An Oral History of My Family’s College Football Obsession

In The Hustons: The Life and Times of a Hollywood Dynasty, the biography of legendary Irish director John Huston and his family, the author describes my grandfather Tom Shaw, Huston’s longtime production manager, as a “pugnacious pitbull of a man with the personality of a marine drill sergeant.” It should come as no surprise, then, that my grandpa’s favorite football team was the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Initially, his obsession had everything to do with his Irish Catholic roots, but eventually, it became a matter of history — our family’s collective history with the team and the team’s collective history within college football.

But first, a little back story: My grandpa was born to first-generation Irish parents in Brooklyn in 1920. When the film industry left New York, his producer father followed along. So my grandpa was mostly raised in Los Angeles, hitchhiking his way around town and spending his money on sports and desserts. Despite getting kicked out of a couple of schools for his, ahem, attitude — which eventually led him to a summer school stint at an otherwise all-girls Catholic school — my grandpa ended up playing football at Loyola University and was a celebrated fullback before the onset of World War II.

I grew up in the house my mom grew up in, with my grandpa there as my best friend, babysitter, entertainer and tutor. He picked me up a half-hour early from kindergarten every day so that we could go to mass together at the veterans’ hospital up the street from our house. I was a cool 75 years younger than our fellow parishioners, but enjoyed getting to know them all as they flocked to him. My grandpa taught me the psychological benefit of a good suntan, my first Shakespeare quote and that Saturdays in the fall were meant for Notre Dame football (and pretty much nothing else).

Although my grandpa died in 2008 at the age of 88, most of his nine kids still never miss a Notre Dame game in his honor. The same is true of the next generation — my cousins, many of whom are now currently producing an even newer set of fans, already clad in baby-sized Fighting Irish jerseys and T-shirts. As one of my uncles puts it, Notre Dame is the Shaw family’s Holy Trinity — God, family and football.

If anyone of us has ever dared to criticize our family’s relationship to Notre Dame, it’s been me. I read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas at the end of high school and took to spouting off to my mom about how allegiance to a team is about allegiance to a country; how nationalism is toxic; and how schools support athletes accused of assault in the name of wins and advertising dollars. I wanted to think critically about our relationship to this team, because I was learning to think critically about everything (in a way my grandpa always appreciated, of course). But none of my critiques, no matter how reasonable, interesting or true, could ever truly override my heartfelt associations with the team.

Loving the same team only makes loving each other that much easier.

So as the 2017 season begins — on my grandfather’s 97th birthday, no less — I asked my uncles to reflect on Notre Dame with me. That isn’t to say my mom and her sisters don’t have Notre Dame stories and insights of their own; it’s just that when I look at or listen to my uncles, I see and hear my grandpa pretty clearly. In this way, the four of them — with the rhythm of their storytelling and the particular intonations of the way they exclaim “Jesus Christ” — are the living vestiges of my family’s patriarch and his tough, irreverent magic.

Here they are by birth year: Tom Shaw (1948), Dennis Shaw (1954), Mike Shaw (1960) and Kevin Shaw (1969). Everyone grew up an athlete and everyone worked in film and TV at one time or another, Tom and Kevin as property masters and Mike as a teamster. After working in production with my grandpa as a young man, Dennis became a high school teacher and principal in central California. The rest are still where they began: L.A.

Loyal Sons

It’s worth mentioning that nobody in my family ever went to Notre Dame or even lived in Indiana. The school and its football team became essential to us through other means.

Tom: During the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Notre Dame was almost unbeatable. Dad was born in 1920, in the golden era of sports. He was the biggest sports fan ever — football, baseball, basketball and boxing, but nothing beat Notre Dame. He played college football, too. He was a fullback. When I was young, I’d read his scrapbook all the time, and it had pictures of him and all sorts of clippings about his games. I thought it was the best thing in the world.

