Corey Robinson

Scenes from a clash of college football titans

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I couldn’t sleep. The alarm shook the silence at 3:55 am, but it didn’t matter. I was already up. The day? Friday. The occasion? A top-five matchup between two of the most successful college football programs on planet Earth. I grabbed my jacket and headed for the airport. The mise en scène: Yawning Ohio State fans leaning forward with a sort of sleepy anticipation while Frank Sinatra wafted gently from a cafe. I was clearly the only Notre Dame alum in sight. A young girl wearing a dark gray Ohio State shirt several sizes too big and a pair of dove gray Vans perched beside her father and ate yogurt, wide-eyed and glued to a television screen showing a CNBC anchor talking about the president’s speech on the soul of the nation. She caught my attention. It looked like she believed.

Belief. A silly word at times when you consider the evidence. 0 games played. A new configuration of players and coaches with months of experience together — let me clarify, months conducting football experiments in a vacuum simulating what might come up if their hypotheses end up being correct. A science experiment whose outcome can make a man cry like he did when he got cut from the middle school basketball team or give a young couple a surprise a few weeks after a win. Last year this team only lost two games and rewrote the record book in their Rose Bowl victory over Utah. Quarterback C.J. Stroud finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. On paper all this translates to national championship contenders and a preseason ranking of number two in the country. I set out to investigate if that young girl of no more than 13 years was right. Was she right to believe in this team this year?

The tempest came Saturday. What was a cordial peacetime ceasefire between Ohio State and Notre Dame fans combusted. The chasm could be seen in parking lots where some brave tailgates hosted a single green shirt in a sea of lava. I found myself in a perilous position: a 17.5-point underdog on foreign soil. I journeyed far off campus to see familiar faces among the white tents of Our Lady. The refrain among the Notre Dame faithful rang out like a glorious Sunday hymnal or heavenly chorus: “I’m here for the upset.” Music to my ears. Belief, but a different type than the little girl of 13’s. This was a tired belief. The tested belief of an older generation who had their hearts broken by their favorite child too many times and argue late into the night in muffled tones whether or not they should offer one last chance one last time. Promises of change have come to nothing. The family, still wounded after 34 years of separation from the national championship trophy, finds it harder and harder to believe. Saturday the Irish were hopeful, much like the prodigal son’s father. Light rain and newborn skies painted the scene as outnumbered Notre Dame fans pushed their way into the gates of Ohio Stadium, hoping to see a glimpse of the weary trophy on the horizon line.

Then the gates opened. The field, where I stood in awe, looked every bit the belly of a raging volcano. Ohio Stadium awoke from its slumber. Eight weeks of life before dormancy — a short and explosive consciousness. I could tell the stadium wished to wake again. That’s all it ever wished for. 27 NFL teams were represented among the 106,594 in attendance. To think, less than fifty people in that mass of humanity have the ability to employ one of these NFL hopefuls in their desired profession. A funny way to interview for a job. But this isn’t just about draft position and generational wealth. This is about glory. To win glory, you must be willing to do what others would not. Facing a giant deep in the belly of a volcano qualifies. The game felt volatile, uneven ebbs and flows set to a score by a circle of Ohio State fans once anguished now rapturous. Brutus leapt over the South end zone pylon and put his arm around me. It was difficult not to be swept away in it all. I could see why that young girl in gray believed.

It dawned on me in that dreamlike state that perhaps this feeling — this je ne sais quoi — was occurring everywhere and would occur everywhere for months. There would be eruptions in every Big Ten college town this fall. Perhaps agony and rapture do not belong to Columbus alone. They might belong to all of us, like water and air and sunshine. What magic. I was terrified.

In black night, the volcano cooled and tensions simmered. Even the cicadas in Buckeye Grove failed to sing for Notre Dame as the defeated giant lumbered out of the South stadium exit. There was no pageantry in the end, only mundane sounds of engines rumbling and luggage landing underneath several large white buses. In the wake of the battle, peace resumed its reign but clearly boundaries have been redrawn. Notre Dame will no longer be ranked number 5. Compliments, goodbyes, and well wishes filled the muggy evening air as fans went to forage for food. Men in cars stuck in traffic haggled with students carrying pizza boxes and McDonald’s was completely full — even Denny’s had a 25 minute wait for a table at 12:30am. I went back to my hotel room to mourn and think. I survived a trip into the volcano and came back not unchanged. My belief tested but not destroyed. Then my mind drifted to the other top 25 teams who woke up hopeful and went to sleep discouraged. This feeling wasn’t unique to me. There are four spots in the College Football Playoff, aren’t there? Maybe, just maybe…2:00am is not the time to reason. No, 2:00am is for dreaming so off I went in search of something more in sleep. I wondered what the young girl in gray saw that I didn’t and hoped to one day believe like her again.