Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 19, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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30 SEPT. 19, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED T he early morning trip from Atlanta to Chi- cago to South Bend went without a hiccup for Abigail Tremble. A 3:30 a.m. departure from home, 6:10 flight, rental car pickup, breakfast on the go and two-hour drive were seamless. By 12:30 p.m., she was in her seat at Notre Dame Stadium, the difficult part of her day over, and could enjoy her third season of watching her son Tommy, a junior tight end, play for the Irish. The itemized travel schedule was complete, al- most. There was the mat- ter of lunch, a mundane occurrence. "We were like, 'We'll just eat at the stadium,'" she said afterward. But upon getting to the concession stand, she discovered the only lunch options were bottled water, soda and Gatorade. A hard lesson learned: Even the most basic, second-nature assumptions — like the availability of food at a college football game — are risky to make when attending a game in the COVID-19 era. At least there were negligible lines, Tremble said. Which makes sense. All told, 10,097 people attended the first game of the strangest season of our lifetimes that still could halt at any moment. And you didn't have to look far to see previously inconceivable but now grudgingly habitual differences. The scene around the stadium was something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. The parking lot directly south of it, normally an all-day tailgate party with the brats grilling and beer flowing, contained exactly 21 cars two and a half hours before kickoff. Nearly all were by on-campus bar Legends, unoccupied. The video board's most common usage during action breaks was a "social distancing cam," a friendly way of chiding people who were encroaching a six-foot barrier. Ush- ers' main tasks were enforcing social distancing and wiping down rail- ings with disinfectant. Players and coaches wore masks on the sidelines. ACC emblems were painted on the field, part of the new goalpost pad- ding, slapped over the Notre Dame logo on pylons and patched on the Irish's jerseys and helmets. Some- one may want to check the top of the Golden Dome for one. The marching band — er, sitting band — spread across three sections, masked up and dressed down, each member wearing the 2020 version of "The Shirt" and pants or shorts of his or her choosing. At the end of the game, they played the alma mater looking down at the socially distanced team singing it rather than the typical euphoric clump. "Very awkward," wide receiver Avery Davis wisecracked about the alma mater. "But we still got it done." The overall atmosphere was any- thing but. Pleasantly pulsing, in fact, despite a trade-off akin to swapping an iPhone for an eight-track. "At the end of the day, it's not go- ing to be the same experience," Trem- ble said. "But it's still going to be a great time. It was very much the best you can do with the scenario you're dealing with." Nothing felt forced or stilted. The game-day operations crew seemed to recognize the goal wasn't to rep- licate the din of 80,000 fans, but to play the best possible outcome with the hand that was dealt. This is still a student-driven crowd, still a Notre Dame home game featuring an Irish team ranked in the top 10. That's go- ing to create juice on its own. P l a y e r s n o t i c e d , o r more accurately, didn't notice too big a difference. "It felt like more people than I thought it would be," fifth-year senior quar- terback Ian Book said. A d d e d s o p h o m o r e running back Kyren Wil- liams: "I was hearing the fans. The music got me 'turnt.'" Ninety percent of the attendees were students, the school said. Every section had fans, though the largest gatherings of them were only four of five people. The social distancing cam frequently turned into a dance opportunity for those on it. In one uniquely 2020 in- stance, four masked students dressed as leprechauns bobbed up and down when the camera found them as ush- ers behind them warded off another group of approaching students. Students could sit only with their roommates and were not allowed to move around the stands. I'm not na- ïve enough to think there were zero instances of them meeting up with non-roommates before the game to guzzle a 30-rack, but from the press box, the scene appeared to be lively yet organized. Boos were even de- tectable when Duke ran onto the field before the game. Chants were audible and coordinated. And in this remorseless year, any football game is sacred. The Irish are one of the few teams in the Midwest still standing. The next-closest col- lege game was 261 miles away in Louisville, Ky. "It was a blessing," Williams said. "We all know six months ago we had no idea if we'd be back in the sta- dium this year." He won't be joined by 80,000 of his closest friends this year. But after one night, it seems neither he, his team- mates nor those allowed in have any reason to lament it. ✦ A Setting Unlike Any Other ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at A crowd of just 10,097 socially distancing people — approximately 90 percent of which were students — watched the Fighting Irish take down the Blue Devils in their season opener. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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