Dennis: He inherited his love for Notre Dame from his family. And as a college football player at Loyola, his coach was a Notre Dame graduate, so that was part of it, too. Of course, there also was the New York Irish-Catholic thing.

Tom: You can’t underestimate the Irish-Catholic influence. I think that was the main reason we liked them to begin with. My grandfather’s parents came to Brooklyn from Ireland, so there was a feeling that they represented us. Back in the 1950s, there was still a fairly strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. In fact, when Notre Dame first started going down to Miami and other schools in the South, fans threw fish onto the field as an anti-Catholic thing.

Dennis: When I was little, dad told me that his brother Frank was an even bigger Notre Dame fan than him. He said one time he came home and went, “Jesus Christ, Frank, what the hell are you crying about?” And Frank responded, “Notre Dame is losing.” Dad was relieved because he thought somebody had died.

Kevin: Of us sons, Mike feels like Notre Dame is more important to him than anyone else. I don’t know why he feels that way. I argue with him about it, because in our own ways, we all feel the same exact way. It’s crazy how something insignificant to most of the rest of the world means everything to us.

Dennis: I don’t understand why we feel the way we do. Even when someone tells me they’re a big Stanford fan or a big Michigan fan, I don’t believe they could love their team anywhere close to the way we love Notre Dame.

Mike: Within my own mind, Notre Dame is a huge priority — throughout the great seasons and the less great seasons — and has a huge effect on my emotional state.

Dennis: It stinks because when they lose, my whole day, week, year, whatever is ruined.

Tom: Let’s just say I feel a lot better when Notre Dame wins.

Kevin: We each have our own personalities and identities, and those come across in the kind of fan we are. Notre Dame could not get a first down during the first play of the game, and Tom would be like, “This is fucked. We’re dead. My day is fucked.” Dennis is like the scholar. He studied the game so closely and taught me more about it than anyone, especially why and how things were happening. Mike is just pure emotion. He isn’t the biggest yeller or screamer of the group, but he lives and breathes every moment of every game. His face always says it all.

As for my part, I think I gave them all joy at different times in their lives, because I was so much younger that they could each take me under their wing and show me certain things. I reinvigorated their spirit in Notre Dame football because of my thirst for it as a kid, and they all took part in teaching and guiding me.

Tom: When we lived in our first house in Reseda, dad would make me sit down with him every Saturday morning and listen to the Notre Dame game on the radio. And before it started, he’d play the fight song on a record he had. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. The games were never on television back then, just on the radio.

Dennis: The first time I became aware of Notre Dame was because my older brother Tom was such a Paul Hornung fan. Hornung was a Heisman trophy winner at Notre Dame in the mid-1950s, and everything Tommy had — T-shirts and helmets — had Hornung’s number 5 on them. That was one of the first pieces of information I committed to memory as a kid: Paul Hornung wore the number 5.

Tom: As kids, Dennis and I would go to L.A. Rams games every Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum. The first thing we’d do is look at the opposing team’s roster to see which players had gone to Notre Dame. We saw Nick Pietrosante, who became the fullback for the Detroit Lions, and a guy named Jim Martin, who was a superstar at Notre Dame after the war. He was one of the greatest players of his day and became good friends with Mom and Dad as well.

Kevin: When I was little, there were two TV stations that played college football games. Certain Saturdays, we’d get Notre Dame, but when they played schools with less of a following (like Temple), we’d have to find the game on the radio. I’d never give up a TV now, but listening to the games on the radio and watching dad’s reactions was priceless. It was the purest form of paying attention to the game, and I loved watching him listen to every minute of what was happening.

Tom: We played the Notre Dame fight song all the time at our house. Nothing got me more pumped. I love that song. It’s one of the most famous fight songs of all time. The Notre Dame Men’s Choir has great songs, too, like “When Irish Backs Go Marching By.” We had an album from the choir and would play all the songs on it. I wish I still had that album.

