A Special Place to Play

It is a rivalry unlike no other. For college football fans, the opportunity to see the USC Trojans and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish playing a game in South Bend with so much at stake brings back memories of some classic battles over the years.

You can argue that no rivalry in the nation brings more to the table than the one which will be continued on Saturday when these two storied programs get together. For Trojan players, there is no greater place to play a road game than Notre Dame Stadium because of all the history and tradition contained within those walls.

"Notre Dame is the best away game on the USC schedule," says former Trojan center Jeremy Hogue. "The history of the place is incredible, and the fans are right on top of you. It's hard as a visiting player to keep your emotions in check and just play the game".

From the time the Trojans start practice each week for the Notre Dame game there is a different electricity in the air. Pete Carroll puts a premium on keeping the same practice schedule each week in order to help foster a familiar preparation routine for his players but you can't deny the emotion which prevails as you are getting ready to play the Irish. Fans start talking a little more trash, the media hype steps up a notch and the ghosts of former legends such as Marv Goux remind you that this is more than just another game.

The Trojans usually take off for South Bend on Thursday afternoon and head straight to the Holiday Inn in Michigan City, far from the bright lights of Chicago which is the home base of the majority of alumni and fans who make the journey to the game. Many former players who attend the Chicago festivities in later years are shocked to see the revelry going on because they had no idea that part of the trip even existed while they were stashed away in the relative quiet of Michigan City preparing for the game.

Friday involves a walk-through at Notre Dame Stadium and a first look at the historic spot which contains so many familiar images that are part of college football lore.

"The first thing I did when I got onto the field was look for Touchdown Jesus," said former wide receiver John Jackson. "I always thought from seeing it on television that Touchdown Jesus was part of the stadium but from the field I couldn't see it. I thought to myself "they took down Touchdown Jesus!". It wasn't until later that I was able to look over the stands and I saw him on the side of the building."

After that it is back to the hotel for meetings, some pre-game discussions and an occasional visit from a living legend. In 1999 the Trojan team received a pep talk from Muhammad Ali before their match-up with the Irish.

"I was speechless when I saw the great Muhammad Ali come to talk to our team," said former defensive back Darrell Rideaux. "A guy of his stature who's respected in his regard and who I think is one of the greatest competitors of our time, it just felt so great to be a Trojan at that point because I knew if I was anywhere else I wouldn't be able to experience that".

On Saturday, the bus ride to the stadium is usually filled with quiet reflection as each player gets ready for the game in his own way. Most players listen to music on headphones to help them relax and focus on what's ahead. As they make their way through the highways of Northern Indiana there's no mistaking that they are headed someplace special. Towns such as Mishawaka and Chesterton dot the landscape until the buses pull into the sleepy town of South Bend and eventually make their way onto the grounds of Notre Dame University.

Once they are in the locker room it doesn't take much to remind the players of what is at stake. Goux once said that his pre-game speeches were short when the team was getting ready to play at Notre Dame because the players were already wound so tight that it didn't take much to get them fired up. When it came time to exit the locker room and take the field, that's when the action really reached a fever pitch.

"Everything was special," says former quarterback and current radio analyst Paul McDonald. "The crisp fall weather, the electricity in the air for a big game, Touchdown Jesus. I remember walking out the narrow visitor tunnel and having to move to the left immediately to get to the bench because the Irish fans had formed 2 lines for their players to run through and there was very little room through which to navigate"

"When we started warming up the two bands were playing at the same time," said former fullback Sunny Byrd. "What I loved is that our band was louder, even though the Notre Dame band was right in front of us you could still hear the Trojan Marching Band was louder".

"I remember it being like a dream when we were going through stretch," said former kicker David Newbury. "I remember all the greats before me, all that history. No two teams have more history when you combine them. It is so different from UCLA. You just hate UCLA. No Respect for UCLA. With ND there is a mutual respect. At the top of their stadium are two flags that stay up all year long. ND and USC. Every other flag of their opponents is brought down. It is the most special game in football. College or Pro. There is a very special feeling in that stadium. You can't even put it into words. When you are on that field you can just tell something great is going to happen".

Something great usually does happen and over the years there have been special moments on both sides.

"I remember gaining 600 plus yards of offense to smoke them in their yard," said McDonald. "And then reveling with the Trojan band on the field in front of our fans after the victory. Not many things are better than that feeling".

"After one victory the Trojan band came through and exited the stadium," said Goux. "I brought some players over and we watched them from a window in the locker room as they passed by the Golden Dome playing Conquest and Fight On. It was as if the Trojans were marching victorious out of South Bend, which, of course, we were".

As is the case with this great rivalry, there is always the flip side too.

"For 3 quarters in 1999 we played like the best team in America, till the ND football Gods took over," said Newbury. "We drove at the beginning of the third and I kicked a 31 yarder that put us up by 21. That was a bad number. Every time we got up by 21 we lost. We had just had some heartbreaking losses and this one was the worse. We played great for 3 quarters and just like that the Football Gods changed the course of the wind at the exact same time the fourth quarter started and we ended up losing the game".

It's time for more history and come Saturday afternoon in South Bend we can all sit back and enjoy college football at its finest.


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