The House That Rockne Built,
Football Weekend: South Bend, Indiana 1950
What a lot of people around here like about
football is that it makes possible home games.
On Friday night before a game South Bend turns into a new city. The streets are thick with
strange people, the men in great woolly coats which the paper says they probably won't
need, because it's supposed to be warm tomorrow, the women in furs and bright scarves.
They all have an air of wonder; they look about and their voices sound shrill over the
gush and whizz of the cars on Michigan Street. At half a dozen corners hawkers are selling
pennants, gewgaws, little footballs with blue and gold Notre Dame ribbons dangling, little
footballs dangling the colors of tomorrow's enemy. Outside all the restaurants there's a
line; waiting to eat, people sing and shout; four elderly men waving enemy pennants come
arm in arm down the sidewalk, weaving and chanting what sounds vaguely like an enemy
cheer; as they pass Walgreen's corner six Notre Dame students in gabardine topcoats and
checkered pants sigh tolerantly and step aside. A minute later four elderly men waving
Notre Dame pennants come arm in arm down the sidewalk, weaving, and singing the
"Victory March"; the students sigh tolerantly and step aside again. Two girls
dart past, trying to make a green light, which flicks red on them, and the traffic cop
yells something; the students sigh.
Each hour as the South Shore trains pull in from Chicago, and in between as special trains
pull into Union Station, or into special sidings out near the campus, the city streets are
flooded with a new wave of excited strangers. There's not a bar downtown with room enough
for the waitresses to push through the milling, pressing, chattering crowd; it's all
voices and laughing and tinkle of glass and smell of fur and perfume and beer and shaving
lotion and people and then a shout from a group in a booth along the far wall.
"Joey!" somebody yells. "Where the hell you been?" Joey slings a
suitcase under the table. "I been looking for ya!" Joey wails; and even
the waitress laughs when they all roar. And outside on the street a kid selling the South
Bend Tribune gasps, "Thank you!" when a woman with blue-white hair gives him
half a dollar for a paper, waving away his handful of nickle-and-dime change.
Some place there's a St. Joseph Valley Alumni Club Smoker, with movies of last week's
game, or some game three seasons ago, and speeches by assistant coaches. In the hotel
lobbies half a dozen bellhops simultaneously tell a fat man in a tan camel's hair polo
coat, a thin man in gray pin-striped suit, a young woman with bright blue eyes who holds
one hand of a little blue-eyed boy who in his other hand clutches a fifty-nine cent
football, a young man and woman (he yellow-haired, she freckled, the two of them obviously
married not over three days before and on their honeymoon), a slick guy in a yellow sport
shirt, and an elderly woman with a lavender hat and a Persian lamb coat that tickets for
the game are going for fifteen dollars and even so it's hard to find them.
And at the same time a scalper is unloading four on the thirty, east side, for twelve
apiece, and feeling pretty good about it unaware that the fellow pushing his cigarette
into the sanded vase beside the potted palm over near the elevator is a Treasury man, who
is supposed to be watching out for the government tax on all such transactions, but who
didn't catch this one because this goofy couple-a big tall woman in mink and a slightly
shorter man in a velvet- collared, frayed-at-the-sleeve-ends blue overcoat-are making so
much noise over at the desk about a reservation they swear they wired for three months
ago. "And you acknowledged it!" screams the big woman in mink.
Out of the elevator step six high school boys and an elderly priest with a gold filling;
and into the elevator step the newlyweds, and the Treasury man, and a dapper executive
type with a gray mustache, holding a folded copy of Time under his arm, and a girl
in a bright green dress, and a somewhat weary-looking middle aged couple whose bags are
borne by a pale bellboy with red hair, who mutters portentously to the handsome blonde who
operates the elevator buttons. At the desk the lady in mink is shaking her forefinger
furiously at the desk clerk; a Salvation Army woman wanders about the lobby with a
tambourine; at the cigar counter three students in gabardine topcoats and checkered pants
sigh deeply as another student in a gabardine topcoat walks past them with a tiny, bright,
black-banged girl who runs on her high heels to a cluster of people sitting on the leather
upholstered lobby chairs and cries to them, "Oh, Aunt Sally, this is Tom!"
