Campus was quieter last fall, quieter than a football fall had ever been. The Stadium Lot remained empty on football Saturdays, scattered vehicles ineffectually taking the place of thousands of giddy fans. “Tailgates” took place behind closed doors, in small numbers. It was lonelier, less communal, less social. But looking back, in the monotony of a year with little social interaction, one memory stands out: the night of November 7th.
The morning was just as any other game day that fall had been, low-key, with the added — yet subdued — anticipation of a big game. The biggest of the season. I was moving slower than usual, the combination of a deadly hangover and post-birthday blues weighing me down. The day went by in a haze, with anticipation building slowly as the 7:30 p.m. kick-off approached. Sure, everyone was excited for the game, but no one had the outlet to express their emotion in any of the usual ways — buzzing around the stadium lot with a drink in hand, socializing.
But with Kyren Williams’s 3-yard run for the final touchdown of the night and the Irish defense’s subsequent stop of the advancing Tigers offense to end double overtime and win the game, there was, if for only a brief moment, a return to normal life. For a brief moment — as I felt myself pushed forward by the crowd of bodies closing in behind me, as I confronted the cement wall separating me from the turf field below, as I stepped up onto the wall amid pushes and shoves from excited students, as I quickly glanced down at the field below, as I took a step forward and let myself fall without another thought — everything was right in the world again. Don’t think, just jump. I was transported back to my sophomore and freshman years, when whether Notre Dame won on football Saturday was the biggest concern and the simplest source of joy.
My body coursed with adrenaline. Suddenly and mercifully, the throbbing hangover abated. The post-birthday, post-drinking blues that had hung over me all day abated. All the cares — thoughts of COVID-19, thoughts of responsibility, the stifling loneliness of a college year dictated by sickness and worry and rules fell away. The only thing that mattered was getting onto that field.
There was something distinct in the air. It wasn’t merely the stench of bodies warmed by close proximity and running. It was a sensation; but then it was more than that, too. It was a palpable sense of release, of relief. Relief that the Irish had done it, toppled No. 1 Clemson in the most-anticipated game of their season. Relief that the ushers had stepped back — out of self-preservation or grudging acceptance — when the first groups of students stepped up onto the cement wall lining the field and jumped. Relief that there had been no immediate backlash to storming the field in the midst of a pandemic.
Campus was buzzing with the joy of a big win. It was a simultaneously familiar and new sensation. Sure, Notre Dame had won plenty of big games in the Notre Dame stadium. But those wins were different. Those wins took place under normal circumstances: The stadium filled to capacity with characteristically enthusiastic fans, concessions pedaling quintessential stadium food, the cheerleaders leading chants from the field. No masks, no empty bleachers. This win took place in the midst of a pandemic. A complete and utter interruption of everyday life. A new normal: mask-wearing, physical — and mental — distancing, and so many rules.
In the following days and weeks, when the rules returned in full force and the world condemned our moment of well-deserved celebration as dangerous and ill-judged, we all were lightened by a collective sense of appreciation, dull moments interrupted by recollections of standing on the turf, sweaty and elated. Suddenly, we knew that behind all of the masks was a community of people who could come together at a moment’s notice, that we weren’t so alone after all.
We understood that our action was not a disregard for the severity of a pandemic, but a much-needed moment of release in an otherwise anxiety-inducing semester.