Thomas: My COVID-Altered Gameday Experience

My freshman year, I woke up on September 14th at 7am to the sound of “Shipping Up to Boston” blaring through the hallways of my dorm. Notre Dame’s home-opener kicked off in 7 ½ hours, yet the atmosphere was already through the roof. Tailgates started as early as 8am, and the despite the fact that the Irish were taking on a massive underdog New Mexico State, it was an ecstatic sell-out crowd of students who packed Notre Dame Stadium for the lopsided clash, which Notre Dame won 66-14.

Flash forward a year (almost) and it’s September 12, 2020, and I woke up at 9:45 to almost complete silence. Notre Dame would kick off their season in just 4 hours and 45 minutes, against the Duke Blue Devils, yet there was no blaring music, no massive crowds filling up the quads, nothing to signify that gameday was here. With a multitude of restrictions in place due to Covid, the opportunity to get properly hyped for the first game of the season was noticeably lacking. Walking through my dorm, the sound of a few speakers could be heard playing in rooms, but with nobody outside your section allowed in your room, there were no raucous pre-game celebrations occurring behind the doors. I walked through campus to pick up a morning breakfast sandwich, startled by the eery lack of noise on campus. Accustomed to the hundred thousand people that flooded my campus on game days, the lack of noise and activity was off-putting. 

However, despite the delayed start, slowly the vibes around campus began to pick up. My roommate and I pumped up our own speakers and starting blasting the Irish gameday classics – Thunderstruck by AC/DC, “Shipping Up to Boston” and “The Boys are Back” by the Dropkick Murphys were a few of our selections. By 11am, we were down on the quad, where the atmosphere was becoming noticeably more active. Rather than the standard view of parking lots packed with cars, tents, grills, food, and beverages, the ‘tailgate’ scene was far more casual. Cornhole, KanJam, and Spikeball games littered the quad, while large Chik-Fil-A orders were brought to various groups. Maybe Notre Dame could ban official tailgaiting, but they damn well were not going to takeaway our gameday chicken nuggets – such an offense would have been close to unforgivable. A “No open containers” policy was only loosely enforced, as ambassadors largely watched to ensure that students were wearing masks and staying in small groups. As gametime got nearer, the excitement was finally becoming palpable. Notre Dame Football was back, and we were getting a chance to watch in person,  a possibility that seemed virtually impossible when Notre Dame switched to online learning from August 19 until September 2nd. 

Entering the stadium was business as usual, and, quite honestly, a lot less chaotic than under normal circumstances. The seating arrangement was obviously different, and for myself, it was very strange. Assigned seats were granted by ‘household’ or rooming assignment, and these seats were spaced around the stadium. I ended up on the south side of the stadium, almost directly across from the standard sophomore student section, giving me a new view of the action. There was ample evidence of fans leaving their assigned seats to sit in small groups, but largely, the crowd was at least fairly distanced. The environment was unique, but not altogether bad. I entered the stadium with very low expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. The band still led our chants from the bleachers, the best game-day songs still blasted throughout the stadium, and many traditions remained as similar to their old form as possible. The atmosphere did quiet down in the second half, although I attribute that largely to Notre Dame’s struggles to pull away from an inferior Duke team. The game was strange because it never felt like Notre Dame was going to lose, but with zero interceptions on defense and very few explosive offensive plays, the game lacked the standard sizzle to fire up the crowd. 

Despite the ho-hum 27-13 result, the corona gameday experience far exceeded my expectations as a student. The social aspect of the football games was slightly depleted, but still readily available. The general buzz, the willingness to do “touchdown push ups” or sing loudly and off-key to the kickoff song with people you’d never met before that day, still existed, and the camaraderie that has always been an enticing aspect of the Notre Dame football experience for myself, was evident, as we banded together to make the best of a wildly unique gameday situation. Even more promisingly, there has been no massive spike in COVID cases among the team or student body. Notre Dame had two positive cases among over 400 conducted in the days before and after the Duke game. The student body, which made up most of the 15,000+ attendance, has had just 14 positive cases diagnosed of the 1,441 tests conducted since gameday. College football is possible, and it’s happening 

I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted tickets to the Notre Dame games this year – that’s how hesitant I was about how corona would alter the experience. But having tasted Irish football once more, I’m now more than ready for another dose of gameday action. Two days until South Florida comes to town, and Notre Dame’s new gameday normal is put on display once more.

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