And a man with very thick glasses, who has been looking over the lurid covers of the
quarter books at the magazine rack, glances up irritably, distracted, and then turns back,
and stretches his hand out toward Coming of Age in Samoa.
This sort of thing interests some people even more than does the T, the split T, or
who pulls out of the line to block.
Once, a few years back, I went over to the Stadium late in the morning of a day of a home
game. The Ticket Manager had invited me. He is a friend with whom I enjoy an annual summer
correspondence conducted on both sides with elaborate formality, yet with a transparency
of phrasing sufficient for our reciprocal insults to pass. The subject is always my
purchase of the two faculty season tickets about which I always demur for an appropriate
time, and which he always claims he can foist off on some other sucker if I don't want to
exercise my option. I think this was the year when I'd suggested to him that I'd consider
buying the seats if he'd kindly set up a Faculty Deferred Payment Plan, with monthly
withholding from my salary check. His reply was that my idea did not strike him as
"feasible" and that, besides, my involved prose style always upset his
secretary, who opened the mail, and she was a fine girl; so would I please do him and his
secretary a favor and see if I could get a job teaching at Purdue? A mistake in typing by
the fine girl caused the word factulty to appear somewhere in the course of his
general sneering at my FDP Plan, and he noted on the margin: "From the spelling you'd
think I was a member." I don't recall why it was he invited me over to his Stadium
office this particular Saturday; no doubt we felt there was some mutual improvement
involved. Anyhow I went.
The armed guards at the several doors admitted me with the equivalent of salaams when I
told them the Ticket Manager was expecting me. It was like being first cousin to the Czar.
In a long lean tan brick room full of policemen, radio sets, television sets, and half a
dozen, frantic looking men who kept moving rapidly from one location to another answering
telephones, the Ticket Manager with his bow tie dangling and his collar open came forward.
"What the hell are you doing here?" He cried indignantly. Then he handed me a
turkey sandwich done up in wax paper. "Here," he said. "Eat." He took
a huge bite out of another, partially demolished turkey sandwich which had been lying on a
television set. "I told you to come over today, didn't I?" he demanded civilly.
"Going to be quiet." Three telephones rang. "You should have been here last
week!" A policeman walked over and said something. "No!" shouted the Ticket
Manager. "I told him! No!" To me he shouted: "Come on! We'll get
I followed him into a private recess crowded with desks, chairs, hatracks, and some
ringing telephones. "Answer one of those!" my friend said to me. So I answered a
telephone. "Listen, is this Al?" "No . . ." "Charlie?"
"No, I think..." "Bob? " "No,
it's-" "Well, who the hell is it?" I told him. "Well, what are you doing
there? Lemme talk to Al." I put the phone down. "It's for Al," I told the
Ticket Manager. He was talking on one of the other phones; a sliver of turkey lay on the
desk before him and he popped it into his mouth. "Charlie!" he bellowed to the
outer room. "Get this phone-it's for Al!" A policeman came along, leaned in the
doorway, smiled at me. "Tell him to get his head examined!" said the Ticket
Manager to his telephone. A man in a blue sweater came in and gave me a paper cup of
coffee, set another one on the desk. Then he took up the phone I'd answered, and said,
"All right, this is Walter . . ."
"You want another sandwich?" the Ticket Manager demanded. They were excellent; I
took another. "Might as well eat now while we can," he said gloomily.
I understood later what he meant; I stayed until just a few minutes before game time; it
got worse all the time. There was a conference with some ticket men from the other
school-while it went on I moved out to the other room and watched the pre-game
televising of the field just beyond the policed door. Through the little grille of the
main ticket window, which opened off this room, I could see the crowds swarming outside. A
woman at the grille was telling Walter about her husband's taking their two tickets in
with him ten minutes before, while she'd gone back to the car for a blanket-"What
should I do?" she wailed. "They won't let me in!" Walter
called my friend the Ticket Manager; it seems that he decides personally on cases like
this. He talked to the woman for a
moment, darted back into his den, emerged, wrote out a slip, gave it to her. "Oh, God
bless you!" she cried.
"What was that?" I asked him. "That gets her in-in fact it gets her in
right beside her
husband, which is more than either of them deserve!" "Do you get any that try to
fake?" I asked him.
