One of my Philly.com colleagues, Anna Strong, is a devout Notre Dame fan who lucked into a chance to attend the BCS title game in person. She is a senior at Penn and a product of Episcopal Academy, and her family has deep ties to the Fighting Irish.
Before she left for south Florida, I asked Anna if she'd be interested in writing a first-person account of her trip. She was happy to do so.
Here's her account. It was quite a whirlwind trip, as she left Philadelphia on the morning of the game and came back here the next day. And even though Notre Dame lost badly to Alabama, I would think this trip is one we'd all take in a heartbeat if we got the chance.
On December 1, Alabama punched its ticket to the BCS title to face then-No. 1 Notre Dame. The next day, my mother called me and said there were two tickets for us if we wanted them. My Aunt Terri just needed to know by Monday - her husband is Harry Hiestand, the Irish's offensive line coach.
We checked out hotel rooms and airfares, and already both were looking like they'd be prohibitively expensive. We decided it would be great to be there, but it might just be too much. We hung up, each promising to sleep on it and make a final decision in the morning.
When that morning came around, I was woken up not by my alarm, but by my phone ringing. Without any preamble, my mom shouted down the phone, "What are we thinking? We have to be there!"
Fast-forward to January 7: deplaning in Miami, decked out in navy and gold. While we waited for the shuttle to take us to the hotel, a BCS representative presented us with a fan guide and BCS lapel pins. "Go Irish," he said, winking.
Was that the moment that it hit us that we were going to the game? Or was it when we pulled into the Westin Diplomat Hotel - where we and all the players and coaches and their friends and families were staying, and saw that the place had surrendered its Florida pastels for Notre Dame colors?
We made our way to my aunt and uncle's room, where they and their four kids had set up camp for the week. Immediately, she gave us the rundown of the schedule: we had about an hour and a half to decompress, and go for a swim or to the beach. But we had to be ready to head to the stadium for a tailgate by 3:30.
She gave us our tickets to the tailgate, our tickets to the game, and wristbands for the postgame party at the hotel.
It took 40 minutes to get to Sun Life Stadium, and another half hour to make our way to the parking area. A seemingly endless line of cars and buses crawled towards a destination that never seemed to get any closer.
The bus TVs played a video of Notre Dame season highlights, interviews, team history and such. I kept flashing back to elementary school field trips and watching The Sandlot on bus TVs just like those. My cousin Michael and I talked about everything but the game.
We walked to the tailgating area in a sea of Notre Dame and Alabama fans, and just as we reached the gate, the Notre Dame team buses arrived. I saw cameras raised on both sides of the tinted windows - as fans took pictures of the Irish arriving, the players returned the favor to their adoring masses.
When we finally entered the tailgate, several things immediately became clear.
- Alabama fans are, on the whole, significantly better dressed than Notre Dame fans. And they're much more subtle about their adoration of their Crimson Tide. Most women and girls, for example, were simply wearing red and white. Many male fans wore Oxford-cloth shirts with an elephant or the Alabama script "A" embroidered on them.
I saw some more garish displays of fanaticism, but not many. The best one was probably the kid walking around with an empty bottle of Tide and two rolls of toilet paper speared on a big stick. Those Crimson Tide fans got especially loud when the DJ played "Sweet Home Alabama," but beyond that, they were polite, put together, and mostly pretty quiet.
- Notre Dame fans, though not as groomed as 'Bama fans, had far and away more spirit and swag. I saw a number of leprechauns, lots of painted faces, students and former students wearing their student-section "Shake Down the Thunder" t-shirts, shiny plastic shamrock necklaces (of which I had 3), tons of Joe Montana and Manti Te'o jerseys, even most peoples' pants and shorts had something Notre Dame-related on them. I loved it.
By most estimates, Notre Dame fans outnumbered Alabama fans by about a six-to-one ratio. This was most plainly visible in the merchandise shops and stands, because there was far more Alabama gear left for purchase. When my mom and I wandered into one of those shops, the most common size left of anything Notre Dame-related was 3XL.