Mike: The Notre Dame fight song used to be my answering machine, but I took it off because it was all becoming too creepy, fanatic-wise.

Dennis: In the mid-1970s, I remember taking Kevin, who was really young at the time, to the USC-Notre Dame game. Right when Notre Dame began making a comeback and things got really tense, Kevin told me he needed to go to the bathroom. I was quite clear in my response, That’s just not going to happen. He had to go in his pants. But he didn’t fight it or have any complaints. He knew that’s just what had to happen.

Kevin: It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I knew how much it meant to both of us, and I didn’t want to miss any of the action either. I think he was really proud that I pissed down my leg. It sounds stupid, but it was my Bar Mitzvah.

The Influence of Another Notre Dame Fanatic

Scott Brady was an honorary member of our family and a huge influence on my uncles and their Notre Dame fandom. An accomplished Irish-American actor best known for playing the bad guy in numerous Westerns, Brady met my grandfather on set in the late 1950s and they struck up a lifelong friendship. Also a good Irishman, Brady was born Gerard Tierney, and changed his given name only at the behest of Hollywood. My first name is in honor of his last name.

Dennis: I don’t know when Scott and Dad became so close, but I remember him showing up all the time and doing things with us. He was always talking about Notre Dame, and all the stories he told us, true or not, were the best things we’d ever heard. He told us corned beef and cabbage had to be our favorite food because it was all they served at Notre Dame. He’d give us books to read about Notre Dame, too, one of which was A Treasury of Notre Dame Football. I remember he inscribed it with, “One day you’ll have your own chapter in this book Dennis. Love, Scott.”

Better still, when Notre Dame played USC at the Coliseum every other year, he’d have everyone meet at Tail o’ the Cock, a nice restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in the Valley. Afterward, we’d get on chartered buses and go to the game.

Tom: Then after the game, Scott would have a huge party at his house in Laurel Canyon. The coaches, players and athletic director just loved him. They all knew him from TV and movies, but I think he’d also played [legendary Notre Dame coach] Knute Rockne in a play or something. He was always reenacting Rockne’s speeches for the players and stuff like that.

Scott didn’t host any parties after 1964, though. USC completed a pass against us in the last seconds of the game and we lost. Later that night, this Notre Dame player, Tony Carey, a defensive back who slipped and fell during the game, letting USC score, was at Scott’s party. When he ducked out to go to a liquor store, he got into an altercation and punched some guy. The police came, and from then on, Scott couldn’t be the host, at least officially, of any more parties. Notre Dame had lost face, and they couldn’t have that.

Kevin: When we went to Notre Dame games and rallies, we were shy. We were our own group. We weren’t going to just walk into a room full of Notre Dame people and start talking about how much we love the Irish. But Scott had no problem doing any of that. He had no inhibitions at all. He loved Notre Dame, and he wanted everyone to know it.

Tom: One of the most famous Notre Dame coaches of all time was Frank Leahy. Scott brought him over to our house when I was a kid. It was shocking because the guy was a total drunk. I remember being like, Jesus, this is this famous Notre Dame coach? I’d never seen him coach, because he was around in the 1940s, but when I met him, he was a shell of the man he was. Scott must have run into him at a bar and brought him by.

Dennis: Dad did know the coaches because in those days, college coaches needed to make money during the off-season. A lot of the USC guys worked as extras [background actors in film and TV], and Dad would hire them on whatever show he was on — players too. So we ended up with USC players at our house quite often in the early 1960s — people like Mike and Marlin McKeever and Joe Margucci, a USC player who went on to play for the Detroit Lions and eventually became one of Dad’s best friends. That generation of USC guys were great. It was different back then. You always wanted Notre Dame to win, but you sort of liked USC. At least I did.

