Unlike many stadiums that are on islands surrounded by asphalt, Notre Dame Stadium is safely nestled among campus buildings and surrounded by stately trees that make the stadium hard to spot until you get close.
Once there, we felt the need to touch the stadium walls and look through the tunnel onto the hallowed field, understanding all of the great football moments that stadium has seen: 11 national championship teams, seven Heisman Trophy winners, the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne and Joe Montana.
We could swear we could hear the cheers from the stadium as the Notre Dame legends of the past scored another touchdown for their beloved Fighting Irish coming from "the echoes" made by the wind through the leaves like "a volley cheer on high" as they "shake down the thunder from the sky," as the famous fight song says.
'Touchdown Jesus' shows a different side
On the west side of the stadium is "Touchdown Jesus," a 138-foot high granite mural of Christ with his biblical prophets and individuals from history on the side of the university library. We visited this place four times because we were moved to do so.
The mural looks over the stadium end zone wall, showing Christ with his arms above his head as if signaling an Irish touchdown. The proximity to the stadium and symbolism is uncanny.
When the sun shines just right, the golden halo surrounding Christ's head could even resemble a golden Irish helmet. It's both majestic and breathtakingly beautiful.
At the Friday night pep rally in the basketball arena, we had VIP seats that were right behind Dick Vitale. But the most inspiring sight at the rally was the patient and faithful fans who stood for hours in a line that completely circled the football stadium to get a seat for the free event.
One of our all time favorite movies is "Rudy," the story of an undersized player with a big heart and a love of Notre Dame football. I even have a dog named "Rudy" who was, like his namesake, the runt of the litter.
During our pilgrimage I wanted to experience what "Rudy" saw and felt, so we sought out the Scared Heart Basilica, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Golden Dome, South (Dining) Hall and St. Mary's Lake, where after much effort "Rudy" finally opened his acceptance letter from Notre Dame.
The Sacred Heart Basilica, where "Rudy" meets with a priest, is both awe-inspiring and a feast for the eyes. You go because you're expected to, but then you find yourself drawn to a pew to be alone with your private thoughts and to marvel at the beauty of the basilica and the wonders of human inspiration in its artistry.
Beside the basilica is the Main Building with the fabled "Golden Dome" that sparkles in the sunlight. Cut into a bank beside and below the basilica is the grotto.
Much like "Rudy," our visit to the grotto was after sunset, and the glow of the lit candles and solitude was overwhelming. Soon we were in our own private moment, lighting a candle and in prayer for something far more meaningful than football.
After a stop for lunch at South Hall, where "Rudy" would pick up girls for his friend, and a stop to rub the nose of the bronze statue of Knute Rockne for good luck, we were off for the game.
We both feared that after all we had seen and experienced, the game would be anticlimatic. It wasn't.
Watching the game was just as much fun
As we passed through the stadium gates, we walked back in history to the legendary players and coaches that make up Notre Dame football. Statues and photos adorn the stadium walls that led us through the tunnel to our seats.
The Fighting Irish band was great. Their music and precision marching added so much to the game, and when they play the "Notre Dame Victory March," it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
The student section had choreographed chants and cheers for every possible occasion, and instead of the expected leprechaun doing push-ups after each touchdown, the students lifted each other over their heads for the push-ups.
On our way out the campus gates, it finally hit me what all of this reminded me of: a football version of Disney World. The fans have such reverence for the tradition, and just like at Disney World, you see no litter on the campus. Even the tailgaters pick up after themselves.
The large green spaces between buildings are beautifully manicured, and the buildings are perfectly preserved. The older buildings still look new, and the newer buildings are designed to look old. I couldn't wait to get home and watch "Rudy" again.
We couldn't leave there without being fans forever and knowing it's not if we will return but when we will return, and of course we left whistling that well-known tune:
Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name,
Send a volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky