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  • Phil Houk

I'll Always Have 2019 (Part 1)



A few days ago, it looked like it was all going to be gone. The dominoes were tumbling. Major conferences canceled Fall 2020 football. Now there is hope that some of what makes college football great may survive, The Irish are determined to play, albeit in a very nontraditional way.


What will happen tomorrow, and I do mean in the next 24 hours, who knows?


But I’ll always have 2019.


There is no chance that autumn number 59 of my life will be like the rest, but the 2019 season was in many ways the pinnacle of my six-decade love affair with Notre Dame football.


And, I’ll always have that.


You see, I was born a Catholic kid in the shadow of the Golden Dome. I grew up 3 doors down from Knute Rockne’s house. Indeed, Knute’s backyard was my sandlot growing up. I started going to games when my age was in the single digits. Notre Dame Football means a lot to me and I consider the decades of autumns colored by the glory of the Fighting Irish that I've witnessed, to be 'the soundtrack’ to my life.


My earliest memories in life are of my Dad talking about how the refs at USC stole the 1964 National title from the Irish…… oh, and my Dad talked about Ara, a lot. Always Ara, that man entered South Bend like a whirlwind and soon owned the place. Standards of excellence, those eyes, that black hair, even to an 8-year-old kid, his look was mesmerizing. More than a hero, Ara was a college football philosopher king, Ara was royalty.


In 1966 I remember talking trash with a family friend who was a Michigan State grad. That game of the century ended in a tie, but ND had the last laugh. When the Irish were awarded the National Championship, a smart aleck 5-year-old thought he knew everything.


Joe Theismann, Little Joe, the South River runner...I cried myself to sleep the night USC ended an undefeated season bid in the rain and muck of the Coliseum in 1970, but my hero Joe was brilliant. He set an all-time single passing record that night. My admiration for him was so strong that I carved his name and uniform number 7 into the desk in my room one day. Mom still hasn’t forgiven me for that.


Years later I interviewed Joe and was never so nervous about meeting and talking to somebody in my life. Joe couldn’t have been nicer to me, I asked him about that rainy night at USC and was left with the impression that it had a more lasting effect on me than on him!


In 1973 it was Alabama and the battle of New Orleans and I can tell you right where I was when Clements threw and Weber caught that pass, and the Irish won another championship. The streets of South Bend went crazy that night, good crazy. My brother and I set up on our front porch and joined the celebration banging pots and pans for 2 hours.


In 1977 the Irish were Devine and Joe Montana became another hero when the Irish whipped Texas and Earl Campbell to win another National Championship. Then in 1978, chicken soup fueled a comeback in Joe’s last game. That is the stuff Notre Dame football lore is made of.


I lived through the days of Faust that started with hope but ended in despair, as I grew from a teenager into an adult. The 1985 loss to Miami became a personal rallying cry.


Lou brought change and wins. His Irish turned the corner with a comeback win over USC on my wedding day. Yes, there was a TV over in the corner set up to watch the game at the reception. A cheer rose up in the room when John Carney converted the winning field goal.


12-0 in 1988 and the championship champagne flowed the night of the Fiesta Bowl win over West Virginia. Tony Rice and the three amigos, there never was any doubt.


1993 was nearly a dream season until BC had their say. That game turned out to be the last game my dad attended in person and the emotion shared with him that night that cost the Irish another title will never be forgotten.


In 1997 my radio show, Fighting Irish Preview was born and my passion for Fighting Irish football went to a new level. My sports radio background had led to a dream collaboration with America’s foremost authority on Notre Dame football, yes that is YOU Tim Prister.


Bob Davie and Ty Willingham came and went followed by Charlie and the ‘Bush push’ and there was a memorable Christmas Eve Hawaii Bowl win when Jimmy Clausen couldn’t miss. Santa Claus and an Irish win? A big night indeed for my young and growing family at that time. I remember dancing in the basement with my kids after a Golden Tate touchdown catch. My love of the Irish was being passed to a new generation.

My older brother sadly passed away in 2006, but as one of his last wishes, the Victory March was played at the conclusion of his wake. Yep, the Fighting Irish obsession runs in the family.

In 2012 a trip of a lifetime to Dublin kicked off a magical run to the BCS Championship game. Aviva stadium rocked as the Irish romped over Navy. That night I bought Guinness for every sailor I could find.

But that season ended with a whimper and emptiness on the field in Miami at the BCS championship game. I remember heading to my car after wards as fast as I could, I just couldn’t wait to get out of town.

2014 ended with Kyle Brindza’s Music City bowl game kick of redemption. From a honky tonk on Broadway Street I had been part of 4 hours of radio talk leading up to the game. The Irish upset LSU and this 53-year-old man celebrated with the team that night, at mid field. Later back on Broadway street, a Tiger fan bought ME a beer. See, we can all get along.

2016 was a nightmare that made covering ND football more of a chore than a vocation. 7 defeats by a score or less out of 8 losses will do that to you.

Wholesale change by Brian Kelly started a historically great run in 2017. That year was capped off by the rise of Ian Book in the Citrus Bowl and Miles Boykin’s winning TD catch. I watched that play with stunned journalistic stoicism from the sidelines.

2018 was a 12-0 run to another playoff disappointment but the Irish were on a roll, and experiencing “Jerry’s World” in the CFP playoff was unforgettable.

That brings me to 2019, and no matter what happens in 2020 with College football, I know that......


I’ll always have 2019.


In part two find out what made 2019 so special and how Ara played a surprise role. Look for it Monday.

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