That said, one of the best days of my life was in 1966. Notre Dame was playing USC, and if we won, we’d become national champions. I was there with my parents and a lot of my brothers and sisters. Amazingly, Notre Dame won 51–0. Afterward, we went to two or three parties — that last of which was Scott’s. It was at a restaurant near Sunset Boulevard. He had a private room with a long table and all of his buddies were there, all Notre Dame guys. Scott was at the head of the table, and I’d never seen a man so content in my life.

Kevin: In 1982, Notre Dame was playing USC, and Scott took us to a party at a Bel-Air mansion after the game. I was like 12 at the time. It was hosted by money Notre Dame fans, and when I say money, I don’t mean enough money to go to the game; I mean enough money to buy airlines. My mom was there drinking and dancing with Allen Pinkett, Notre Dame’s star running back. She was having the time of her life. Honestly, everyone was.

The only problem was that this house was so huge that I couldn’t find the bathroom. After looking and looking and looking, I found a serious study. It was everything you picture a rich guy’s study to be — a huge mahogany desk, Tiffany lamps, dark leather couches, and lucky for me, a bathroom. So I dashed in there, and all is good, right? Wrong. When I came out of the bathroom, I tripped over a cord. Boom. A Tiffany lamp shattered to the floor.

I stood there without a clue of what to do, surveying the damage and going, “What the fuck?” Sure as shit, the one other person who walked into the room was Regis Philbin. He’s a huge Notre Dame fan, but I’d never met him. I just knew who he was. He looked at me and asked, “So what are you going to do now?” I told him I had no idea, and he said, “Welp, there’s only one way to handle this.” I thought he was going to march me up to the homeowner or something. Instead, he told me, “I’d get out of this room and never look back.” And that’s what I did.

Typical Game Days

The biggest rule at my grandpa’s house when the Notre Dame game was on? NEVER. WALK. IN. FRONT. OF. THE. TV. Duck, crawl and/or piss your pants, just don’t block the screen.

Dennis: Other than the USC games, there weren’t really special game-day parties. Everyone was always invited and there was always way too much food, but watching the game was never a party. It was serious. And anyone who came over knew what kind of environment it was.

Kevin: We always had Sunday dinners as a kid, but Saturdays were just as important to me. We’d all watch the game, just sitting around and not saying a word besides reacting to what was happening on the field. We didn’t say a word because we knew we weren’t allowed to, and maybe because I grew up in that environment, I never even thought to. I didn’t have to shut up like it was a rule—I just respected what the environment was.

Mike: If you felt comfortable enough to come over during a Notre Dame game at our house, you knew not to talk and not to be a pain in the ass. Nobody had to be told; the pressure would just get to you. The rules are still the same on Saturdays: Don’t try to be a funny person, don’t say dumb shit about Notre Dame and don’t fuck with us.

Dennis: My kids say almost nothing during the games because they just know. When my oldest son Ryan told me he was going to get married in the fall, I told him to check the bye schedule because he couldn’t get married on a game day. My wife thought it was funny and tried to make a joke out of it to his future wife, but I wasn’t kidding.

Mike: I don’t like to eat very much on game days. I like to be fresh, even a little hungry. I like having that little edge to me while watching a game. Same goes for what I watch. If Notre Dame doesn’t start until later in the day, I’m careful not to watch too many football games before that. I limit my viewing because I don’t want any of it taking away from my Notre Dame experience.

Kevin: One of my favorite game-day memories was actually on a Friday afternoon after I’d just gotten home from school. It was like 1981, and the USC game was happening back in South Bend the next day. We had an okay TV — my parents never bought shitty stuff — but I noticed it was starting to go. So I said to dad, “Boy, we need another TV.” I remember him going, “What do you mean?” and me responding, “We can’t watch the game on this TV.”

