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Ben Smith

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History, mystique questions await

– And now here it comes, all that lore and fable crashing on in. The Rockne stuff. The Gipper stuff. The Ara stuff, the Lou stuff, the Four Horsemen, Rudy flippin’ Ruettiger.

Notre Dame is playing for a national title again, and it’s playing Alabama. So of course there is going to be history involved, even for a generation that tends to regard history as the academic equivalent of eating all your vegetables.

Or in other words: Sooner or later, someone’s going to get asked what West Virginia’s Major Harris was asked back in 1989, the week of the Fiesta Bowl and Notre Dame’s last national title.

“What percentage of the Notre Dame mystique is going to be a factor in this game?” the question went, or something along those lines.

“Uhhhh …..” Harris replied.

And now it’s 24 years later, and here is someone else asking weird questions about mystique and history and tradition. Mainly about the latter two, and about what various Notre Dame players know now that they didn’t when they arrived on campus.

“Honestly, I didn’t know a whole lot about it,” tight end Tyler Eifert says.

“I didn’t know much about Notre Dame (coming out of high school),” echoes defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore.

And you, Robby Toma?

“I knew a few of the names,” he says. “Obviously the big thing was Rudy.”

But of course.

And, OK, listen: These are not oblivious college kids who think history is what happened an hour ago. There are any number of players on Notre Dame’s roster – Bishop Dwenger grad John Goodman notable among them – who can bend your ear all day with the lore.

But sometimes geography and genetics play a bigger role. Eifert grew up a Purdue fan because his dad, Greg, played basketball there. Toma grew up with Manti Te’o in Laie, Hawaii. And Lewis-Moore grew up in Weatherford, Texas, where the taste in college mascots ran more to Longhorns and Aggies than pugnacious Irishmen.

You know what, though?

They all learned. It kind of just happens here.

“The more you’re here, the more it’s kind of like instilled in you,” Lewis-Moore says. “It’s constantly there. You just can’t help but know some of the guys from the ’88 championship team, can’t help but know Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian. It’s something you kind of take upon yourself.”

Safety Zeke Motta didn’t know a lot about the lore, either, when he showed up from Vero Beach, Fla., but one of the first places he went – felt compelled to go – was the campus bookstore, where he found a video about Notre Dame football.

And then, of course, there are the Heisman trophies in the lobby of the Guglielmino complex, and the ’88 crystal football. You look up on a Saturday afternoon, and there’s Tony Rice or Jerome Bettis prowling the sideline. You walk into the postgame, and here are all those old team photos, generations of Notre Dame men staring a hole through you out of 1924 or ’30 or ’49 or ’66.

“It’s almost nostalgic,” Motta says.

“Just hearing the names every day, seeing the pictures in the locker room every day … you learned a lot about the history,” Toma says.

A pause.

“There’s a lot of history here. And there’s still a lot I don’t know.”

Best get crackin’, then. That percentage-of-the-mystique question is on its way.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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