January 08, 2013

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- South Bend is a far cry from South Beach. There are no oceanfront clubs or palm trees. There isn't a Maserati-lined strip. People typically don't spend their bonuses vacationing in an area where blankets of snow take the place of sun-kissed tropical beaches. This is a blue collar Midwest town.

Still, when I found out I was one of the unfortunate Notre Dame alums who didn't secure a ticket to the game in Miami, I packed my wool socks and thermal undershirts and headed straight to northern Indiana, where the Irish faithful breathe and die with every play.

Monday morning wasn't the typical start to the week. The sun seemed to glisten a little brighter off of Our Lady, sitting on her golden perch. Excited energy and anticipation filled the air. Restaurants and bars prepared for the ensuing crowds, and cars cruised with flags and banners flying high. Local businesses packed their store windows with well wishes for their beloved Irish, and everyone hustled about their daily business proudly wearing their blue and gold.

It was BCS championship Monday. The long-awaited date with the Crimson Tide was here.

By 3 p.m. just off Notre Dame's campus, the bar and all of its tables were filled at Brothers Bar & Grill. The keg of green beer had been tapped, and a golden keg was paraded through the establishment as the nervous crowds counted down the hours until kickoff. Bagpipes and the Notre Dame fight song kept the shoulder-to-shoulder patrons energized as the afternoon and early evening hours passed. Libations flowed at a rate that would make even St. Paddy blush. Alumni relived the 1988 championship, hoping -- begging -- the magic would reappear on this night. Candles at the Grotto had been lit and prayers had been said. This town was ready for some football.

Then the game happened. And Alabama routed Notre Dame, 42-14.

The hype that surrounded the city and campus turned out to be unwarranted. Awaiting the arrival of the next Notre Dame champion, the Irish faithful were instead left searching for answers. By the end of the second quarter, it was clear this wouldn't be Notre Dame's night; Eddie Lacy, AJ McCarron and company ensured a disappointing end to an otherwise magical year.

As the game pressed on, reality hit home in South Bend. Crowds thinned and enthusiasm waned. But amid it all, fans continued to show their support for a senior class and team that provided this university with a memorable campaign. What the Manti Te'o-led Irish accomplished in 2012 was invaluable for the future of this football program. And this city.

Notre Dame didn't win the national championship. This simply wasn't its year. Nick Saban's team was too much for the Irish to handle. But coach Brian Kelly and his staff will move forward with the same resolve and determination that helped rebuild a program that was off the national radar for so many years. Although the legendary echoes weren't awakened this year, I can't help but think they didn't roll over in their sleep, ready to show their face to the world soon.

It's no secret that Notre Dame can be one of the most polarizing football programs in the land. And after Monday, the detractors will have their say; they'll say Notre Dame didn't belong in the BCS championship, that the Irish were finally exposed.

But here in South Bend, there is no polarization. There's nothing but support for this university.

The local community will welcome home its team on Tuesday. Students will return to campus, and life will resume as normal. When focus finally shifts to the next football season, the Fighting Irish will go back to work, striving for a repeat BCS appearance.

But now, even after defeat, a restless optimism persists. Fans and alumni tasted the chance to be crowned champions. They felt what it was like to be relevant. And perhaps most significantly, they believe it's only a matter of time until the Irish rise again.

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