Quickly, he agreed, and before you knew it, we were off to the electronics store, which was funny because he wasn’t the type of guy to just grab his car keys and go, ever. This was when large-screen TVs were first coming out. We saw this 50-inch, big box of a TV that we wanted to buy, but Dad didn’t know how to pay for anything himself, so we had to call my mom and get the credit-card information from her. I can just picture her sitting at the kitchen counter, smoking her Lucky Strike, thinking, These fuckers…

After all that was sorted, the sales guy then told us the TV couldn’t be delivered for a week. Dad said, “No way!” He needed it either that night or very early the next morning. He wasn’t necessarily intimidating, contrary to what a lot of people think, but he certainly had a way of getting things done.

Sure enough, we were watching the game on that TV the next day.

Blue and Gold

Blue and Gold Illustrated is a magazine for Notre Dame football fans, published weekly during football season and monthly during the off-season. Before the internet, Blue and Gold was a Notre Dame fan’s easiest way to stay up-to-date. Originally a tabloid-sized newspaper, Blue and Gold has since expanded into a podcast, an app and an online fan forum powered by Rivals.

Kevin: The fights we had over Blue and Gold were legendary. It was like our Bible, and we were all dying to read it every week. When we first started getting it, though, the mail was so slow that it would arrive a week too late — after the game it was previewing had already happened. So I had my mom call and switch our shipping method to first-class mail, which she had to pay extra for. While it was the family’s subscription, I was a spoiled brat and thought it was mine. This one particular time, I got home, and Mike couldn’t find the paper and went off on me, calling me a spoiled little bitch and telling me how he should kill me then and there. It got really heated, but I kept snapping back even though I knew he could hurt me if he wanted to.

There are few people in my proud mind that I’m scared to fight, but he’s one of them. And I’d know from a certain look on his face that it was time to shut up if I didn’t want to get hit. Still, I’d never give up Blue and Gold. So I took it, ran into the bathroom, locked the door and took a bath. That way I could read about Notre Dame in peace.

Mike: I belong to an online forum called Blue and Gold, same as the old paper. I’m now on my third account because I’ve been 86’d from it a few times. When I’m kicked off, I use a different credit card number to get back on. I’ve been kicked off because there are always people in complete denial about where the team is really at. Maybe they love the team so much that they fail to look at the game objectively. That’s not my problem. I call bullshit when I see it. The first time I got kicked off, I called them up and kissed ass until they let me back on. But that hasn’t worked in the other cases.

Family Trips to South Bend

Most family trips were Notre Dame trips, and for Kevin at least, the merchandise is almost as sacred as the memories.

Kevin: In October 1987, I watched my first Notre Dame game on the Notre Dame campus with dad. It was probably the first week of October when I came home from school with my mind racing. I was 18 at the time. I said to dad, “Isn’t it crazy you haven’t watched a game there? Isn’t it crazy that I haven’t? This has got to change.” He agreed that we should go. I got out the phone book and called everyone I could, enlisting my mom’s help.

Within two hours, we had plane tickets, game tickets and a hotel room in Elkhart, Indiana, because all the rooms in South Bend were sold out. Soon enough, my dad and I were at O’Hare in Chicago. Everything from there was magical, including getting lost with him our first night as we drove the 90 minutes or so from Chicago to campus. I remember being on the road and telling him I thought I’d spotted the Golden Dome, but he told me he knew exactly where he was going, even though he’d never been there before. Next thing you know, we were in Michigan.

Dennis: In 1990, Mike, Kevin, Dad and I flew back for the season opener. That was my first trip there with Dad, after so many years of watching the game with him. But what I remember the most about that trip is the bratwurst. It was my first time discovering bratwurst, and I must have eaten 15 or 20 of them.

Kevin: For some reason, although the four of us know more about Notre Dame football than just about anyone else on Earth, we messed up our timing. We got to campus at like 6 a.m. We thought it was really bizarre that we didn’t see any tailgaters, because they usually started around then for a 3 p.m. kick-off. Instead, we were all alone, which was cool but sort of weird. Eventually, we figured out that the game started at 7:30 p.m. That left us with like 13 hours to kill. Talk about a full campus experience. We had about three breakfasts in the South dining hall, which dad just loved.

