Sept. 27, 2014
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Sean McGovern looked up after taking a chomp of the sausage-and-peppers sandwich at a tailgater in the MetLife Stadium parking lot. It was a few hours before the University of Notre Dame and Syracuse would kick off in a primetime tilt and McGovern threw a question to his cousin.
"Hey, Johnny, why are we Notre Dame fans?"
"We're Irish-American kids who grew up in West Orange," answered John O'Rourke, a 43-year-old now living in Chatham, N.J.
"It's what we know. It's who we are," said McGovern, a 47-year-old from Roseland, N.J.
The official count of Notre Dame alumni in the New York City metropolitan area is 8,768 active members across eight alumni clubs. That figure doesn't include alums who aren't active, and it's impossible to capture the number of subway alums such as McGovern and O'Rourke.
Notre Dame has a long history with the New York City area. Father Edward Sorin, the priest who founded Notre Dame, said his first Mass in the United States at St. Peter's Church in downtown Manhattan.
The Fighting Irish have played 26 games in Yankee Stadium, 24 in the old venue and two in the new one, including last season's Pinstripe Bowl victory against Rutgers. In 1946, in a game of the century, Notre Dame and Army played to a 0-0 tie in Yankee Stadium. The Irish posted an 11-0 mark in Giants Stadium. Tonight Notre Dame takes a 0-1 record at MetLife Stadium into the game against Syracuse.
For many, the relationship that fans in the New York City area have with Notre Dame is has much to do with football as it does religion and culture. McGovern and O'Rourke were part of a 40-person bus trip organized by the Essex County Chapter of the Emerald Society, the West Orange Shillelagh Club and McGovern's Tavern in Newark.
Before the days when football dominated weekend television, these fans grew up on Notre Dame football by watching the old Sunday morning replays. And there are the stories, mythical and real, of Catholic school children being taught the Notre Dame "Victory March" by nuns and being led in prayers for Irish wins by priests.
Former Notre Dame quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Tony Rice witnessed this well-rooted tradition.
"You have fans, little guys, kids coming up asking us old guys for autographs or a picture. They heard it from their fathers and their fathers heard from their fathers down the line," said Rice, while in the midst of a corn hole game outside MetLife.
Rice was attending a tailgate party amid a swarm of people, including fellow 1988 national championship teammates Wes Pritchett, Michael Stonebreaker, and Mike Brennan.
"Notre Dame has a large following. To see everyone come to New York, to see the overwhelming number of Irish fans here when Syracuse is from New York--it's amazing. Notre Dame is a traveling team," Rice added.
Kelly Anderson, a 2004 Notre Dame graduate now living in East Rutherford, N.J., tried to capture the devout nature of following the Irish. She recalled her orientation as a first-year student at Notre Dame and how she heard about the Notre Dame family. She carries that with her today when she travels to games.
"I seize every opportunity, even when they're remotely close," she said. "Every game it's like coming home to your family."
-- by Jerry Barca, special correspondent