There’s a book titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” and although I never read it I pretty much endorse the statement. Certainly, I recognize that many of the certainties rattling around in my head today are reflexive, there since childhood.
I don’t, however, rule out the possibility of personal growth, and have a couple of sports examples to prove it. One is my attitude toward the New York Yankees. I spent most of my life hating them because I’m from Chicago, whose teams almost never win anything, while the godalmighty Bronx Bombers win everything in sight. How could I feel different?
But as a sportswriter I spent some time around Joe Torre, the Yanks’ manager from 1996 through 2007, and found him to be a pleasant and reasonable man, so I didn’t mind it when his teams won championships during that span. I feel the same way about Joe Girardi, their current manager, whom I met when he played for the Cubs. I’m not a Yankees’ fan, but I don’t wish them bad luck any more.
My relationship with the University of Notre Dame’s athletic teams is similar but a bit more complicated. I grew up on Paulina Street near Leland Avenue on the Windy City’s North Side, around the corner from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, the only Jewish kid within shouting distance and not nearly the toughest. Some of my pals, and most of my non-pals, were Notre Dame fans, and their constant bleating about the school’s football team became intolerable. When their boasting reached a crescendo the week before the 1946 game between Notre Dame and Army—one of those games-of-the-century that crop up every few years-- I felt moved to put them in their places by betting on Army. This was despite the fact that I’d never seen adults play football except in newsreels.
If the gesture made the eight-year-old me feel good, the feeling was fleeting. It quickly became apparent that one of two things probably would happen: I’d lose the bets and have to pay, which I couldn’t because the sums involved well exceeded my net worth of less than a buck, or I’d win and have to try to collect, a process likely to yield more bruises than cash. Either way, I was screwed.
Those were radio days, and I tuned into the game with a sense of foreboding. Back and forth the two sides heaved, and my stomach with them. The game ended in a 0-0 tie, which everybody said suited nobody, but as usual everybody was wrong. It suited me fine, providentially so.
One upshot of the experience was positive: I never again “bet the rent” on a game or horse race. The other was an abiding dislike of Notre Dame, which against reason I decided was generally odious. I maintained that posture for decades despite the fact that it mostly caused me pain as the erstwhile Irish went from success to success, but that’s the way those things usually work.
My views on ND changed in 1981 when it named Gerry Faust as its new football head coach. I’d met Gerry a few years before when I witnessed and wrote about one of his appearances as a motivational speaker, before an audience of IBM salespeople. Businessmen respond to the metaphors of sport so it’s not uncommon for sport figures to address them, but usually these are men or women with national reputations. Faust at the time was the coach at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, and while highly successful was anything but a household name. IBM was a sophisticated company and I wondered how an obscure prepster would go over with such a crowd.
Great was how. Not polished but deeply sincere and emotionally tuned in, he had the IBMers on their feet at the end, roaring and eager to overcome whatever challenges might lie ahead. They all but carried him out of the hall in triumph.
I got a nice note from Gerry after my piece ran, and we stayed in touch. When my late wife was ill he sent flowers. He sent another note of thanks when he got the Notre Dame job, and I followed up with a couple of columns on his progress there. Alas, Gerry was a hand-out-the-towels sort who never adapted to the demands of a being CEO of a major-college football program, and was fired after five seasons despite a winning record (30-26-1) in South Bend. But having rooted for him I thereafter was unable to work up my old animosity toward the Domers.
Notre Dame football has had a couple of bad decades of late, but this season was reborn under coach Brian Kelly, and on Monday night (Jan. 7) will play Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. The scrappy Irish are an easy team to like, undefeated but not one of those soulless college powerhouses that thrive by stomping lesser foes. Alabama is from the Southeastern Conference, a collection of institutions that exist mainly to field football teams. My rooting choice on Monday might seem clear.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Notre Dame continues to grate because its “we do things right” pose is contradicted by such recent-year incidents as its coverup of rape allegations against a football player and the death of a student manager who was sent up on a cherry-picker in a windstorm to videotape a football practice. What were those people thinking?!
So I will watch the game with neutrality, but I say that proudly. It’s part of the scant evidence that I’ve matured since kindergarten.