SOUTH BEND, IND. – Three hours before kickoff, on a postcard fall Saturday in a locale where college football rules, the only sound outside Notre Dame Stadium is the beep-beep-beep of a service vehicle slowly navigating an empty sidewalk.
Two men working crowd control relax on golf carts because there is no crowd to control. The student center attached to the stadium is a ghost town. The expansive parking lot on the stadium’s south end, the side opposite Touchdown Jesus, is mostly wide-open asphalt, too.
“Usually,” a university employee says from a balcony high above, “that entire lot is filled, with smoke blowing everywhere from the tailgates.”
Can we be done with 2020 already?
“Who was the president that talked about a return to normalcy?” asks a security guard as a tailgate for Notre Dame students in the heart of campus is getting set up.
Warren G. Harding, a president whose campaign promise of normalcy in 1920 holds true as a worthy objective 100 years later.
A detour en route to Indianapolis to cover the Vikings game brought more stark reminders of the redefined nature of sports and absence of normalcy inside a pandemic.
This was a road trip from heaven.
Friday: Wrigley Field.
Saturday: Notre Dame Stadium.
Two iconic sports cathedrals. A bucket list twofer. Beautiful fall weather both days. Wrigleyville one day, the Golden Dome and the Grotto the next.
As the kids say, let’s goooooo!
The doubleheader was both enjoyable and oddly hollow. Even a bit ... what’s the right word, lonely? It’s a feeling I’ve experienced covering other events since sports have returned, which has made me realize the power of communal experience.
The thrill of attending a sporting event is amplified or enhanced by the sensory assault — the noise, the energy, the smells, the claustrophobic nature of fans cramming into a confined space.
Remove all that and it’s just different.
Friday’s visit to Wrigley felt like another planet compared to what I encountered on a Vikings trip to Chicago in 2016. The Cubs happened to be hosting a little thing called the World Series the day before the Vikings-Bears game on Monday night, so I cabbed it to Wrigleyville and spent 13 hours partaking (alcohol-free) in the revelry of Game 5.
Vegas has nothing on the party that unfolded in the streets and bars that night.
“I’m having a near religious sports experience,” one fan told me.
This visit was like a church service. Quiet and orderly. With fans not allowed inside, the usual bustle around the stadium was nonexistent.
That sense of detachment will feel especially pronounced in the postseason without TV offering constant crowd shots of nervous fans agonizing with every pitch. Whether you find that compelling or annoying, it adds to the drama of the moment.
Early fall marks the best part of the sports calendar, with an overlap of baseball postseason and the start of college football. For my money, nothing tops a football Saturday on campus this time of year.
The conditions for my first football trip to Notre Dame could not have been scripted more perfectly. Blue sky, no clouds, temperature in mid-60s. Bottle that up and sell at an expensive price.
“It is a perfect day for Midwest football!” the public address announcer roared right before kickoff.
The main quad on campus came alive as students awoke and gathered to dance to a live band, play lawn games and sit in Adirondack chairs surrounding firepits socially distanced apart.
Notre Dame is allowing 20% capacity at games for students, staff and faculty. Students made up 90% of the announced attendance of 10,085 for Saturday’s 52-0 cakewalk over South Florida.
This wasn’t the House That Rockne Built at full throat or full frenzy, but hey, it was college football on a beautiful afternoon.
Notre Dame mandates two stipulations for fans: Spread throughout the stadium to maintain social distancing, and wear masks. They adhered. The mood was festive.
Note to the Big Ten: Do the same thing. Let students attend games. Give them this one aspect of a normal college experience. You should’ve seen how much fun they had Saturday … with masks on.