In college football, no school wakes the echoes, shakes down the thunder and inflames the passions like the University of Notre Dame. When Notre Dame plays Monday night in the national championship game against Alabama, the cheering interests of suburban fans will revolve around Notre Dame and the hate and love that school in South Bend, Ind., inspires.
"I've got a beautiful Notre Dame scarf that keeps me warm," notes Al Larson, the mayor of Schaumburg and a lifelong Notre Dame fan.
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Never a student at Notre Dame, Larson developed his love of the university the old-fashioned way, as a boy attending St. Priscilla Elementary School on Chicago's Far Northwest Side.
"The teachers were all Franciscan nuns," says Larson. "I got all my injections of Notre Dame loyalty during grade school."
For Larson, cheering for Notre Dame had a practical application. "When Notre Dame won on Saturday, the nuns all came in on Monday in good moods," Larson says.
For generations of Catholics and Irish immigrants, rooting for Notre Dame became almost a religious obligation. But the school also picked up legions of fans who liked the way the school built football teams, the tradition of winning and the school's rich history.
"They are like converts to a faith. They make the best fans of all," says Wauconda's Al Salvi, who was born into his Notre Dame obsession. Salvi's father, Albert, graduated from Notre Dame, Salvi graduated from Notre Dame and his daughter, Mary, is a sophomore at Notre Dame. While Salvi always roots for Notre Dame, he'll have the additional pull in Monday's game to cheer on his nephews, Chris and Will Salvi, who played football at Carmel High School in Mundelein and now both play for Notre Dame.
"I like the tradition. Notre Dame fans like the pageantry of college football," says Salvi, recapping his tradition of going to football games at Notre Dame. "I like to go to the Dome and watch as the band -- the first college band -- plays the No. 1 fight song in the country. It's a great experience. It's something very special and very different."
The Notre Dame band, founded in 1846, played for the first home football game against Michigan in 1887 and hasn't missed a game since. Student Knute Rockne (more on him in a few paragraphs) played flute in the band. The Notre Dame fight song was named the greatest college song in a book written by a retired Northern Illinois University professor, Bill Studwell, who listed the NIU song as 23rd best.
Even people who root against Notre Dame must acknowledge its place in history. The small school in rural Indiana brought the dream of college to many immigrant families. In the 1920s, the former-flutist Rockne, a Lutheran immigrant from Norway, became the winningest coach in college football history. Rockne's undefeated championship teams of 1929 and 1930 featured a running back with the non-Irish name of Marchy Schwartz.
In 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its popularity, Notre Dame stood up to the hate with public clashes against the KKK's rally in South Bend that May.
Today, some people root against Notre Dame as a response to the modern clergy sex scandal and cover-up by the Catholic Church. Some root against Notre Dame because they see it as a symbol in the political battle about women's reproductive rights. Some root against Notre Dame because the school invited President Barack Obama to speak there.
"It's not political," says Salvi, a conservative Republican who cheers for his Notre Dame nephews, whose father is a Democrat, as their Fighting Irish take on the Crimson Tide of Alabama. "Alabama is the reddest state of all. It's not about politics."
If Notre Dame's history plays a role in your rooting interest, you should know that Alabama is famous for having to be humiliated into allowing African-Americans on its football team. A 42-21 loss to the USC Trojans and star African-American running back Sam Cunningham in 1970 is considered to be the turning point that convinced Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant to begin recruiting black student athletes and end segregation.
So you've got history, tradition and good solid college football to pull you into Monday night's game. If you can't get worked up about Alabama, Notre Dame, the Bowl Championship Series or the end of college football for the year, you might just need to know that Monday means we are only a month away from the four greatest words in sports: "Pitchers and catchers report."