Notre Dame football maintains strong fan base in Canada
Paul Matthew travels 800 miles for four precious words.
Six Thursdays each fall, the 46-year-old Canadian clocks out after a full day’s work in Ottawa, jumps in his car and drives three hours south to Syracuse, NY. From there, he boards a train that departs at 9:49 p.m. and arrives promptly in South Bend 11 hours later.
On six select Saturdays, Matthew volunteers as an usher at Notre Dame’s home football games. The stay lasts until midnight on Sunday, when he sleeps through another 11-hour train ride, embarks on another three-hour drive and pulls into his driveway just in time for supper on Monday night.
Matthew’s pilgrimage, on the periphery, defies obvious explanation. He grew up more than 700 miles from South Bend, submerged in a culture that prefers hockey pucks to pigskins. He didn’t attend Notre Dame, nor did anyone in his family. And he certainly isn't getting rich because of it, since the job doesn't pay.
And yet, Matthew has served as an usher since 2002, working full-time since 2011. He sets aside six marathon weekends each fall, criss-crossing a familiar path to his improbable second home. The extensive travel, he admits, swallows any open hours that might’ve gone towards a more traditional vacation.
“That is my vacation,” clarifies Matthew, who works for Statistics Canada, a department in the Canadian government.
In more quantifiable terms, it’s 800 miles one way, 1,600 miles roundtrip, 9,600 miles per year. It’s six four-day weekends, 24 days per season. It’s more than three weeks of car rides and train rides and weekends at a modestly sized Catholic school in northern Indiana.
And for what? What is it about Notre Dame that keeps him coming back?
“It’s basically the pre-game, the hour and a half from when the gates open to the time the game actually starts,” Matthew explains. “People come down the tunnel, and I get to say, ‘Welcome to Notre Dame.’ It’s the reaction you get from people.
“You never lose the sense of awe.”
Fifteen years later, Paul Matthew is still in awe. And even north of the border, he isn’t the only one.
Tony Nelson watched the movie, “Knute Rockne, All American,” for the first time when he was 10 years old.
The retired teacher from two hours north of Toronto concedes that it could hardly be considered a documentary.
“As a historical piece, it’s somewhat lacking,” Nelson jokes. “However, it brought me to Notre Dame, so I don’t care.”
Nelson, in turn, helped bring Notre Dame back to Toronto. In 2011, the amateur Rockne historian — who attended his first Irish football game in 1969 — revived the Notre Dame Club of Toronto, which had grown defunct in the years prior. Their first meeting was attended by 12 people in Aug. 2011.
Five years later, the club — one of approximately 50 outside the United States and three in Canada — boasts 109 paid members, with roughly 300 more on its mailing list.
“Every person I’ve run into has a Notre Dame story,” says Nelson, who serves as the club’s president. “When people get in touch with me, I ask, ‘So, what’s your Notre Dame story?’ ‘Well, my grandmother cheered for the Irish.’ ‘I’m from an Irish-Catholic family.’ ‘Well, I kind of like the music.’ Everybody’s got a story.”
Even the non-alums. Or especially the non-alums. Of the Notre Dame Club of Toronto’s 109 paid members, 69 (63 percent) never attended the university. They watched a movie or attended a game, and in doing so, planted a seed in an immense forest.
“I don’t remember any plays, but I just remember the way it felt in the stadium,” Sean Fitz-Gerald, a sportswriter for the Toronto Star, says of his first game inside Notre Dame Stadium. “That’s the thing, right? We don’t have anything like that up here. Nothing. We’re nuts for hockey, but we don’t have that sense of community, that rallying point, that sense of tradition. When you go there, that’s what it feels like.”
Zeke O’Connor knows the feeling. A 1948 Notre Dame graduate, O’Connor started at the end position in his freshman season in 1944 and later won national championships under head coach Frank Leahy in 1946 and 1947. After bouncing around several NFL rosters, he found a home with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL and caught a touchdown pass that secured a Grey Cup victory in 1952. After retiring from the sport, O’Connor served as the color commentator for Grey Cup broadcasts from 1956 to 1981.
O’Connor, who grew up in New York but still lives in Toronto, has seen college football — Notre Dame included — follow him across the border.
“Over the years, the fan base for American football has really grown,” says O’Connor, who celebrated his 90th birthday in May. “The fan base for college football on TV has grown immensely.”
In the 2014-15 season, viewership of college football bowl games rose by 74 percent compared to the previous year on The Sports Network (TSN), Canada’s version of ESPN. The 2015 Rose Bowl Game was the highest rated college football game in Canadian television history.
It’s not quite “Knute Rockne, All American,” but college football has found an audience in Canada all the same.
“As a Canadian, the experience of an American college football game is true culture shock,” Matthew says. “There’s nothing to compare that to in this country, and that’s why I kept going back.
“It wasn’t a Notre Dame thing at first. It was a college football thing. But over time, I realized the significance of Notre Dame.”
