Thursday, August 30, 2012

Emerald Isle

Emerald Isle
Excerpt from: Odyssey, Chapter VII
By Aaron M. Smith

Notre Dame vs. Navy, Dublin, Ireland
Marc Edwards squeezed into his undersized airline seat and tried to get as comfortable as a 240-pound fullback could be on a jetliner. It was a Tuesday and the Irish settled in for an all-night flight to the Emerald Isle. At roughly 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Notre Dame jet emerged from the clouded cover and touched down in Dublin.
In an attempt to stave off jet lag, the Irish had a full day of tourism scheduled after their arrival. After a quick lunch at Sussex Restaurant, the team made its way to Croke (pronounced: crow) Park, the stadium in which the Irish and Middies would do battle.
The stadium didn’t look like the round bowls of Notre Dame Stadium and the Big House in Ann Arbor. It was more of a block-C structure with higher sections of bleachers on the sides and shorter sections on either end zone. The field was larger than an American football gridiron; there was plenty of green space surrounding the football field outline. The pitch was traditionally used by soccer, hurling, and Gaelic football teams, which use larger fields. The Notre Dame vs. Navy tilt would be the first American football game played at Croke Park.
Following the quick visit to the stadium, the team gathered on a bus and traveled the serpentine roads through the Irish countryside.
Through the bus windows, a velvet green tapestry wrapped itself around cliffs and mounds while small white cottages speckled the vast landscape. Ribbons of pavement swerved left then right and up and over and down and around leading eventually to somewhere. Chimneys puffed white smoke into the air while cold empty castles sat lifelessly where souls once gathered hundreds of years in the past.
“It was incredible,” Marc said. “I had never seen anything like it.”
Between football practices and team dinners, the players traveled the streets of Dublin and sat on the ivory stone steps at Trinity College where scribes such as Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde once scribbled their thoughts onto paper.
Before the team had traveled overseas, a man from Ireland joined the squad for a luncheon. One of his bits of advice was against the law of Lou Holtz.
“When you guys get over there,” the man said, “you’ve got to try the Guinness.”
Holtz had a team rule that no one – regardless of age – could drink a drop of alcohol during the football season. But Guinness is an Irish treasure and the team would be in Ireland. The team tried to convince their coach to look the other way on this particular transgression.
Holtz was not happy.
“OK,” the coach said reluctantly. “You can have one Guinness while you’re over there if you are 21. And that’s final.”
Marc was a little unclear on Holtz’s new rule.
“Now, does that mean one keg?” he asked rhetorically to his friends. “Does that mean one bottomless pint at a local pub?
“I guess it was up to our interpretation of what ‘one’ meant,” Marc said. “After the game, we’d definitely have that one Guinness.”
But before the team could make merry in the waning hours of Saturday night, it had business to take care of under the gray skies of Saturday afternoon.
In the Dublin newspapers that morning, the editors printed the rules of American football so that those attending the game would have some idea of what was happening. This type of football was rarely seen this far from the States. Some fans in attendance, though, knew exactly what to expect.
A small group from Norwood, Ohio, made the trip to Europe to see their native son play across the pond. Matt Ventura, one of Marc’s teammates at Norwood High School, was among those who ventured east.
“We flew into London and spent a little time there,” he said. “And then a few of us went to Dublin to see the game. It was incredible; what a culture change.”
Ventura found himself explaining American football to those around him in the bleachers of Croke Park. He anxiously awaited the start of the game so he could see his friend trample all over the Irish gridiron.
The game was listed as a home contest for Navy, but the Fighting Irish clearly felt at home on the Irish sod.
To beat the water-based service academy, Notre Dame kept the attack on the ground. Ten minutes into the contest, Marc blasted into the end zone from five yards away to score the game’s first points.
To the Norwood contingent, Marc’s touchdown was something special.
