American Pastime

Over the next three months, on any given Saturday, the spotlight of college athletics will shine brightly on football. Millions of fans will flock to stadiums (or in one instance, a motor speedway) to witness this most American of sports. Tailgate parties will crop up hours before kickoff.  Team-branded merchandise will fly off shelves to the tune of millions of dollars.  Broadcasters will endlessly debate one team’s merits versus another’s shortcomings.  It’s fair to say college football will be a more consuming topic than the presidential election.

60-indelible

Last weekend my family and I experienced the unique opportunity to attend two college football games in Texas on consecutive days. UCLA played Texas A&M in College Station on Saturday, where A&M’s Aggies won in thrilling fashion in overtime. Then Notre Dame played Texas in Austin on Sunday, where UT’s Longhorns also won in thrilling fashion in double overtime. On Friday we could’ve added yet another game, passing through Waco as Baylor opened its season against Northwestern State.

Here are a few college football statistics for your consideration:

  • There are well over 100 NCAA Division 1 college football teams competing on any given Saturday of the season.
  • The combined attendance to last weekend’s games involving at least one team in the Associated Press (AP) Top 25 was over 1.5 million fans. That included UCLA-Texas A&M (100,443) and Notre Dame-Texas (102,315 – an all-time record for a Texas home game).
  • The face value of a major college football game ticket is around $100 this year.  Accordingly last Saturday’s AP Top 25 games alone generated $150 million (not counting merchandise, concessions, and parking).
  • There are eight college football stadiums in the U.S. with more than 100,000 seats, and another twenty-two stadiums with more than 75,000 seats.  The largest NFL football stadium has 82,500 seats.
  • Next Saturday’s college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech will be held at Bristol Motor Speedway (TN).  The 150,000 fans expected in the grandstands will shatter the all-time record for college football single-game attendance.

Sure, college football has some impressive numbers.  The game will only get more popular.  Yet last weekend also reminded me there are more indelible memories than the game or the venue itself.  Consider:

  • The heart-warming spirit of hometown Texas A&M.  As a fan of the opposing team, the reception in College Station is akin to a stranger inviting you into his living room for sweet tea and cookies.  I lost track of how many Aggies welcomed us to campus, wished our team well, or simply thanked us for making the trip.  Their politeness is downright 1950’s-sitcom.  With that in mind, add See a football game in College Station to your bucket list.
  • A&M’s Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band.  Also known as the Corps of Cadets, the four hundred musicians comprise the largest military marching band in the world.  Their movements are so coordinated and precise you’d swear you were looking at a computer-generated equivalent.  One Aggie actually apologized to me for the “old-fashioned” feel of the Corp.  On the contrary; it was one of the most impressive halftime shows I’ve ever seen.
  • The Littlest Fans.  Texas A&M and Texas alike draw a healthy number of families to their games.  My favorites are the little ones: those fans between the ages of 5 and 15.  They’re decked out in their team colors and face paint, with shiny hair ribbons and pom-poms.  We had several of them sitting right in front of us at the Notre Dame-Texas game.  Their innocence and unabashed enthusiasm were priceless.

My advice after my mega-weekend of college football?  Ditch the television.  GO to a game and see what you’re missing.  There happens to be one this Saturday, and not far from where you live.

abstruse

You’re probably typing on your keyboard as you read this.  But imagine you have a handwritten document sitting upright in front of you and you’re simply copying the words one keystroke at a time.  Now imagine you have several keyboards at your disposal, each on top of the next like stair steps. Your hands move up and down the stairs, finding just the right key for each letter.  Finally, imagine one more keyboard beneath your feet, which you occasionally depress like the gas pedal of a car.  This my friends, is but a hint of what it takes to play a church organ.  It’s a complex, hard-to-grasp skill requiring an absurd amount of focus.  It’s abstruse.

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The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame is scheduled to receive a brand new organ; the first note to be played during the Christmas holidays in December 2016. This is the fifth organ in the 165-year history of the Basilica and as you would expect, the most impressive. The instrument will boast four keyboards (five if you count the one beneath the feet) and almost 5,200 pipes.  The pipe diameters are as small as a pencil and as large as a ship’s smokestack.  Listen for the shrill tone of a tin whistle or the booming alert of a departing cruise liner – this organ can duplicate both.  It can even duplicate the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass sounds of the singing human voice.

