For one to better understand why college football teams would travel almost 4,000 miles to play a game where the sport is about as foreign as moon rocks, a brief history lesson is in order. Long before they were nicknamed the Fighting Irish, back when firebrand coach Knute Rockne had his Notre Dame team wandering coast to coast in search of new Saturday-afternoon conquests, they were alternately called, for good reason, the Rovers or the Ramblers. No distance was too far if the trip held promise of another victorious notch on the win-loss record.
Then, there is the matter of how the proud Catholic university ultimately adopted the Fighting Irish moniker. The legends are numerous, but the favored story goes something like this: Notre Dame was in an epic struggle with Michigan when, during halftime, the players were chastised by their coach for their lackluster performance. “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting,” he said. In time, New York Daily News sports columnist Francis Wallace began referring to the Notre Dame team as the Fighting Irish, and in 1927 the nickname became official.
Coincidentally, it was that same year that the longest uninterrupted sectional series in college football began. And, despite Notre Dame’s dominance — it has won 72 times and lost only 12 games to the Navy Midshipmen, with one tie on the record — the annual battle, with its pageantry and colorful history, along with the widespread fan base of both teams, steadfastly remains one of the featured dates on the fall sports calendar. Notre Dame backers proudly point to the fact that at one time in the series, the Irish won 43 games straight against Navy. The hope-springs-?eternal followers of the Midshipmen, on the other hand, still relish the memory of that day in 1963 when legendary quarterback Roger Staubach directed a 35–14 victory over the Irish. Win-loss records aside, though, the game is viewed as a time-honored tradition on the collegiate sports landscape.
All of which helps explain why Notre Dame and the Navy ?Midshipmen will launch their 2012 football season with a Sept. 1 game in Dublin, Ireland’s new Aviva Stadium, displaying the battling spirit that immigrant ancestors long ago brought to America. In truth, Dubliners know little of American football — their sports taste is more focused on hurling, rugby and something called Gaelic football (a hybrid of rugby and soccer) — but clearly they’re interested enough that a sellout crowd of 50,000 was assured five months before the unique event’s kickoff.
It will, in fact, be a two-day celebration of America’s favorite sport. In addition to the 86th meeting between Navy and the Irish, there will also be a course on the sport delivered beforehand, and on Friday night, the Global Ireland Football Tournament 2012 (aka GIFT 2012), organized by former Notre Dame quarterback Patrick Steenberge’s Global Football, will feature games between seven U.S. high schools, two Canadian ones, and a United Kingdom all-star team played in various Dublin-area stadiums. Division III colleges St. Norbert College, located in De Pere, Wis., and John Carroll University, located just outside of Cleveland, will also launch their seasons with a GIFT game that night.