|Echoes from the golden past|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Miles: 321 (Wrigley to South Bend, then South Bend to Sandusky, Ohio); total miles: 2,346; hours driving: 6; hours of sleep: 4; turnpike tolls: $7.60; Diet Pepsi: 6 units; thunderstorms: 2 (other than Minnesota, it has been cloudy, cool and rainy the entire trip -- I seem to be traveling at the same speed as an enormous and wet cold front; Scooter's references to Buffalo: 37; hotel: Motel 6 (my first one); miles to go: 900 (approximate) ...
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There are no doubts regarding the Krueger family allegiances -- the Notre Dame leprechaun logo pokes his fists at you from the toilet seat in their house.
The Krueger house is so close to Notre Dame Stadium that you not only can hear the marching band practice every Friday, you can hear the PA guy announce who carried the ball and who tackled him. When father Pat attended Notre Dame in the 1960s, his roommate was Frank Leahy's son, and the old coach would occasionally show up in the morning, pound on the door and say, "C'mon, boys, let's get some lunch.'' (Talk about waking up the echoes.) Eldest son Ryan just graduated after four years as a walk-on quarterback.
So there was no question as to where Matt Krueger would go to college, and there really hadn't been since the family moved to South Bend in 1994 and he caught his first glance at the campus.
"It was awesome," the walk-on quarterback said after morning practice Wednesday. "We actually drove from Seattle like you did, so when we came off I-90 and when you first get off the toll road, the first thing you see is that golden dome and I was like, 'Wow.' And then we drove in on that road right along campus and you just see everything. I had always heard about it and seen it in pictures but when you finally see it, you just go, 'Wow. There it all is right there.' It was everything I thought it would be."
Oh, it's built up plenty big, but when Scooter and I stopped here on my cross-country Interstate 90 tour of sports, we were just like Matt on his first trip to the campus.
We posed in front of the Golden Dome, touched the "Play Like a Champion Today" sign in the stadium, read the George Gipp speech engraved on a locker room plaque, raised our arms in front of Touchdown Jesus and knelt at the Grotto. We took enough photos to boost Kodak stock 2¾ points. We were so swept up by the school's history and tradition that I swear we could almost hear the Notre Dame Victory March as we walked around the campus.
Or maybe that was just coming from Pat's Palm Pilot, which -- no surprise here -- plays the school fight song.
(Now a fund-raiser for Notre Dame, Pat is an old friend of Scooter's from Buffalo and just as insanely proud of his hometown. These guys are unbelievable. For years, Scooter has insisted on randomly naming every athlete who ever lived or played in Buffalo -- "Ernie DiGregorio, former Buffalo Brave" -- and as a test, I casually mentioned the name of Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk to Pat after Scooter introduced us. "Ray Schalk," he replied without missing a beat. "Managed the Buffalo Bison."
Along with the New York Yankees and the Green Bay Packers, Notre Dame football is a U.S. sports icon, either worshipped or hated by fans around the country. Other schools have their share of national championships (Nebraska and Oklahoma), Heisman Trophy winners (USC), inspiring fight songs (Michigan, Wisconsin), passionate fans (Nebraska), famous stadiums (Tennessee and Army), but none match the Notre Dame mystique.
"If you tell anyone anywhere in the nation that you play for Note Dame, they're blown away. Because it's Notre Dame," Matt said. "You could say I play football for Ole Miss, or anywhere else, and they would say, 'Oh. Really.' But you say Notre Dame ..."
And it's like saying you have naked photos of the USC cheerleaders.
Walk around the campus and you never forget for a single moment that you're at Notre Dame. You can't. The school always reminds you, either with the sites you've seen on TV a hundred times or with less subtle signs, such as the one in the athletic department's weight room declaring that no clothing with logos other than Notre Dame's may be worn while working out. Which really isn't a problem. The school bookstore sells so many items with the school logo that it makes Notre Dame look like one giant gift store with a university attached.
(The bookstore itself is so cathedral-like that Scooter kept looking for a font of holy water to dip his hand in.)
"See that statue over there of the man holding up his arm?" Pat said as he gave us a tour of the campus. "That depicts Chaplain Corby blessing the Irish bridgade at Gettysburg. But people just call it Fair-Catch Corby. That statue of Moses holding up his finger? That's called 'We're No. 1' Moses."
It just goes on and on. Knute Rockne once said, "Outside of the church, the best thing we've got is good clean football," but at Notre Dame, it's unclear whether football is outside of the church. There is Touchdown Jesus, after all.
As a 5-foot-10 walk-on, Krueger gets a lot of "Rudy" comments from people, which drives him nuts. He was too polite to say it, but that sort of thing has to be really annoying. Krueger is a clearly superior athlete to Rudy -- he was an all-state quarterback and set school records for total offense for South Bend's Marian high school -- and he had no trouble meeting the school's academic requirements. He also had offers from the academies and some small schools that ran the option, but he chose to walk on at Notre Dame.
He's fourth on the depth chart and spent his first two years on the scout team, imitating the upcoming opponent's quarterbacks. He hasn't played in a game yet but he has completed a pass in the stadium on national television -- to the school's unofficial mascot, Regis Philbin, when he taped a segment for his show here.
For inspiration, he keeps football cards of his hero, Doug Flutie, pinned to his bulletin board, along with messages such as, "Never, never, never, never, never give up.''
"To be part of Notre Dame football is something that you can take with you the rest of your life," Matt said. "It's an honor to say you're a part of it."
The same is true for the millions of kids playing other sports and dreaming about reaching the NFL or the NBA or the major leagues. The vast majority never will achieve their dreams, of course, but the beauty of sports is sometimes the dreams do come true.
A Catholic kid can grow up in Buffalo rooting for Notre Dame, enroll in the school, move into a dorm with a new roommate named Leahy, ask him if he's any relation to the former coach and be told, "Yeah. He's my father." A black kid named Tyrone Willingham can grow up in a small North Carolina town, walk on at Michigan State and wind up following in Leahy's footsteps as the head coach of the most famous football team in the land.
And a kid who grows up within earshot of Notre Dame's echoes can walk on at South Bend, listen to that same coach deliver a pregame pep talk, pull on the glittering golden helmet and run onto the field while the marching band fills the crisp autumn air with the Victory March. And suddenly your heart swells like the Grinch's, three times its size, filling your chest until you can hardly breathe and all you can say is, "Wow."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.