Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Touchdown Jesus | by Jay

While we're on a book review kick, we thought we'd take a look at Touchdown Jesus, Scott Eden's (ND '97) new book about faith and fandom at Notre Dame.

For Eden, what started out as an exploration of the convergence of religion and football under the Dome slowly became something different, as the events of the 2004 season and Tyrone Willingham's ouster unfolded. A tableau of vivid character portraits, Touchdown Jesus also works as a chronicle of Willingham's last season, as seen through the eyes of Notre Dame's most fervent fans.

Recently we sat down for a few beers with the author to talk about his new book.

The Blue-Gray Sky: How did you get the idea for the book?

Scott Eden: Originally it was going to be a small article, drawn from wandering around the parking lots during tailgating. It was kind of a silly idea about the combination of the sacred and the profane on a Notre Dame gameday, about how people go to the Grotto, and then go to the tailgates, which can sometimes be fairly raucous. I wanted to explore that sacred-profane move, and I eventually published the article in this obscure literary magazine. It was called “Parking Lot Religion.”

Then a friend of mine who was a grad student at ND went on to become a publisher at Paulist Press. He suggested that I expand the article into a longer piece, but still short, 150 pages max, about how religion and football fandom intermingle at ND, how people treat ND as a pilgrimage site, both religiously and secularly. But do it over the course of an entire season, and really explore why people are fans, their passion, what draws them to ND.

So, of course, it was the ’04 season, the third of Willingham’s tenure, and the other thing that’s happening is this undercurrent of dissatisfaction over the last ten years, this percolating discontent, so I wound up exploring that, too.

I set off on the research pretty early last year, back in the summer of ’04. One of the first things I looked at that summer was something called the Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp. I figured that would be a good way to get a look at some truly diehard fans; only the most diehard would be spending three thousand dollars on something like that, so I hung around the camp for three days. Ironically, it ended up not making the book, which is a shame, because there was a lot of good material there.

Then I wanted to find an ensemble cast of fans, from alumni, to subway alumni, trying to get at all the different angles. These would be my characters through the season.

That’s one of the greatest things about the book. You found some great fans – subway alums, the seminarians – all these representatives from all kinds of different demographics who follow ND.

And there’s plenty of people I missed, too.

How did you find all these different people? Just via friends and connections, through the ND message boards…?

Well, just a for instance, the Hallahan group that tailgates at the Neighborhood of Hope…I actually went to the Blue and Gold game in the spring of ’04, and that’s where I met Hallahan. There was this hive of activity, and of course they were having a good time.

And you just walk up, and say, Hi, I’m writing a book…

Sure, and they were immediately interested. And Tracy was there with his friends, and they’ve got the leprechaun tattoos, and his son was there…in the book, I describe him. He’s this big, burly red-headed Irish kid with a leprechaun tattoo and a gothic “Fighting” on one forearm and “Irish” on the other. So of course that interested me immediately.

Other people came up by word of mouth. Eddie Gadawski, the tavern owner in Niagara Falls, well, a friend of mine is from there, too, and he put me on to Eddie. Eddie, turns out, is fairly famous. He’s known in California and other places around the country, and he's known by this core group of people that come to every game, and their headquarters is the bar in the Morris Inn, Leahy's. That’s also how I found out about Sharon Loftus, the woman who moved from California to South Bend… So you kind of move from one person to the next. A lot of it was by word of mouth.

And for every one of these stories, there’s hundreds…

Yeah, you could just keep going.

Have you talked to any of those people after the book came out? What’s the reaction?

Very positive. Of course, Hallahan, being a very sentimental guy – and maybe he doesn’t want me to say this – but he was crying when I first presented him with a copy, and then later, after he read his chapter, he told me how much he loved it. Eddie Colton, the cop, loved it too.

So on one hand, you’ve got this great book about tailgating and all the colorful personalities that surround it, and it struck me that you could do that kind of book almost any football season – they’re great stories, and they’re timeless. On the other hand, since you were writing it last year, you got to see everything through the lens of the Willingham brouhaha. And the events last season really permeate all the character profiles, and as a topic of conversation, it just keeps coming up again and again.

And that stuff wouldn’t have been as important if the season hadn't ended like it had. It wasn’t that significant a piece of the book's original scope. It wasn't my original intent to get into all the palace politics. Let’s say Willingham hadn’t been fired—it would have been a different book. From beginning to end, the structure would have been different. The “Call for Change” letter wouldn’t have been up front, for instance. But everything got shifted because of what happened with Ty.

Was it difficult to blend everything together?

Yeah. Obviously, the book follows the chronology of the season, but in figuring out the book's structure, you also have to hang off of that chronology all these different topics you want to hit, and, in addition, you’ve got to tell the story of the firing. Then you’ve got to find places within that larger structure for all the topics that don’t have anything to do, directly, with that central, season-long narrative arch: the tailgaters and the history of subway alumni and so forth. Topics that could stand alone and be written about in any season. If the book had been written almost any other year, chronology wouldn’t have been important at all.

