The Empire State Building glowed in Notre Dame colors this weekend. The spire was yellow, a homage to the famous Golden Dome that sits at the heart of campus in South Bend. Or so I’m told—I’ve never been to Notre Dame. In fact, I’ve never been to any school with an impressive football program. At least not to watch the sport.
I grew up in New England (those of you who’ve read my Boston-centric work before are rolling your eyes saying, “No! New England? Charlotte?! We had no idea!”). College football was an afterthought next to professional teams for most people and a not-at-all thought for my family. The football team at my small liberal arts college in Maine was, well, it wasn’t … it’s not … let’s just say that Colby only won the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference once, and it happened 18 years ago. I loved the guys on the team, but they weren’t exactly counting down the days until the NFL draft. Players were normal people.
Players at schools like Notre Dame are not normal people—they are gods, standard-bearers of a longstanding football tradition that will never die in the hearts of many alumni. That feeling isn’t limited to the people who went to school there: Notre Dame has Subway Alumni, New York City residents who have become avid fans of the Irish despite not having gone there.
The unofficial club took shape just after World War I, when a group of largely Irish and Italian immigrants began to rally around a Catholic school in Indiana. These latchers-on started going to games that Notre Dame played in the surrounding New York area (they’d take the subway to get to games) and has grown in the past 100 years. There are now many Subway Alumni in cities around the country, though New York is still the heart of it. It made so much sense when Notre Dame announced it would head to Yankee Stadium to play Syracuse for the 2018 installment of the Shamrock Series, an annual game at a unique venue away from South Bend (past locations include Boston, San Antonio and Chicago).
But this wasn’t really about Syracuse. This was about Notre Dame and the Yankees, two teams with dedicated fan bases that most people love to hate. Both are vilified regularly in the media and sports bars across the country. But no matter how you feel about either (I, like Notre Dame coach and Massachusetts native Brian Kelly, am a Yankee hater), you have to admit that both are iconic. Each is a brand. Each has a draw, a history, and a level of excellence that many other teams have not been able to reach. When the uniforms for the Shamrock Series were announced this year, many people derided the pinstripe pants and the matte navy blue helmets, a departure from the golden ones the team always wears. The general sentiment seemed to be: The Yankees and Notre Dame deserve each other and these hideous uniforms.
But in person? Man, they looked pretty great. The pants worked, the jerseys worked, even the helmets—albeit not as great as the usual gold—were kind of badass. As the marching band cleared away and the players took the field on Saturday, the sold-out crowd lost its mind. The 54,000 people who’d gathered in the Bronx were predominantly decked out in blue, green and gold. There were flecks of Syracuse orange here and there.
I was in awe. I went because I guess you could say I’m a Subway Alumni now. This is entirely the fault of Jessica Smetana, the showrunner and producer of my SI TV show The Wilder Project (among others) as well as the co-host of our podcast, Most Valuable Podcast. We’ve been close as coworkers and friends for years now, and her rabid Notre Dame fandom has seeped into my bloodstream slowly, like an IV drip of college football Kool-Aid. We knew we had to go to the game so we could talk about it on our podcast. It would be my first Big Deal College Football Game and Jess’s alma mater playing in the city she now calls home. How perfect.
And you know what? It truly was. Most football games at baseball parks don’t work, with the rectangular field awkwardly smushed into diamonds that vary in size. Last year I went to the Gridiron Series at Fenway, where Brown and Harvard faced off followed by a UMass-UMaine game the next day. There were only about 3,000 people at the Ivy League game and only about 10,000 at the UMass game. I still think it was lovely for the players—getting to compete in a park as iconic as Fenway for your last game of the season is the stuff you dream about as a little kid. Getting a sold-out crowd may not carry as much significance as being in the heart of the nearest major city to your school.
But as a fan, the Fenway games didn’t have the same electricity the Notre Dame game did. Obviously, it’s tough to compare season finales between mediocre football teams to a top-15 matchup featuring a team working on an undefeated season. But Fenway just didn’t work that well for spectators sitting in a freezing cold, rickety stadium that’s iconic for its baseball history, not its football functionality.
There are few teams and schools that could sell out Yankee Stadium, but Notre Dame did it. Even the corporate nature of the massive building didn’t make the event feel stale or stilted. The Irish were 10–0 heading into the weekend, and they came out of it still undefeated after crushing Syracuse 36–3. I went to several Yankees games this year, including every ALDS game in New York, and the energy in that place on Saturday felt different. It felt special. Maybe it’s because while you might love the Yankees, you didn’t live with the Yankees. Many of the people who love Notre Dame feel a deep connection to the place they spent four years of their lives. Saturday was a homecoming, just shifted 700 miles east, and it felt appropriately majestic. Even if you’re one of the many anti-Golden Domers out there, you have to respect a school’s ability to pull this off.
At the end of the game, the jumbotron showed the Empire State Building lit up in school colors, noting that it was in honor of the immigrants who founded the college after coming through Ellis Island to get to a better life in America. Then all the players put their arms around each other and stood on the field in front of the marching band. Fans linked arms, too. Everyone swayed back and forth, singing the alma mater that all fans and alumni, no matter their age, know by heart.
I—a Jewish person who has never rooted for a college team that could sell out a 50,000-person stadium—felt like I’d stumbled into church. I didn’t know any of the words, and I couldn’t relate, but I could sense how much the people around me could. And standing there with my arms around people who cared so deeply, to see my close friend so overcome by a sense of memory and belonging? It was enough for me to feel included. To be, for a brief moment, a part of something I didn’t think I’d ever fully know. For a second, I understood.