Irish welcome Pla, family before first game

When Caroline Pla was younger, her grandfather brokered a deal with her and her three siblings: If one of you goes to Notre Dame, I'll pay for your tuition.

So Caroline started watching Notre Dame games. And she watched her older brother's Pop Warner games. Intrigued, she started playing flag football as a kindergartener. She moved on to tackle in second grade. That eventually became a problem for some folks back in Doylestown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, where she was kicked off her local CYO team.

That didn't sit well with the Plas. Caroline and her family waged a campaign that drew national headlines, including a January spot on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." There, Caroline said her favorite team across all levels of football was Notre Dame. As the segment ended she found out she would be a guest of the program for its 2013 opener. And seven months of anticipation commenced.

"It just seemed like the months went by so slowly whenever I thought about it," Caroline said. "And then last week came and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to Notre Dame,' and I got excited and started packing and got stuff ready."

Caroline, her parents and two of her siblings arrived in town on Thursday, taking in Brian Kelly's radio show at Legends, where she was able to meet the fourth-year Irish coach. The next day, the family took in the Friday football luncheon before touring the Joyce Center and meeting former All-America running back Reggie Brooks, now the Irish's alumni relations director. Next came a locker-room tour, the obligatory tapping of the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign, a walkthrough of the football complex and a gift -- a regulation-size gold Notre Dame helmet, or as Caroline put it, "the greatest gift ever."

The pep rally followed, with the Plas then watching Saturday's tilt from seats behind the Temple sideline, near the stadium tunnel. Field passes allowed the family access to players afterward, where Caroline received autographs and a mini-pep talk from her favorite player, captain TJ Jones.

"Disney World on cleats," Seal Pla, Caroline's mother, said, describing her children's reactions to the weekend.

Caroline has more on her plate this weekend, as she will play her first game for the varsity Romans, composed of seventh- and eighth-graders. The Archibishop of Philadelphia gave co-ed ball the OK back in March, reversing course after putting the kibosh on Caroline's two-year career in the league on the junior varsity.

There, she was one of the tallest players among the younger age group. Now she will be trying her hand at offensive guard and defensive end against older, bigger players.

She will have a bit of a cheat sheet from her 15-year-old brother, George, who is now a high school wide receiver. Caroline first watched George take the field as a 5-year-old, when he first began to serve as her inspiration to shun soccer like most of her friends in favor of fall weekends on the gridiron.

Caroline is still only a seventh-grader, so she has five years before she has to live up to her end of her grandfather's bargain. Wherever she ends up, though, will likely pale in comparison to this past weekend's events.

"It was just so much fun, even from the first minute we got there, just seeing the campus for the first time," Caroline said. "I always wanted to see it in real life. It was bigger than I expected, and all of the buildings were older and pretty. And then we saw the stadium, and it was really loud and big and overwhelming."