Whom did you interview from the University for the book?

Well, some I can say, some I can’t. Obviously, I talked to Monk, and I also sat down with Father Hesburgh. I never did talk to Kevin White. Some important people were kept off-limits, like John Affleck-Graves and Father Jenkins. Believe me, I tried. Couldn’t talk to Willingham, either. But there are a lot of people within Notre Dame that I talked to that were off-the-record conversations.

Was there any official reaction from the University towards the book?

Not the University, but you know, the bookstore will not promote it. Evidently, they’re carrying it now, but originally they said they wouldn’t even sell it. So as of right now they’re selling it, but I won’t be in the lobby signing books anytime soon. Basically, they considered it an “unfriendly portrait.” Of what, I don’t know. To me, it’s not unfriendly at all. It's just the opposite.

There’s a quote in the book from Jim O’Connor, the manager of the bookstore, where he sweeps his hand across the atrium and says, “The experience begins here. Nowhere else in college football, or in collegiate merchandising, will you have such a dramatic entrance.” I must admit I chuckled at that description, because if anybody has a criticism with the ostentatious merchandising of Notre Dame, that’s where it starts.

And that’s fine, that’s Jim’s job. But, as you say, I also make note of other opinions that exist out there. As any alumni or student or faculty member will tell you, some people are critical of the new bookstore. It’s just another interesting aspect of Notre Dame football, which is that it’s this amazing commercial endeavor.

It’s a fine line to walk. You want to exploit the brand, but at the same time you don’t want to dilute it.

And it is a brand. It’s very possible, of course, that the bookstore people are a little irate about that particular chapter.

You explored a lot of history in the book, and obviously there are some exhaustive histories of Notre Dame out there. But for your book, you were able to go back and get select passages and quotes from, for example, John Cardinal O’Hara, directly relating to football and fandom at Notre Dame.

A lot of those details I discovered by reading Murray Sperber's excellent history of Notre Dame football—Shake Down the Thunder. For me, the most surprising thing to discover during the research was the O’Hara stuff, and when he was the Prefect of Religion at ND especially. His views on the role that football plays at the University are fascinating—he felt that the religious and spiritual lives of Notre Dame students had an almost one-to-one relationship with how the football team performed. He even worked out this elaborate calculus of daily communion and how it would empower the team—that it was a communal kind of effort on Saturdays.

It reminds me of the current “Candle” ad that ND features right now as the halftime advertisement for the University. Here’s a girl with a prayer to get into Notre Dame, and her prayers are answered because she apparently prays hard enough. And that message is being conveyed via the medium of a football game.

Right. And what’s the difference between that, and praying for the team to win a game? It goes right back to O’Hara. The Grotto, for instance, does too. The O’Hara days are when the Grotto really became a pre-game “place”. His Religious Bulletin [a campus circular of the day] did a lot for how we conceive of Notre Dame football today. “Notre Dame football is a spiritual service” and stuff like that. All these rituals developed, I think, directly out of his ideas.

And you go through the history, down the line to Hesburgh…

Well, one of Hesburgh’s goals, and this goes beyond football, was to get away from a certain brand of piety at ND and in Catholic America at the time—as he calls it, a “results-oriented piety”, which in his eyes was kind of superficial. Faith for Hesburgh was more than just praying and going through the motions. And it wasn't just him, either. There’s the old English professor Frank O’Malley, who had Hesburgh-esque ideas in that way. O'Malley was also after a more intellectually rigorous spirituality.

You quote one of Hesburgh’s critical remarks, about not “prizing piety over competence”, which seems to be what Hesburgh was all about. And it’s what he did with the football team, too, in a sense. He was accused of “de-emphasizing” football, but he explained it as being “over-emphasized” to the exclusion of other things at Notre Dame.

Right. And the question is: What’s de-emphasis? What’s over-emphasis? What do those terms mean? Again, it’s this fine line—a line that shifts. To this day there’s a tension about the football team, and about the role of religion as it connects with sport at Notre Dame. At the end of the one chapter, there’s the story about the priest who goes out on the field after a game and spreads the ashes of George Gipp onto the field. Within Notre Dame and within the CSC there are people uncomfortable with that kind of ritual.

And someone told that priest he wouldn’t be allowed on the field anymore because he wasn’t insured. So, it’s interesting that everything that Monk went through the wringer on with regards to football really is just a reliving of things that go on again and again in ND’s history, especially during Hesburgh’s time.

That was one of the points of retelling all that stuff, to show that what happened to Monk had happened to Hesburgh too. Hesburgh, who is now deified, who has become an icon of sorts himself, went through similar stuff when dealing with the football program.

You relied on the internet a lot for this book, for research and contacts and so forth. You also relied on it for showing the reaction of the anonymous common fan, the “man in the street”, especially during the time of the Willingham firing. Is there any danger to using anonymous quotes to characterize the feeling of the times?

