WHEN IRISH CALL, WEIRDNESS ANSWERS

There I was last weekend, watching Notre Dame play football, and my heart began to race and my mouth went dry and I almost got suckered again.

The Irish were struggling against an unranked Washington State team, which had jumped out to a 19-0 lead. Having seen such mirages before, I warned myself,
“Don’t be fooled, the dang Irish will come back and win. . . .”

And then I saw their quarterback, Carlyle Holiday, get smacked silly by a Washington State player. The ball popped loose, and the player lunged for it, and I thought, “Whooo yes, it’s real! It’s real! It’s gonna happen! . . .”

And then the ball suddenly squirted out of that Washington State player’s hands and it rolled to Holiday, who was flat on the turf, and he reached for it as if it were Lassie come back to save him.

And I kicked the chair, then myself.

“Fool,” I heard myself say, “haven’t you learned your lesson?”

There are good football programs and there are great football programs and then there are great football programs that come with their own safety nets. Actually, there is only one of those.

Notre Dame.

And the Irish are coming to town again.

As a sports writer, I am not supposed to root. And I don’t. But I can root against, can’t I? Well, maybe that’s a no-no, too. Sorry. I can’t help it. I confess my weakness. I don’t want Notre Dame to lose all of them. Not even most of them. Just the ones they are supposed to lose. You know. Like the ones against Michigan.

Schembechler remembers Rocket Now, I have some personal experience in Irish gloom. In the late ’80s, I co-authored a book with then-coach Bo Schembechler. It was released at the start of what would be Bo’s last season. There was great excitement on the publisher’s part, since Michigan was supposed to have a strong shot at a national title. The Wolverines opened against Notre Dame, at home, and the expected win would help Bo’s national profile, which made the book people happy.

So happy, in fact, that they all flew out to Ann Arbor — the president of the company, the top editors, the publicists, and they scheduled this wonderful dinner for after the game, during which they would no doubt congratulate Bo on his season-opening victory and congratulate themselves on their wonderful foresight.

And then came Rocket Ismail.

And Rocket returned a kick for a touchdown.

And Rocket returned another kick for a touchdown.

And Michigan lost, and the national championship was history, and we all had to go to that dumb dinner where, when Bo entered, you could hear a pin drop, and to say grumpy was the mood of the night is like saying Shaquille O’Neal can’t buy suits off the rack.

Do I hate the Irish for that? No. There were plenty of other years when things weirdly rolled their way. Balls squirted into their waiting hands. A broken play turned into a lucky touchdown off a tip. Somebody fell down. Somebody tripped. Somebody ran into his own man. I don’t know how it works, I only know it does.

More luck of the Irish

Did you know the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry dates back to 1887? Michigan won that first meeting, 8-0. But in the 1900s the teams met only twice in more than half a century. I look back on that as the fondest part of the series.

Whenever they’ve gone at each other, for U-M fans, it has been one part heaven, two parts heartburn. From Fritz Crisler against Frank Leahy, Bo versus Lou Holtz to Lloyd Carr against Ty Willingham. Sure, Michigan wins its share. But those are . . . well . . . earned! When the Irish win, alien winds are blowing.

I know, I know. I sound paranoid. Until I remember last year. Michigan was ranked in the top 10, the Irish, with a new coach, at No. 20. Yet somehow, Chris Perry fumbled late in the game, and U-M blew a two-point conversion try, and John Navarre’s pass was tipped and intercepted with 21 seconds left on a would-be winning drive, and isn’t that typical? Arrrgh! My stomach is growling.

Or do you want to talk 1998, when Notre Dame wasn’t even a top-20 team, and it beat No. 5 Michigan by 16 points?

Or 1993, when No. 11 Notre Dame beat No. 3 Michigan?

Or . . . dare I say the name? Rocket?

I know what Irish fans are thinking. Nothing. They’re too busy sticking voodoo pins in their maize and blue dolls.

I am bracing for a three-player collision, and the ball going to Holiday. I am bracing for the whole U-M team to slip at the same time. I am bracing for an Irish field goal that hits both uprights like a tuning fork, then falls through for a win.

I am bracing for the worst. I am hoping for the best. And I am asking whatever divine power keeps gracing Notre Dame’s lucky pigskin to let it go for this Saturday, because U-M has a really good team this year, OK? Do I think that request will work? Well. I am not scheduling any dinners, I can tell you that much.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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