"Oh, yes." "Well, then what do you do?" "Why, we check on
them, you hack! And if they don't belong here we throw them out."
"I don't want to be intrusive," I said. "You probably like to keep your
trade secrets. But just how do you check?"
He tried to tell me; my impression is that the Ticket Manager knows at every game the name
of every person to whom he has sold a seat by mail, and the location of every such seat; I
do not believe, however, that he could tell you the age, sex, weight, and condition of the
teeth of more than three quarters of the total attendance, because some cross-grained
people deliberately confuse him by giving away or selling their tickets at the last moment
A couple of men from the Postal Department came in for a few minutes. They were still
remembering with pleasure the fact that, the week before, checking on the occupants of,
say, Seats 11 and 12, Row 35, Section 25 - tickets for which had been
sent out by registered mail but had never been received by addressee-they got by mistake
into Section 26, and almost apprehended a pair of distinguished monsignori, who were
blamelessly sitting in Row 35, Seats 11 and 12, tickets for which had been given
them by a pious admirer. (The suspicious seats, in Section 25, stayed vacant that
As game time came near, the Ticket Manager dashed out to inspect his kingdom. He has a
jail under the stands which is usually occupied by a drunk or two, sometimes a scalper or
two, before the afternoon's over; he has a small hospital staffed for the day with interns
and nurses, a doctor, an ambulance. More heart trouble than anything else, he said, and to
date no childbirth. But the time would come. "You get fifty-six thousand people
together for a few hours anywhere, and eventually there's going to be a baby! "
I left him surrounded by his assistants, guarded by his policemen, at a few minutes before
the kickoff. Going up into the stands I felt sorry for him, because it has been years and
years since the Ticket Manager has seen more than a few minutes of any game; and the
afternoon was bright and chilly; it was no day to lurk in a tan brick cavern beneath the
multitudes, ministering to latecomers who have left their tickets in Omaha and don't know
what they are going to do.
You get out to the Stadium half an hour before game time. The South Bend police - aided by
the firemen, the state police, and a whole crew of specials and volunteers -do a marvelous
job with the automobile traffic. Everybody beckons you on to the one place. And you park,
trudge among men wrapped knee to hat brim in great woolly coats and women in furs and
bright scarves and parkas and galoshes - because it's turned unexpectedly cold overnight.
Up ahead four girls wear ski pants; one of them has a plaid blanket dangling over her arm;
there's an old man with a beaver cap and the ear muffs down; you can see your breath. And
students hawking programs yell clear and shrill: "Names and numbahs of all the
playahs! You can't see the game without a pro-gram!" At your gate
there's a crowd standing, loose and shifty, so you can get through by zigzags; and inside
in the gloom all the voices suddenly sound hollow. You go up the ramp, into the tunnel;
then ahead the field bursts out open and green, and you hear the blump of many
footballs punted, see the faraway dart and cut of the players warming
up. Before you're settled they're gone; and the other school's band is on; the Notre
Dame students whoop at the drum majorettes; and over the PA system a voice announces that
a Studebaker bearing license number so-and-so is parked in field such-and-such, doors
locked, motor running. It's the same gag every game, with the license number changed-
maybe they do it for the rise it always gets. Then the Notre Dame band is on; and then the
other school's band and the Notre Dame band line up together and play the "Star
Spangled Banner" while an NROTC squad hoists the flag on the white pole down at the
far corner. On the field the officials of the game stand rigid in black and white striped
shirts. As the bands break for the stands the teams run on, and the stands erupt in that
curious dim far-off noise which the collective voices of human beings always make in the
open air. A moment later from the Notre Dame student section comes an organized cheer,
with the St. Mary's girls down at the turn coming in on cue in a higher, brighter,
feminine note. The teams are lining up, spacing out for the kickoff. You hear the first
whistle-and then the kicker runs mincingly - blump - and with everybody else you half
stand and then at the next whistle nudge your neighbor and laugh and wrap your untwisted
blanket close as you sit back under the frosty, clear white sky.
Spectacle, according to Aristotle, is the least considerable part of drama. Surely he is
right. Nevertheless, some respond rather warmly to it. For some it is the chiefest and
best of the several inheritances left by Rockne to this place.
Back to Irish Reveries