Late to the Game

Author: Hailey Oppenlander

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There was a time in my life when I didn’t know what the Golden Dome was. (A dark and scary time, I know.)

In the fall of my junior year of high school, my family and I visited Notre Dame for the first time. We were supposed to meet near this thing called “the Golden Dome” for our campus tour, although none of us knew what it was. After finding our way with the help of kind students, we finally made our way to the Admissions Office, and they directed us to the prospective student information session.

As we went on our campus tour that Friday afternoon, we wondered why the campus was bustling. We passed the Pom Squad dancers performing outside the stadium, the band playing on God Quad, and an a cappella group singing the Victory March in the Bookstore. People were everywhere.

Had we even thought to check the football schedule? No. And even if we had, would we have known that the next day’s game against Michigan State was the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century? Definitely not. 

Three years ago, I really didn’t know much about ND, or football, or the Golden Dome – clearly.

All it took was one visit. And I was – am – obsessed.

As cliché as it sounds, when I visited campus, I just felt like I was at home. Notre Dame had everything I wanted – amazing academics in every field (a comfort to an indecisive person like myself), a commitment to service and social justice, opportunities for spiritual development, and a social scene with plenty of activities to keep students busy on the weekends. But beyond the checklist, Notre Dame just had that feeling. I walked around campus and knew that this university was special. The place itself is absolutely gorgeous, with the Golden Dome gleaming over campus each day, the lakes offering a quick escape to nature, and the Grotto bringing peace and reflection among the busyness of college life. I found the people to be even more stunning – so many students were doing amazing things with their lives already, yet were so humble. And I’d never seen anything like that football pre-game frenzy, with thousands of fans filling campus with their love for Notre Dame. 

After that visit, I knew that I wanted and needed to attend Notre Dame. I spent way too much time learning about ND’s quirky traditions and unique atmosphere by watching random YouTube videos and reading blogs about ND life. (If it’s possible to “stalk” a university online, that’s pretty much what I did.) By the time I arrived for move-in, I impressed my roommates with my knowledge of even lesser-known traditions and my fervor for all things Notre Dame, although no one in my family went here.

I’ve met so many students with deep family ties to Notre Dame. Some live in the same dorm their mom or dad was in. They’ve grown up knowing everything about the Fighting Irish football team and have been attending games yearly since they can remember. They even have pictures of themselves as 4-year-olds dressed in Notre Dame cheerleader or leprechaun outfits.

My family had never been to Notre Dame until my campus tour. I didn’t get my first piece of ND apparel until that day either. I’d never even watched a Notre Dame football game on TV until later that year, and my first time attending a game in person was the first game of my freshman year against Michigan. I woke up at 6 a.m. to go to College Gameday, and had never been so excited to watch a sport that, despite the efforts of my best friend to explain everything, still confuses me at times. I’ve never missed a home game, and now I watch the away games on TV – football has taken over!

When people see the amount of ND gear in my closet, my excitement when season football tickets arrive in my inbox, or the stress I feel about entering the stadium early enough so I get a good seat, I probably look like any other lifelong Notre Dame fan.

Even though I wonder what it would be like to have grown up loving Notre Dame, this is the one time I’m glad that I arrived late to the game. Notre Dame is something that I chose, and I think the novelty of my ND experience makes me love it even more.