- Notre Dame fans take every opportunity to get themselves, and others, riled up. Every time there was a break in a song, one group of fans or another would start a chant of "Irish, Irish, Irish!" That would immediately drown out any attempt by Alabama fans to answer.
Despite the overpriced food and beer, the tailgate succeeded in getting the fans fired up. We waited in the BBQ line for what felt like an eternity, but we made some friends in the process. One of them nicely bought my mom a beer when all of the credit card readers collectively stopped working.
The lively atmosphere was due in large part to an awesome performance from Luke Bryan, who's a much better live guitar player and singer than I expected. Pulling tiny Notre Dame and Alabama fans up on stage and challenging them to a dance-off to Gangam Style helped too.
Then it was game time. We headed into the stadium at 7:00, making our way through in-stadium parties held on the gorgeous concourses at Sun Life Stadium (Lincoln Financial could take a page out of that book), and found our seats in the ninth row of the 400 level.
There's not a bad seat in that stadium, and we were deep in Notre Dame territory, just above the 15-yard line. The student section and the band were seated behind the Notre Dame uprights.
The hour before kickoff flew by as we watched the Notre Dame warmups, searched for my uncle on the field, and warily eyed the Crimson Tide's pregame routine.
Both university bands took the field for a brief tune-up performance before their big halftime shows - an experience I'm simply not used to as a Penn student - and then the real pre-game festivities began.
First, a series of awards was presented. There were also ceremonies to honor Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert and multi-award winner Manti Te'o. Eifert and Te'o's parents accepted their awards on those players' behalf.
The Air Force dropped five parachuters from 20,000 feet up, each delivering a flag - the BCS flag, Notre Dame's crest, Alabama's crest, a set of red-white-and-blue streamers, and the Stars and Stripes. One of the parachuters also carried the game ball. Then the Zac Brown Band performed the national anthem beautifully a capella.
The tension in the stadium was palpable. Someone behind me said, "We're going to play this game at some point, right?" Then the teams took the field.
I think anyone could guess how the atmosphere changed soon after. The stadium may have been mostly Notre Dame fans, but it didn't take long for the Crimson Tide faithful to overpower us in noise. It was really over after the first quarter.
Frankly, I was prepared for the worst. I was aching for an upset, like all Fighting Irish fans were. But everyone in the stadium knew what we were getting ourselves into when Alabama snuck past Georgia in the SEC title game.
I will say this though – I've never seen better losers in my life. After our fate seemed sealed, the fans were jovial. We all sat back and just enjoyed the chance to watch Notre Dame play one last time this season. At least, that was the case in my section. I can't speak for the students who made the trip.
This was most in evidence at the after-party. It was quiet, no doubt, and most of the players and coaches understandably didn't come. But for the attendees, mostly friends and family, it was a way to end the season as any 12-1 season should be capped: with good food and and balmy Florida air, surrounded by some of the most dedicated fans in college football.
Vince Vaughn even made an appearance at the party, and I realized two things when I met him. First, he's absolutely enormous (I came up to about his mid-bicep); and second, he's as funny and as nice as you could imagine.
My uncle met us at the party briefly. Wwe didn't want to ask him about the game too much, but he said what any coach should say after the year his team had. He's never seen players, fans or fellow coaches like he has at Notre Dame in his life, and this was one of his best years ever. Mostly, he was just happy to have a bit of a break.
We went to bed at 3:30 am, promising ourselves that we'd be up early the next day to soak up some Miami sun before heading to the airport. Sure enough, we were up at 8:30 and met a glorious sunny day, perfect for a last swim in the ocean before I headed back to class and my mother headed back to work.
I don't know what I was expecting to see down in the lobby, but almost everyone I saw was still decked out head-to-toe in Notre Dame gear That made me really happy. I don't know why I was expecting anything else, but I was just glad to see that the fire was still there.
And at the very end of the trip, I met Te'o in person. He was even nicer than Vaughn.