Sure. Only a small percentage of the Notre Dame fan base actually posts on message boards, but because it’s a highly public forum, it seems like it’s a lot larger, and more representative of the status quo about how fans think, than it really might be. But I will say this: a lot of the fans that I talked to and profiled, like Hallahan and Gadawski, they weren’t frequenting the message boards at all, and yet their feelings pretty much mirrored what was going on on the boards.

The danger is – and I’m not sure I succeeded – is to not rely on opinions on a message board as the “majority” opinion of ND fans. Especially since there are different degrees of fans, from people who casually root for a team, to those who are posting on message boards a dozen times a day.

There are a lot of extreme viewpoints posted on a message board, so it was funny to read about posts being “printed out” and laid on the desks of officials at the University.

A place like NDNation changes things a bit, because while its chief posters might represent a fraction of all Notre Dame fans—the diehards, the ones that watch every single game or break down game tape or go to many games in a year—nevertheless, because it’s a public place, those message-board posters end up shaping opinion as well as reflecting it. Even if certain themes get put out there by the small fraction of fans who actually post on a message board, it’s still shaping opinion. So many more people read it, and even for those who read only once a week or so, or hear about it from someone else, the ideas get disseminated.

Do you think the NDNation “Call for Change” letter had a role in the firing of Willingham?

I have no idea how big, but, like the message boards themselves, I think the letter absolutely had a role in shaping general opinion about the direction of the team under Willingham. The letter voiced an opinion that was passed along not just on NDNation, but by word of mouth, or in articles that covered it in the Chicago Tribune and other papers, and it eventually formed the basis for the letter-writing campaign that occurred at the end of the season. And I have to think that people at ND must have acknowledged that there did exist a disgruntled percentage of alums and fans—however large or small—and I believe it had to have at least played a part in the ultimate decision to fire. It only makes sense, given the outcome. But there’s no way to gauge that, without sitting down with the decision makers and having them hash it all out. Or giving them some kind of truth serum.

And remember that many of the same reasons that were given by the letter were the same reasons that Father Jenkins has cited since then. So even if the Call for Change letter wasn't the prime motivator, the feelings about the situation were a shared thing; a lot of people were feeling the same way - not all of them, as we know - from grassroots subway alum all the way up to Notre Dame trustees. I think that much is obvious.

You talk about the media reaction to the Willingham firing a lot, and it’s all so recent. The book is very timely in that we just went through all this stuff, and a lot of the media reaction you can still look up online. And you pegged the two main themes that came out of all that; number one, that Notre Dame football is “dead”, and that Notre Dame is “selling its soul” to become a football factory. You point out that almost every article had one or sometimes both of those themes as its basis.

Yep, there’s an obvious cycle of ND media coverage that takes place, and now it’s turning again. Now it’s the “Return…” angle, which we’ve also seen again and again, even during Ty's first year. And as ND has success in the future, at some point it’ll be the football factory “selling-your-soul” angle again. I should say that this cycle observation isn't my own—others have pointed it out as well, and I'm not ashamed to say that I stole it. Good poets borrow, great ones steal, as someone once said.

Was there anything that didn’t make it into the book?

Oh, my gosh, lots. The ushers—the stadium ushers, I’m disappointed I couldn’t find a way to fit them in. Interesting people – diehards. And how it’s all run is very interesting, how they’ve made an effort to put a happy face on game day, “Welcome to Notre Dame stadium,” and all the ushers are graded on that. They have these meetings that are almost militaristic before the games, they get in their platoons, and there’s an interesting hierarchical organization with colonels and captains and lieutenants. They have uniform checks, and they get demerits when things aren’t right. And what’s more fascinating than that are the ushers themselves, and what lengths they will go to be ushers. There are guys who fly in from California for every game to be a part of it. And very few of them are alumni.

As an alum and a fan of Notre Dame football yourself, were you conscious of any pitfalls of perspective or subjectivity you had to avoid in writing this book?

Well, I tried not to make it too first-person-y. For one thing, I didn’t want it to be “the normal guy in the group of crazies," and let’s all chuckle at these nutball fanatics. Because I’m one of them.

I don't know if I succeeded, but I felt it would be just enough that at certain key moments I would reveal my own status as an ND fan. One of those moments is when I talk about the Boston College game in 1993, when I disclose that I was a freshman at this point, and here was me being a fan at that game. Mostly I wanted to be way in the background, and I preferred a third-person account. The “I” narrator wouldn’t have worked for all the ground I had to cover anyway, so I didn’t want it to be a travelogue account. I wanted the freedom to jump between different characters and different places in the country, or move into a digression on the history of subway alum, for instance, and if it's a first-person travelogue, you'd have less leeway to do that sort of thing. It would have taken up too many pages to explain why you were all of a sudden in Niagara Falls, New York.

Plus, I’m a boring guy. If I had an “I” narrator, then I'd have to explain myself. I'd be forced to go into my own autobiographical background, and who would want to read about that?

Thanks to Scott Eden for sharing his thoughts on his new book. Be sure to check out Touchdown Jesus: Faith and Fandom at Notre Dame.