at Notre Dame, and that shillelagh was in our locker room.'"
Now, at the Grotto's alter, Marty Allen got up to deliver the first and only reading of the Mass to a group of men who had grown up dreaming of playing for Notre Dame and if, failing that, at the very least attending the university. Many of them, despite their fanaticism, had never before set foot on campus, had never watched, in person, a game played at Notre Dame Stadium.
Allen read from the Epistle to the Ephesians. "Brothers and sisters, you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God."
There's Neil Admire, 69 years old, out of Corinth, Texas, a retired college president, among other vocations. He is here at the camp as an "honorary coach," a designation made for those men who want to participate in the camp but who are not physically up to the rigors of the actual football part. The oldest camper of 2004, he says, "They call me a coach, but I just listen and get the balls out." He is a large man, thickset, and he towers over just about everyone. He could be a former offensive lineman, but he in college he threw varsity javelin. He has thinning white hair and a pink complexion. He talks slowly, his eyes nearly closed, his voice deep and resonant. He says the camp was a gift from his wife, "a Christmas present kind of thing." He also says, "I'm an Irishman, and Notre Dame is the only team on the planet."
There's Terry Novak, 48 years old, of Sacramento, California, who has all but coated his cubicle at his office with paraphernalia bearing various words and images trademarked by the University of Notre Dame. About his fanaticism he has a certain amount of self-awareness. "I didn't go to school here, but here I am with all this Notre Dame stuff—getting this crazy about it—and I think sometimes, 'What's wrong with me?'" At one point during the weekend, dressing at his locker inside the stadium, Novak says, "I've got the Rudy movie in my bag, and I wanted to get it signed." Originally, Rudy Ruettiger was slated to take part in the camp as a "VIP speaker," but he had cancelled, a disappointment to many of the campers, who regard Rudy as the human embodiment of Notre Dame fandom, a figure of eminence, a man who went from fan and spectator to participant and player and then, on celluloid, to legend. Novak went on, "I also wanted to get a picture signed that would say, 'From Rudy to Rudi.' I have a dog, it's a she, and I named her Rudi, with an i." He shows a few of his teammates the picture. In it is a Chihuahua.
There's George Williams, also 48 years old, a respirational therapist from Tallahassee, Florida. He wears large wire-rimmed glasses; he has a rectangular mustache. He's never before seen a game at Notre Dame Stadium, yet he's about to put on a jersey and gold pants and a belt from which hang velcroed plastic flags and participate on that hallowed ground in a game of flag football with a group of men whose average age is 45. In a North Florida drawl George Williams says he became an Irish fan in 1968. "I was watching a game, and they kept getting behind and coming back, and getting behind again and coming back again and then falling behind again—and going back and forth and back and forth like that—and then they ended up winning the game. And as I'm watching these guys. . ." He pauses, he laughs. "I said, 'I love these guys.'"
"And I'm not a Catholic," George Williams continues. "Which raises a lot of questions from people about why do I have such a Notre Dame thing if you're not a Catholic. But for me it's more of an Irish thing and an underdog thing: They refuse to lose."
There's Robbie Horton, 36 years old, from Suffolk, Virginia, who has played all week at quarterback, the Gold Team's putative starter. He has surprisingly live arm. Easygoing and not one to engage in training rules during camp nights following practice, he's also what is called a "returning letterman," one of nine campers here this year who participated in last summer's inaugural outing. As such, on the first night of this year's camp, he gave a brief speech after dinner. "On July 5, 2003, the impossible became the possible. I threw a touchdown pass in Notre Dame Stadium. A lifelong dream achieved. A passion realized."
Before stepping down from the podium after his speech, Horton said, "I can't leave this room without singing the Victory March." He cleared his throat and he began: "Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame . . ."
There's Adrian Klemens, 28 years old, born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, but now based in London, England, a percussionist in a series of independent-label pop-band projects. He has also been, at various times, offensive coordinator and assistant head coach of the English national team of U.S.-style football. (U.K. U.S. football is a club sport, and based on Klemens' description of it, it is, on an organizational level, outmatched by any American bar-sponsored softball league.) Klemens has a faux-hawk dyed a streaky blonde. In appearance he's far more Joe Strummer than Ara Parseghian. In Australia, he grew up with the footballs of all three varieties—soccer, Aussie Rules and U.S., in order of ascending interest—and he is a Notre Dame "fan" only insomuch as he's an intense aficionado of the sport in general, and therefore familiar with Notre Dame's tradition of football excellence. He also learned about college football while studying abroad in the U.S. for a year in 1997. Though his view of Notre Dame seems affectionate, Klemens spent that year studying at Boston College. He is six-foot-three and weighs over two hundred pounds. He plays running back. He will score the game's only touchdown on a toss-sweep that he takes eighty yards untouched after splitting several otherwise paralyzed defenders grasping futilely for his flags.
