It starts with the close up of a headline on the front page of the South Bend Tribune. In big bold letters it reads, Navy Annihilates The Irish.
The newspaper is lying on the sidewalk in a puddle. It’s raining like the million tears shed this season by fans of the Notre Dame Football Team – the Fighting Irish.
The background music is a dirge, the Notre Dame Victory March played in a minor key.
The shot of the newspaper headline holds for several beats. Then a colossal boot comes crashing into the scene and tromps right on the newspaper and its terrible message.
There’s my opening shot.
Notre Dame’s football team was 2 and 7 the year I graduate. It’s the worst record in the school’s history. I’m sure we would have been 2 and 9, except for the fact that our game against Iowa was canceled because of the assassination of President Kennedy.
In spite of the tragic events, it was an especially good year for me. I married the girl I’d been in love with for years. And, thanks to my film, The Losing Season, I received the F. A. Miller award for broadcast journalism. I also got a job offer from a South Bend television station and admission to Stanford University’s film program, which led to an internship at MGM Studios.
My own personal losing season doesn’t come until four years later when I lay in a hospital bed listening to two doctors just outside my door… discussing how to tell me that I may be dying of cancer.
There’s a lot to be said about the value of spectator sports. Among them is what they do for people with a serious illness. It seems that the football or baseball or basketball games should be irrelevant to those who are dying, but they’re not… not always. Getting caught up in the thrills of a winning season can give a person suffering from a terminal illness an amazing distraction, something to look forward to each day, something to focus on besides pain and suffering. Something it’s even curative.
In my four years at Notre Dame, our football team had the worst record in school history. At the end of the final game of my senior year, my class sat together in the emptying stands, in the pouring rain, and sang the Mickey Mouse Club song, telling the world that ND football was just so damn, ‘Mickey Mouse.’
I’ve always felt that following a losing team builds character. The agony of defeat makes a person stronger. In one monologue, the great American storyteller Jean Shepherd comments on his hometown baseball team. He says, “If I had to put together a squad for an impossible mission, one in which there is almost no chance of survival or success, I’d staff it with Chicago White Sox fans because they understand desperation.”
At that moment the White Sox were the baseball equivalent of the Notre Dame football team while I was there. And the U. S. military did send my classmates (who understood desperation very well) on an impossible mission. It was called Vietnam.
There is one other upside to a losing season. Very close to the time that I was editing my film that started with the rain and the headline, somewhere in Chicago a tall, dark, curly-headed man stepped into a phone booth and called the President of the University of Notre Dame. He began by saying, “I understand you’re looking for a head football coach.” At the time his job was running the football program at Northwestern University. His name was Ara Parseghian.
He got the job.
The very next year, Ara’s Notre Dame team (with the same players who had performed so dismally while I attended ND) came within 15 minutes of winning the National Championship. They went 9 and 1 and earned John Huart, our quarterback, football’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy.
The Era of Ara gave us the greatest of all positive benefits of a losing season. Only a year like the one we suffered in 1963 could bring such joy to the season that followed.
The 1964 season was unforgettable, one for the history books, one that swept away every negative feeling from the previous years on a tide of euphoria, a season that gave us thrill after endless thrill, a season that made ND relevant to the college football world once again.
What’s really the opposite of a disastrous losing season? No, not just a winning season, it’s a MIRACLE SEASON! In 1964 Notre Dame had its miracle season.
Now so many years later, it’s time for another one!