An organ of this complexity and size – it will soar to almost four stories in height – is taking several years to construct.  But most remarkably, it is being assembled in the modest workshop of Paul Fritts & Company, in the outskirts of Seattle, by a grand total of six craftsmen.  The University chose this group because its founders were trained back through several generations, dating to those who built the most prominent cathedral organs in Western Europe.

Next spring Fritts & Company will host an open house in their workshop, to show off the nearly completed Notre Dame organ.  Then next summer when the University’s campus is relatively quiet, the organ will be shipped from the West Coast to Northern Indiana to be assembled in time for that first performance a few months later.  Can you imagine the responsibility of the drivers of those several flat-beds, trucking so many handmade components over the mountains and across the plains to their final destination?  They should have a police escort to clear the highways.

When I was in middle school I took organ lessons for a brief time, learning on a modest instrument in the loft of the small chapel of our Methodist church.  There were only two keyboards for the hands and a small keyboard for the feet.  I found it overwhelming to play with hands and feet at the same time.  To further complicate the skill – and this is true of most organs – there are a few milliseconds of delay between the time a key is pressed and the sound is issued (thanks to the mechanics of opening and closing the organ pipes).  So you’re playing the music a moment before you actually hear it.

I did perform in public once.  Every year our Methodist leaders would allow the church youth group to conduct the Sunday services – from the sermon to the bible readings to the music.  Our organist “rigged” the sanctuary organ for me so it felt more like playing that small chapel organ.  A little less abstruse, if you will.  Regardless, that was the end of my career as an organist.  Two hands on the single keyboard of a piano (with little else for the feet and brain to worry about) is more than enough for me.

penchant

This week I attended a conference at my alma mater; the University of Notre Dame.  The days were busy with leadership sessions, guest speakers, and networking, but there was ample time to walk the campus and experience the sights of times gone by.  It is a place where pride, sentiment, and fondness combine to where I am unquestionably drawn to it. In a word, I have a penchant for Notre Dame.

ND Dome

What is immediately apparent about Notre Dame these days is its physical expansion.  The entire campus of my undergraduate experience – now thirty years ago – is surrounded by new buildings, longer quads, and grander athletic facilities.  As a whole it is breathtakingly impressive, even for those who have visited many times before.  But when I cross the proverbial threshold from the new to the old; from the present to the past, to arrive in the sub-campus of my day, there comes a sense of calm and familiarity that can only come from experiences that leave a permanent imprint.

ND Quad 1

My walking tour took me past my academic and social haunts.  I passed several buildings where I experienced the triumphs and tragedies of the classroom.  I passed several dorms – including my own – where the memories of friends and roommates and dates and parties came back to me as if yesterday.  It was easy to get wrapped up in the blanket of yesteryear.

Students were everywhere during my walk.  I was delighted to see some of the same habits and activities.  Frisbee on the quad.  Boyfriend/girlfriend walking hand-in-hand.  Dozens of undergraduates desperate for the spring sunshine relaxing in shorts and t-shirts.  In that moment I wanted to be one of them again.

I captured my walk with a lot of photos.  Every turn – whether for beauty or nostalgia – had me pausing and clicking.  It was as if I was trying to capture the essence of my past and trap it inside of my phone.  Which I realized, in hindsight, was simply not possible.

ND Crowley

Notre Dame has some very special places.  There are two lakes in the middle of campus with quiet walking paths around them.  There is the Grotto – perhaps the most special of those places – where one can light a candle and say a prayer in the shadow of Notre Dame’s cathedral: the Basilica of Sacred Heart.  And there are dozens of corners where you disappear behind a building or down a walkway, and suddenly realize you are alone in the peace and quiet of the moment.

ND Lake

I walked past one of the lakes for several minutes trying to recapture the moments and voices of my years.  I sat at the Grotto trying to summon the spirits of such a significant time in my life.  Even at the bookstore – where Notre Dame’s name or logo is imprinted on everything imaginable, I wandered the aisles in search of… in search of… I’m not sure what.  Did I really believe I could purchase my memories in a shirt?  Or a book?  Or a photo?

Thirty years can change a place forever.  New buildings, new students, and the personality of a new generation dissolve the images of what once was.  And so, as I completed my journey down memory lane, I realized that what I sought, I already had with me.  My years at Notre Dame; my experience that was like no other, rests proudly and permanently in my memories.  No photograph or keepsake or paragraph will ever do it justice.