Friday, October 27, 2017

The Eternal Flame of the Touchdown Jesus Barbecue


USC's shellacking at Notre Dame last weekend has me reminiscing about my first trip to South Bend, which is now -- my god -- more than 25 years ago. 

But that experience in October 1991 explains why I still have a special place in my heart for Notre Dame and its fans.

I'd grown up watching Notre Dame during the time when the Irish and the "U" fought in the tunnel before they battled on the football field.

I watched Rocket Ishmael perform miracles on TV before I saw Reggie Bush perform them in real life at the Coliseum. 

But I'd also taken a screenwriting class as an undergrad and had the improbable idea of going to film school at USC.

I even started walking around the Iowa State campus wearing a Trojans baseball cap. 

The road trip to South Bend started out as a good idea. A guy I knew from ISU (Patrick) had transferred to be a student trainer for the Notre Dame football team. 

(He may have been the only person who actually enjoyed Lou Holtz yelling at him). 

Late on a Thursday, he called to say he had two tickets, which were already paid for. If we just showed up…they were free.

Notre Dame was ranked #5 at the time. How could anything possibly go wrong?

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

I called a friend with a reliable car and told him the good news.

As I recall, other than my college roommate, no one really knew where we were headed. There were no Facebook status updates or texting (and I guess there were phones), but I didn't bother to call anyone. 

We just took off on the six-and-a-half hour road trip on a whim. 

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

For some reason, we got a late start on Friday, so we didn't get to South Bend until early morning. 

It was raining like crazy, the soaked streets surging like a river.

Rather than go to Patrick's apartment at such a crazy hour, we decided to stay in the only cheap hotel that appeared to have a vacancy. 

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

The next morning we slept too late, so of course we drove way too fast toward Patrick's apartment, which was apparently near the stadium. 

(Before Google Maps...or even Google...all we had was a complete address and half of a clue). 

Fortunately, the rain had stopped and the sun was now beating down. 

What we didn't anticipate was the long line of cars snaking their way to the stadium. 

My friend's car, which was very reliable speeding down an open road, turned out to not be very reliable sitting in traffic. 

It overheated and we pulled into a driveway, steam spilling from under the hood. 

There we were -- dressed in our USC gear -- in a stranger's driveway in South Bend. 

Not far away, a group of 40-something guys was grilling out, the traditional pre-game tailgate. 

As my friend fretted over the car, I tried to lighten things up by quickly (and quietly, I thought) dubbing their tailgate -- "The Eternal Flame of the Touchdown Jesus Barbecue." 

My friend laughed. Then he said, "Uh, oh. Maybe they heard you." 

Like a massive offensive line, the Notre Dame guys walked toward us as a group and the short one said, "What's the problem, guys?" 

We apologized for parking in their driveway, explained about the car, and then told them we also needed to find our friend's apartment to get our free tickets. 

They informed us there was no time to find our friend because the game would be starting soon. 

And instead of giving us grief about our USC apparel, they gave us food. 

They told us to leave the car parked in the driveway until after the game. 

And they walked with us to the stadium to help us find tickets. 

But the game was sold out. It was Notre Dame vs. USC. No one had tickets. Except a guy scalping them for $100 each. 

The barbecue guys generously offered to pay for the tickets, but it didn't seem right.

So, we dug out the cash, handed it over, thanked the barbecue crew, and searched for our seats.

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

So, now we were sitting in the middle of the Notre Dame alumni section, the only two people wearing USC gear. 

And this guy next to us, a physician from Pennsylvania, who flew back for all of his alma mater's home games, started up a conversation. 

We told him about the car and the free tickets and how we ended up next to him. 

He and his wife were amused (and probably took pity on us), so he pulled out his checkbook, signed one of them, and handed it to my friend.

A blank check. From a total stranger. To help pay for the car repair. 

We thanked him, but declined politely. It just didn't seem right.

The game was close. Notre Dame won 24-20, thanks to some little-known fullback named Jerome Bettis, who ran for 178 yards and two touchdowns.

*** 

After the game, the embers of the "The Eternal Flame of the Touchdown Jesus Barbecue" were still alive.

They were no longer tailgating. They'd just transitioned to grilling dinner.

They razzed us a little bit about USC losing, but not too much. And they fed us again. 

Then they asked us if we needed a place to stay. We reminded them of the friend who had the free tickets.

(Of course, that was the plan all along, right? Free football tickets, then party with Notre Dame students afterwards.)

We showed the barbecue guys our friend's address and they began to laugh. One of them might have even done a "spit take" with his beer. 

Confused, my friend and I looked at each other as they started laughing harder...and then pointing.

Patrick's apartment -- where our free tickets were waiting -- was visible from their driveway. Maybe half a block away.

The guys told us just to leave the car, go have fun with our friends, and pick up the car the next morning. 

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

When we get to Patrick's apartment, there was a decent group of Notre Dame students, who were all eager to laugh at our misery.

And we were eager to entertain them with our mishaps and misadventures.

To rub salt in our wounds, we learned they'd left the door unlocked for us in case we showed up at the last minute.

Patrick said, "Sounds like everything went according to plan. Only mistake you made was not taking that blank check."

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

To prepare for the long drive home, we stayed up basically until dawn. Why? 

Because there were girls there, of course. Notre Dame girls who were infinitely interesting -- smart, funny, and, well, Catholic.  

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

The next morning, my friend and I shuffled down the street to find the "The Eternal Flame of the Touchdown Jesus Barbecue" still burning brightly.

It was Sunday morning. They all attended mass on Saturday night. And besides, someone had to keep the grill going for the NFL games later in the day. 

The Notre Dame guys razzed us a little bit about USC losing, and striking out with the Catholic girls, and then they give us more food.

Finally, we headed for the car to make the long drive home, and the short guy shouted, "Hey, kid!" 

I turned. He raised a beer and said, "To the eternal flame!"

Slightly embarrassed, I did the only thing appropriate for a guy wearing a USC cap in a stranger's driveway in South Bend.  

Instinctively, for whatever reason, I raised two fingers in what could have been a peace sign and said, "Fight on!" 

***

Somehow we found maybe the only mechanic in South Bend open on a Sunday. 

He gave us a "special discount" for people dressed in USC gear and stuck in South Bend. 

As I recall, it was just north of $600. 

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

***

The long drive home was a quiet one. 

We were probably both contemplating how a road trip to get free tickets had turned into the price of a hotel room, $200 in scalped tickets, and a $600+ car repair. 

When he dropped me off back at college, I wrote my friend a check for $300 and hoped it didn't bounce. (I'd already paid cash for my ticket and for my half of the hotel room). 

At first he refused, but I insisted. 

"My three hundred dollars is for being dumb enough to suggest this trip," I said. 

"Yours is for being dumb enough to go with me."

*** 

Was it wasteful? Probably. 

Was it worth it? Absolutely. 

Would I change anything? Nope. 

Well, okay, maybe I would have taken the blank check. 

If there’s doctor from Pennsylvania, who remembers this story, just know that I’m now much older and only slightly wiser…so, if the offer still stands...you can overnight that blank check to Redondo Beach. 

***

A few years after the road trip, I met a girl who was infinitely interesting -- smart, funny, and, well, Catholic (at the time).

And a few years after that, I eventually made it to USC. 

Most of the college kids I know these days are very bright, very focused, and very driven. 

There's a lot of pressure for them to fill their resumes with accomplishments, or even start their own businesses, on the way to a good career and a good life. 

But I hope they still have those experiences where they can look back after more than 25 years and say...

It was college. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Things kind of just happened.

Guest blogger Donnie Becker is an accomplished speechwriter who currently resides in Redondo Beach, CA with his wife, that girl who was infinitely interesting -- smart, funny, and, well, Catholic (at the time). And except for the Catholic part...still is.

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