There's Keith Cross, an optician from Worchester, Massachusetts, who, like Horton, participated in the camp last year, but who has come back this year not as a camper, but simply to hang around. "People ask me, 'Why didn't you go to Notre Dame?'" he says. "Well, when I was a kid, I thought only rock stars and astronauts went to Notre Dame. You just didn't even think about going there." Cross has gained some notoriety. A camera crew taped portions of the camp last year and the results aired on the Fine Living Network. After the game in the stadium, Keith Cross, in a kind of ecstasy, delivered a quote to the camera. "If the Good Lord wants to take me, I'm ready."
There's Artie Dumesnil III, age 40, a cop in the sheriff's department of Jefferson Parish, across the river from New Orleans. He swallows his r's in the Louisiana fashion and his accent is soft as sphagnum. Later in the day, dressing for the game at his locker, he says, "This is the most intense and awesome experience I've ever had. Coming here to Notre Dame is the best thing that ever happened to me. So far." He has come to the camp with his father, Artie Dumesnil, Jr., 68 years, now retired from a life in business in New Orleans. The Dumesnil family has long owned a sugar-cane plantation in Bayou Teche, but Bayou Teche cannot compete in the minds of the Dumesnils with the campus of Notre Dame, which, in their accents, they pronounce "No-tra Dayme."
Artie Jr. says, "People go on pilgrimages to Rome, Italy, or to Jerusalem, or places like that. We were never able to go those places, so we've gone to Notre Dame."
Artie III says, "Here's the way to express our feelings about Notre Dame: The only one better place than Notre Dame? Heaven. Notre Dame—for us it's like paradise on earth."
Inside the locker room before the big game, Father Riehle is sitting on a chair, near the large yellow "ND" on the carpet. A TV camera is trained on him, a boom mike is hovering over his head. Campers are surrounding him. Footballs and yearbooks and other paraphernalia are presented to him for autographing. Others want their photographs taken with him. They put their arms around him and lean down toward him and smile while a fellow camper snaps the shot. He sits there encircled by admirers like a yogi.
"Mind if I get a picture with you, Father?"
"Thank you Father."
After their audiences with Riehle have finished, it's almost as if the campers back away from the priest, bowing as they recede.
The official Notre Dame photographer snaps pictures of the whole scene. He gets down low and his flash illuminates Riehle with Artie Dumesnil III.
"Good to see you on your knees, Mike," Riehle says.
Kevin Cross stands off to the side, observing the reaction Riehle has produced in these men. He says, "They took a regular old priest and made him into a rock star!"
There's Tony Scire, 63 years old, out of San Antonio, Texas, another "returning letterman." Short and skinny as a stray dog, he's a retired Army sergeant, originally from Long Island. When he's in the locker room, he sometimes likes to walk around it slowly, silently, reverently, arms behind his back, taking it all in, like a patriot visiting an old battlefield. He does it again before kickoff on game day. As the campers prepare, emotion runs high, aided by the locker room's stereo system, from which the theme-song of Rudy flows out over the heads of the dressing campers in sentimental flutes and harps and strings.
"Lot of tradition here," Scire says finally in a hoarse whisper. "All the great players who dressed in this locker room. If the walls could talk they would have a lot to say. And then when we run down and hit the Play Like a Champion sign and run through the tunnel and you can hear 80,000 people screaming—because what they do is they pipe in the crowd noise for us, did you know that?—when we run through that tunnel, boy that's a good feeling. For me, when I watch a game at home, after doing the camp last year, when the team comes out I picture myself running out of the tunnel with them. And I know what they're going through because it's the same thing I went through. Even though, you know, I'm just a fan."
And there's Bob Wynne, 56 years old, from Rochester, New York, who is the last camper to leave the field after the gun sounds, game over. The fourth quarter is conducted in a downpour, and so is the post-game ceremony. The campers line up like little leaguers and shake hands. "Good job, good job, good job." Signs of the peace. Then the Notre Dame Alma Mater begins, pumped in over the PA, and the campers join arms and sway to the music in the rain. After this there is a lot of picture taking. Most campers get that finished quickly and head inside. The rain falls in sheets. Terry Novak is the second to last to go toward the tunnel as Bob Wynne stands alone on the 50-yard line in the absolute geometric center of the field. He rotates around, staring south for a moment toward the empty bleachers. Then west, then east and then finally north. He stretches his arms toward the sky. He lifts his head and lets the rain pour down on his face. Later, warm and dry inside the VIP level of the press box, at the Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp post-game dinner, in line at the buffet, Wynne talks about his thoughts while lingering there on the 50 yard line. "I just couldn't leave the field. I just couldn't leave," he says. "I love this place. I want my ashes spread over this place." He pauses and looks out the floor-to-ceiling windows toward the stadium. "But the grass is so nice down there on the field, maybe I could be buried underneath it."
If you haven't purchased Eden's book "Touchdown Jesus" yet, we highly recommend you do. As you can tell, Eden has mastered the art of painting the Notre Dame fan picture.
You can purchase the book HERE