I am not an alumnus of Notre Dame University but I am Roman Catholic and I have many extended family members who did get their undergraduate and graduate degrees there. My alma mater (Boston University) did not have much of a football team (I don’t even think they have one anymore). Growing up, I was not very interested in watching sports on TV, however, in my 30s my cousin who went to Notre Dame got me into watching the games and gave me a bit of a window into its glorious past. Over the years I have grown attached to the team as the athletic representative of my faith tradition and faithfully root for them whenever they play.
Notre Dame is widely held to be among the most successful college football teams in history. It holds the distinction of having the highest winning percentage in all of college football. The team has also won 13 national championships according to NCAA reckoning. Arguably Notre Dame holds more national championships than any other team in the history of college football (with the possible exception of Alabama). The last national championship won by Notre Dame was in 1988 under coach Lou Holtz.
All this is to say that Notre Dame (without question) can lay claim to a glorious past. In recent years on several occasions Notre Dame seemed to be within striking distance of reclaiming this glory by winning another national championship. However, the team never seems to be able to quite get there. Last Sunday night I sat down to watch Notre Dame’s first game of the Fall 2016 season against a team they should have beaten, Texas. The game ended in defeat with a double overtime score of 50 to 47. Notre Dame’s chances to win a national championship this year (barring a host of unlikely defeats by higher ranked teams) seem highly unlikely.
The emperor Constantine the Great founded the city of Constantinople in the year 330 AD on the site of the Greek settlement known as Byzantium. This very strategic site commanded numerous land and sea trade routes and remained impregnable for nearly 1,000 years. The defensibility of the city owed to the fact that it was surrounded by water on three sides and by enormous land walls to the west. Constantine made his city the new capital of the entire Roman Empire. In 383 when the Empire was split in half and ruled separately by the sons of Theodosius (the last emperor to rule a united Roman Empire) Constantinople remained the capital of the East Roman Empire or what is now commonly known as the Byzantine Empire. This Empire remained existent although in ever shrinking portions until the year 1453 AD when all that remained was the city of Constantinople itself. Before walls were breached by the Ottoman Turks the last emperor Constantine XI is said to remark something along the lines that the empire would probably do better with a mayor than an emperor.
The Byzantine empire lasted for nearly a thousand years after the founding of its capital. The Western Empire collapsed in 476 AD leaving the Byzantine Empire the sole heir of the glorious culture, history, conquests and achievements of Rome. And as the political entity lost ever more of its territory it never lost its sense of entitlement to that glorious past and never lost the ever dim hope that it could some day reclaim it.
I was always fascinated by the Byzantine Empire. I have read several books on the subject and always find myself rooting for the Byzantines. I experience relief when I read about their victories and feel somewhat ill at ease when I read about their defeats. There is the sense that when the Byzantines loose territory that the natural order is somehow upset. There is also the sense that they will naturally regain that territory at some point in the future. When I read about the Ottoman Turks taking the city in some corner of my mind I feel that a tragedy has occurred. Something has been broken that can never quite be put back together again and the world is poorer because of it. When I read that the body of Constantine XI was never recovered and that he may have survived to continue his dynasty a tiny, flickering spark of hope remains that maybe, just maybe…
So here we are in the Fall of 2016. The college football season has just begun. Even though the commentators all agreed that Notre Dame was not much of a contender in my mind this was going to be the year that they came from behind to win the national championship that for so long has been held by illegitimate usurpers. In the past few seasons, the team has at least won the first few games allowing for the hope to build inside me. This year they lost their first game to a middling opponent. In the recesses of my mind something feels off kilter and the natural order is upset. But in that same recessed area of my mind lives the hope, nay the belief that this is all the prologue to their resetting that natural order.
I cannot help but see the parallels between the histories of Notre Dame football and the Byzantine Empire. Both are inheritors of a glorious past. Both (by all appearances) entered a state of decline. Both never lost the feeling that they were entitled to that glorious past and both never lost hope and belief that they will regain their rightful glorious heritage at some point in the future. I suppose in some ways the ultimate outcome does not matter. The story of Notre Dame and the Byzantine Empire is one of righteous struggle against the odds. It is a story of a faith in victory that exists even in the dank jaws of undeniable defeat. There is something beautiful there and perhaps on some level I can derive some obscure, aesthetic comfort from this intricate and nuanced tapestry. On the other hand, fuck it. I just want them to win.