Joe Bowen’s Notre Dame story includes a jam-packed RV, a round of golf and a continuous stream of pit stops.
The annual pilgrimage begins in Toronto, where Bowen — the broadcasting voice of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs — his four sons and an assortment of friends and family rent an RV, gather supplies and head west, arriving in East Lansing, Mich., roughly five eventful hours later.
“When we started it, the kids wanted to make sure the Nintendo worked in the back so they could play,” says Bowen, who attended his first Notre Dame football game in 1996. “Now things have changed. Priorities have changed. We have to stop more often to pick up beer.”
With beers in hand, Bowen and Co. participate in an annual ritual on Thursday morning, affectionately dubbed the “I Miss My Wife” golf tournament. Eighteen holes and a few pesky bogies later, a trophy is awarded to the winner and the group again hits the road. The RV cruises into South Bend on Thursday evening and submerges itself in a sea of tailgates on Saturday. (And for the record, theirs is the rare RV flying a blue Maple Leaf flag overhead.)
But even in a cramped RV, there’s always someone missing. Bowen’s father was a steadfast Notre Dame football fan, with parents that immigrated from Ireland to Canada but never lost their roots. On Sunday mornings in Sudbury, Ontario, Joe and his father would settle in front of the television and watch highlights of the Fighting Irish.
In a way, so little has changed. The annual trip has featured as many as four fathers and eight sons in a given year, Joe says, and plenty of beer (and once, Nintendo). But at its core, it’s still about family, football and fall Saturdays at Notre Dame.
“My father was a supporter, but he never got to go to a game in South Bend,” Bowen says. “I’ve been very fortunate to go a number of times, and each time we go, we go down to the Grotto and I wish that he was there.”
Sean Fitz-Gerald once snuck out of a house party in New Jersey to watch the second half of a Notre Dame football game at a dingy bar a block away. The last time the Irish beat Michigan, Fitz-Gerald listened to the game discreetly during a wedding, with his iPhone stashed in his blazer and his ear buds drowning out the toasts.
He is not proud of this behavior, nor can he explain it.
“The Notre Dame fandom thing, there’s no rational explanation,” Fitz-Gerald says with a laugh. “I didn’t go to the school. I don’t know anybody really who went to the school. I’m a Canadian living in the city (of Toronto). Notre Dame is in the U.S. in northern Indiana. Political views, religious views don’t necessarily line up.
“But the best conclusion I can come up with is for the same reason a lot of people in New York love Notre Dame. I think it can go back generationally. My dad loved Notre Dame. From what I can gather, his dad, maybe even his grandfather, followed Notre Dame.”
The trait was passed down, as hereditary and inevitable as curly hair or an attached earlobe.
“On a Notre Dame Saturday, you weren’t allowed to talk in the basement if the game was on. It was shut up and watch the game time,” Fitz-Gerald recalls. “If you wanted to be downstairs, you’re watching the game. When you’re a kid, you don’t know anything different. It was always on.”
In the Fitz-Gerald household, it’s still always on (provided the game isn’t banished to the outer reaches of NBC Sports Network). Fitz-Gerald still watches games in the basement, and the usual rules still apply.
And as for his five-year-old son, Brendan?
“Oh, he’s screwed. He’s absolutely screwed,” Fitz-Gerald jokes. “He’s got the team shirt from a couple years ago when he went down there (for the spring game). It still fits him. He’s got a little Notre Dame jersey.
“The worst part is — and this is the part I should really feel guilty about — he’s got a 17-month-old sister that’s got Notre Dame gear of her own. When she’s old enough, she’ll end up learning a bunch of new swear words in the basement, watching it with me and him. It’s just awful.”
Such is the beautiful, merciless, generational circle of Irish fandom. Someday, Brendan Fitz-Gerald will slide out of the back door of a fancy house party and hustle to a pub to check the score. Bowen’s sons will load their own sons into a rusty RV, video games in hand, and voyage west to East Lansing for a golf tournament, then south to South Bend and the Grotto. Members of various Notre Dame clubs will come and go, each with their separate story.
“I’m a grown human being,” Fitz-Gerald says. “I’m 39 years old, and I know these are kids. But just to see the helmet and jersey and see the reaction it engenders from people in the stands, it means something.”
“It’s a phenomenon that I accept, but I don’t fully understand it,” Nelson adds. “But it’s really nice to be a part of it.”
The truth is, on Saturdays in the fall, Notre Dame football transcends borders. Some folks just have to travel a little further to reach their second home.
“It’s inexplicable, because Notre Dame might not represent anything that you stand for…except in that football stadium,” Fitz-Gerald says. “Then it’s everything, right? It’s what you remember from your childhood. It’s bonds with family. It’s time in the basement with your mom and dad and sister, watching them cough up some late lead to Florida State, then you spend the rest of your day kicking around and stewing over it all day Sunday.
“But you were all in it together. That’s just as powerful up here as it is for fans in the U.S.”