TERRE HAUTE —
It’s just a little Catholic school in northern Indiana, but it brings a giant following to tonight’s match-up for the Bowl Championship Subdivision trophy.
Spread across the walls of Jim Boland’s basement, the green and gold banners from decades past tell the story of Notre Dame football. From a portrait-sized replica of the 22-cent Knute Rockne postage stamp, to Leprechaun toys and beer steins, the retired high school teacher said he’s followed the Fighting Irish since his days at St. Patrick’s in Terre Haute.
“Ever since the early ’50s when I was in elementary school,” he said Sunday morning of his fan experience.
Tonight’s championship game kicks off at 8 in Florida’s Sun Life Stadium, pitting this year’s undefeated Notre Dame team against the University of Alabama, which is attempting to win its third title in four years. Notre Dame’s storied football legacy dates back to its first national championship in 1924, with strong runs up through its last title in 1988.
But stellar seasons have been scarce the nearly 15 years since, as the Catholic university in South Bend with only 8,000 undergraduates continues its tradition of rigorous academics amid a changing NCAA culture.
But it was academics that drew the Thornton family there, as brothers Nathan and Tyler await a chance to watch their friends play tonight.
Nathan, a 2009 graduate of Terre Haute South Vigo High School, is a Notre Dame senior at with plans to graduate this spring with a degree in IT management. A job with Abercrombie & Fitch awaits him in Columbus, Ohio, and Saturday afternoon he recalled how the small, family-like atmosphere of Notre Dame won him over four years ago.
“It was one of my top choices because of the academics,” he said, explaining that having won a Lilly Scholarship, he had his choice of any school in Indiana, tuition-free.
His brother, Tyler, is an Irish sophomore, majoring in finance and political science. Their father, Don, said his younger son made the choice early.
“I think the youngest one saw us going there for games and such and knew he wanted to go,” he said.
Tyler left for Florida this weekend and will probably watch the game at the Notre Dame Club in Miami, said his mother, Cheryl.
“They had a lottery for tickets,” she said, noting Tyler didn’t win a seat but wanted to go down for the celebration nonetheless.
Nathan said the school’s small size affords students the chance to get to know one another, and that includes the football team. Offensive guard Chris Watt is a roommate of one of his friends, and the 6 feet, 4 inch, 326-pound nose guard Louis Nix is in Nathan’s dorm.
“They’re definitely spread out on campus,” he said, pointing out that at Notre Dame, the football players go to class with everybody else. “You see them around, definitely more so than with a big school.”
As Catholics, the Nathans found the school’s value system to have strong appeal.
Nathan’s also been impressed with the diversity on campus. With students from all over the world, he’s the “resident small town guy” even though the campus is located in South Bend.
Whether the No. 1 Fighting Irish can beat No. 2 Alabama is all a matter of how they play tonight, he said.
“I’m not in the game of making predictions, but I hope they can win,” he said.
Gartland Foundry president Bill Grimes is likewise pulling for his alma mater.
“They’ve come further than anybody thought, so it’s a matter of coming out and executing,” the 1975 Notre Dame graduate said.
Grimes played quarterback and defensive back for Schulte High School before walking onto the Fighting Irish team his freshman year. Although he didn’t continue playing football there, he remembered his time as a student when Notre Dame defeated Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl and secured a national title.
“Obviously they didn’t go into the season ranked and a lot of people drummed them out early,” he said of this year’s team. But the fact remains, they’ve beaten every team faced thus far and have proven themselves worthy contenders. “If they play good, smart football and don’t make any mistakes, I think they’ll come out ahead.”
Gary Ciolli, father of Terre Haute North Vigo softball standout and Notre Dame alum Megan Ciolli, said he too is still rooting for the Irish.
“I’m not going obviously, but I’d love to,” he said of tonight’s game.
After four years of play for the Irish, his daughter now coaches at Northern Illinois University. But supporting Notre Dame has been a lifelong passion for him, from his days in parochial school through now.
“So it’s always been the icon of our home,” the Schulte High School graduate said.
Boland, who followed up eight years at St. Patrick’s with three at St. Meinards Seminary before going to Schulte, said his mother didn’t know much about football, but she loved Notre Dame.
The sports memorabilia spills out of his basement, up the stairs and outside to his garage, where more posters cover walls near blankets and pictures.
A regular at the Notre Dame home games since 1967, he said he gets tickets whenever he can and dispenses them to friends and fellow fans.
“I’ve got two main hobbies, chasing Notre Dame tickets and using them,” he laughed.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.