At a lot of schools, football is religion.
At Notre Dame, which meets LSU on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, religion is religion.
Football, while hugely important, knows its place.
The name “Notre Dame” pretty much says everything you need to know about the picturesque school in South Bend, Indiana. It literally means “Our lady” in French, a reference to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The devotion to the school’s founding faith permeates the campus of the nation’s most prominent Catholic university and everyone on it. That mission statement made a huge impression on LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, when he coached the Fighting Irish from 1995-2006 before moving on to LSU.
“The atmosphere encourages a very balanced lifestyle, academically, athletically and spiritually,” Mainieri said. “That’s something they profoundly emphasize all the time. If you want to work there, you have to buy into the entire mission of the university.”
Rev. Mark Thesing’s main job at Notre Dame is director of finance and administration for the school’s business college. But since 2013, Father Thesing also has served as the Notre Dame football team’s primary chaplain.
Before every game — home, away or bowl — Thesing conducts a team mass. For the Citrus Bowl, Thesing expects that to be on New Year’s Eve at the team hotel in Orlando.
While certainly many Notre Dame players aren’t Catholic, the mass is a team event, filled with message and symbolism.
“Back in the 2012 season, all the press descended on Notre Dame,” Thesing said, recalling the school’s drive to that year’s BCS national championship game loss to Alabama in Miami. “I knew we were inundated with press when they wanted to interview the chaplain.”
Standing in the school’s ornate Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a television reporter asked Thesing, “At a lot of places football is religion, but at Notre Dame religion has such a prominent place. What is the relationship here?”
Recalled Thesing: “My answer was that football is football and religion is religion, but you have to take religion into every aspect of your life. It brings together what we believe and how we believe and influences our lives as students and graduates on and off the field.”
Thesing hopes to incorporate that message into his pre-Citrus Bowl homily, a message he stressed never includes a petition for victory on the field.
“It’s never to pray for the demise of our opponent,” Thesing said. “We pray for success and protection from injury.”
The pregame mass is always private: no cheering fans, no media, no one clamoring for an autograph or quote or selfie. But the religious meaning, a tie between that team in that moment and a faith that traces its origins back to the time of Jesus, fills the room.
Before mass, Thesing will hand out saint medals to each player. He has taken care to try to rotate them over the past five years so that no player ever gets the same medal twice, invoking a mix of saints both ancient and contemporary, North Americans and women.
Thesing pre-orders the medals each summer, always with a little optimism — or faith — involved.
“Including the bowl games,” he said. The Irish are in a bowl for the fourth time in five years, including a 31-28 victory over LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl.
Perhaps the most important element of the mass comes when a reliquary containing fragments believed to be from the cross of Jesus is presented. It's one of many religious artifacts in the school’s collection. Thesing said players, Catholics or non-Catholics, show reverence to the relic by some sign, often by touching it.
“One thing about Notre Dame you can’t argue about, whether you love them or hate them, is that there is a lot of tradition there,” said Mainieri, whose son Nick (a Notre Dame grad) is an athletic academic adviser there.
That tradition made a huge impression on LSU quarterback Danny Etling. He grew up in a Catholic family in Terre Haute, Indiana, about 3½ hours south of South Bend. His grandfather went to Notre Dame, while his mother went to St. Mary’s College and an uncle went to Holy Cross College, both affiliated with and next door to the larger university.
“There’s a lot of South Bend” in his family, Etling said. “My grandfather has Notre Dame plaques hanging up on his wall.”
Etling once expected to grow up to be a Notre Dame quarterback. Instead he went to Purdue before transferring to LSU. Now he plays his final college game against the Irish.
“I could not have imagined that would have been the route I would have taken,” Etling said. “It’s very cool. I always grew up thinking I’d be the quarterback for Notre Dame. I ended up being the quarterback for LSU, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Only one thing could make Etling and Mainieri happier: an LSU win over Notre Dame, the school they still revere.