“That was amazing,” Ventura said. “After he scored that first touchdown, they put his picture up on the big screen. It’s pretty cool to see one of your best friends from high school up on the big screen in Ireland. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”
Ventura would have plenty more chances to see his friend on the big screen.
A touchdown reception by Pete Chryplewicz and a 33-yard scamper for another score by Autry Denson sandwiched a Navy score in the second quarter and the Irish led 21-7 at the break.
Marc Edwards on his way to another touchdown. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame’s lead would expand to 28-7 early in the third quarter when Renaldo Wynn returned a fumble recovery 24 yards to pay dirt. But the pesky Middies kept coming back, keeping the game within reach. Two Navy touchdowns in the third quarter and another touchdown by Denson kept the margin at 14 (35-21) going into the fourth quarter.
Holtz wasn’t enjoying his trip. In his mind, the game should have been far out of hand in favor of his Irish. He took out his frustrations on the same offensive lineman he booted to the ground in training camp before Marc’s freshman season. It made Holtz furious when an offensive lineman would lean forward on running plays and lean back on passing plays, therefore advertising to the defense the intention of the Irish offense.
When the lineman came to the sideline after a stalled drive, Holtz went ballistic. He grabbed the lineman’s facemask while spit and screams spewed from his mouth. At one point during the tirade, Holtz slammed his face into the lineman’s facemask. The coach shattered his glasses and bloodied his own mouth in getting his point across.
“He head-butted the guy,” Marc said. “You don’t head butt a guy who’s got a helmet on. He’s screaming like crazy and it looks like his face just exploded. I guess he needed to just get that off his chest.”
The fourth quarter had been Marc’s time before that season, and on a cool day on a slice of green in the North Atlantic, it would be again.
Marc blasted into the end zone twice more in the fourth quarter to push the Irish’s lead to 47-21. His backup, Jamie Spencer, pounded into the end zone for Notre Dame’s final touchdown late in the game before Navy tacked on a meaningless touchdown.
Marc finished the 54-27 victory with 47 yards rushing and three touchdowns as Notre Dame amassed 303 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns. That was the Notre Dame way and the Irish crowd witnessed a clinic in old-school American football.
After the game, Ventura and the other Norwood faithful made their way toward the field. They wanted to greet their friend before leaving the stadium.
“I didn’t even know a Norwood contingent was there,” Marc said. “That was awesome and it was great to see them after the game.”
Marc signed a jersey they had brought with them, which they brought home to hang on the wall of a Norwood tavern.
“This whole trip to Ireland was one of my best experiences from my Notre Dame days,” Marc said.
It wasn’t over just yet.
The Irish plane bound for Chicago wasn’t due to leave until Sunday afternoon and Saturday night was still young. Temple Bar and the nightlife of Dublin, like a Siren, beckoned the Irish players. One thing stood in their way, however: curfew.
The assistant coach in charge of bed checks was willing to be a little lax in his responsibilities that night. He understood the special circumstances surrounding this last night on foreign soil. He knew some of his players may never travel outside of the United States again.
“Gentlemen, listen up,” he quietly told the team. “I am coming for bed check. I’m going to check once and then that’s it. I’m not coming back around. Just be there when I check. You understand what I’m saying?”
Oh, they understood.
“We closed down all the pubs that night,” Marc said. “We had an absolutely great time hanging with the locals and hanging with each other. And we had a great time enjoying that one Guinness coach let us have.”
To no one’s surprise, that one Guinness lasted deep into the night.
“Hey, we never saw the bottom of the pint,” Marc said. “They kept filling it up.”
The sojourn in Ireland was over and the players squeezed into their airplane seats for the long ride back to reality.
Up next for Notre Dame was a trip to Boston College for its annual holy war.
Marc did not know it would be the last time he would suit up and fight alongside his Notre Dame teammates.
To purchase Odyssey: From Blue Collar, Ohio to Super Bowl Champion, visit the following on-line retailers.
Barnes and Noble

1 comment:

  1. Up next for Notre Dame was a trip to Boston College for its annual holy war.