It was on an unseasonably warm and clear October morning that I set out to see my first American Football match. I'm in Chicago on a year-long exchange from UCD. Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish, were playing host to Pittsburgh and a ticket had fallen my way. How could I say no?
The train journey to South Bend was fairly unremarkable, but immediately upon my arrival on the campus I knew it had been worth the trip. Tens of thousands of people were setting up barbecues, unloading their kegs, tossing footballs about the place and reveling in the festival-like atmosphere. I was in the right place.
The most revealing aspect of the entire experience was how much pride the assembled masses had in their 'Irishness'. It was a celebration akin to St Patrick's Day – there was no shortage of tri-colors amongst the assembled green crowd. The level of alcohol consumption at the pre-game tailgating ritual did pride to that most notorious of Irish stereotypes.
Now that Croke Park has once again shut its doors to foreign games, there is no stadium in the world in which you can find more fans supporting an 'Irish' team than at Notre Dame Stadium. Yet very few people back in Ireland are aware of any of this. It's like holding a party in someone's honor without telling them about it. This is a shame because it is a tremendous experience, quite unlike any sporting occasions that we have back home.
The grandiose pre-game spectacle set the tone for an eventful afternoon. Hundreds-strong marching bands and what seemed like an army of cheerleaders served up entertaining fare. But it was the Fighting Irish leprechaun who stole the show with his full-blooded sprints across the pitch, leaving a comically-large flag trailing in his wake.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was unlike anything I've ever witnessed. The noise-level was deafening as the whole crowd joined in with passionate singing and fervent chanting. Indeed, the level of intensity of the Irish support was scary at times.
As time ticked away, one elderly gentleman beside me, who really looked as though he shouldn't have been on his feet at all, seemed to become possessed with a murderous rage as call after call went against the home team. It was hard to fathom that they were all just college kids on the field below me.
It's one thing for multi-millionaires like Wayne Rooney to have to handle the intense pressures, emotions and scrutiny to which he has been subjected lately. It's another thing altogether when those in the firing line are amateur college students. I couldn't but feel a pang of sympathy for the Pittsburgh kicker as he repeatedly missed field goals, much to the jeering delight of the 80,000+ home fans.
With my knowledge of American Football limited to that Superbowl half-time show, I didn't know what to expect from the match itself. I'm told that it's a much more tactical game than most people outside of America realize, and certainly by full-time I had shed my preconceived notion that it constitutes little more than terrifyingly large men crashing into each other with the force of runaway trains.
The oft-maligned stop-start nature of the sport really isn't an issue when you're at a game. If anything you appreciate the breathers, as even futile attempts by out-of-towners to match the passion of the home support can take it out of you!
Of course, many of the nuances of the game still escape me, and I usually had to take my cue on how to react to refereeing calls from those around me. Nonetheless, I was as tense as anyone as full-time approached and it looked as though Notre Dame might throw away a lead late on for the third time this season. Fortunately, they held out for the win, 23-17.
Upon hearing that I was going to a Notre Dame game, a friend remarked that it would be like a 'religious experience'. Whilst the fans' level of devotion to the team certainly borders on fanatical, I had not realized how literally the comment was to be understood.
As the hordes left the stadium after the game, I was stunned to see how many people were flocking to one of the many campus churches or to the Virgin Mary's grotto. Being part of a generation whose general apathy towards religion has only been amplified by the scandals back home, this seemed to me to be a throwback to a previous era.
However, for the students of Notre Dame, Irishness and Catholicism can still readily go hand-in-hand. As jarring as this was, they know how to celebrate an important victory just the same way we do back home. That's something that I'm more than willing to get behind.