SATURDAY WILL MARK the second time the long-running NCAA college football rivalry between the University of Notre Dame and the US Naval Academy will visit Dublin.
In 1996, the Fighting Irish set up base in Croke Park, trashing their Navy rivals 54-27 in front of 38,651 fans many of whom, like me, hadn’t really a clue what was going on.
I was 14 at the time and more interested in goals and points than safeties and touchdowns.
That changed from the moment I arrived at the stadium though.
Marching bands, cheerleaders, leprechauns, it was a long way from the Artane Boys’ Band.
I recall taking an instant dislike to Navy. They’d a touch of the Junior B inter-county medal winner about them; smug without any reason to be so.
Notre Dame on the other hand, Oirish gimmicks aside, were immensely likeable.
Their mascot in particular had whipped the crowd into a frenzy before the opening kick off and while a lot of what was happening in front of me didn’t make much sense, I was going along for the ride and whooping and hollering with the best of them.
My brother on the other hand, wasn’t so enthused. Twenty minutes into the action — by which stage only about five minutes of game time had actually elapsed — he turned to our dad with a look of desperation and asked:
“How many quarters are there in American football?”
In fairness, how was a young lad from Monasterevin supposed to know a thing like that?
After my father patiently explained how quarters worked and how long they’d last, my brother sighed in resignation and asked for 50p for a KitKat.
Very few actual plays still live in the memory but one or two linger.
With just a few minutes left in the first half the Notre Dame running back — who Google informs me was Autry Denson — took off on a 30-yard run for a touchdown.
The other was Navy’s touchdown with about three seconds left after which I tried, in vain, to lead a chorus of boos.
When the final whistle blew, a group of Navy students did 27 push-ups while my brother asked for another 50p for a KitKat.
After the game, my love for American football grew, starting with a love/hate relationship with the Oakland Raiders — I love them, they hate winning — that continues to this day.
I then moved into coaching, working as offensive co-ordinator with Tullamore Phoenix and helping them to back-to-back IAFL DV8 national titles before retiring earlier this year.
And now, best of all, I get paid to write about football (among other sports); all thanks to Notre Dame and Navy battling it out in Croke Park in 1996.
So if you’re bringing your kid to Notre Dame and Navy this Saturday in the Aviva, cherish it. You never know what might come of it.
And stock up on KitKats.