Once everyone else showed up, Dennis found the guy cooking brats. I think during his first go at it, he ate two or three, but throughout our hours of walking around, he led us back there for more rounds of brats every hour or so. By the end of the day, he polished off between 12 and 18 of them. If I talk to Dennis five times in a week, the brats story is brought up at least four times.

Dennis: God knows how many things we bought from the student store that trip.

Kevin: I couldn’t wait to get to the campus bookstore. I went wild in there with the credit card my mom had given us to use. When I met back up with dad, I was holding all these bags. He asked me what I got him, and I pulled out one gray sweatshirt. He was like, “That’s it?”

Overall, I’ve probably owned 10,000 pieces of Notre Dame clothing in my life. I’m in my room right now, and I can see probably 50 T-shirts and another 10 hats. Not to mention the blanket that says Notre Dame on my bed. Or the one on my living room couch. Or the mat in front of my door. Or the collar on my cat’s neck.

Still, nothing beats the jersey I received back in 1977. That year, Notre Dame came out wearing vivid green jerseys that I’d never seen before, although that wasn’t their first time wearing them. I was 7 or 8, but all I could think about was, Oh shit, I need one of those. There were no stores that carried gear like that and no internet, of course, but on Christmas morning, I opened up a box and there was my green jersey, complete with the number of Bob Golic, my favorite player at the time. I don’t think I took that jersey off for at least two years. I even remember getting into a fight on my elementary school playground and getting blood on it and being like, “Oh my God, this is terrible.”

Onward to Victory

The Fighting Irish won their first game of the season on Saturday, and had three players go over 100 yards rushing in the same game for what might be the first time in their history. But like the fight song says, even if that hadn’t been the case, “though the odds be great or small,” my uncles would still be watching.

Kevin: Honestly, if it weren’t for Notre Dame football, I don’t know if I’d be able to read. Especially as a child. Nothing I ever learned in school channeled the same passion I had for Notre Dame, and they always say it’s passion that makes people study things. I’d get up and scour the newspaper for everything related to Notre Dame. Plus, every August, Notre Dame would come out with this big media guide for journalists, but also for fans at the stadium who wanted to purchase it. And every year, either my mom or Scott would get it for me. It was a bound book of about 300 pages that included pictures and all the stats about every player on the team. I’d read it cover-to-cover, even the boring stuff like how many people the stadium holds and the hobbies of each player.

There was, however, a method to my madness. Every time the team would come to L.A., they’d always stay at the Bonaventure. We’d time out our day to get there early and eat before they’d arrive, so we could watch them get off the bus. And it was because of that media guide that I was able to recognize every player who got off the bus — and not in their uniforms with their numbers either, but in their suits.

You bet your ass I’d scream at every one of them who came by, too. I’ll never forget the attention I got from them — especially because I wouldn’t just ask them to sign stuff; I wanted to talk to them. I’d be like, “Hey Bob Golic, have a great game today!” He’d look over like, “Who the fuck are you? You’re 6 years old. How do you know who I am?” I never wanted an autograph. I just wanted them to know who I was. More than anybody, Dennis would get off on the fact that I was like that. I was doing everything he was too guarded to do, but I’d be on his shoulders or right next to him.

Tom: You could probably write a psychology report about all of us. We’ve all been in this together; it’s Notre Dame all the way.

Mike: There’s a spirituality to being happy and to sharing this camaraderie with so many other people, especially your family. It’s hard to put into words, because it’s such a personal and powerful force in our lives. What the fuck else is there? Notre Dame gives us a sense of togetherness. I love knowing my brothers are watching at the same time I am every Saturday, and I enjoy texting Kevin throughout the game, or talking to Dennis or Tom about the game on the phone later in the week. A lot of times we’re bitching and complaining, but there’s a lot of happiness to all of this, too.

Dennis: I don’t ever remember not loving Notre Dame. I’m sure that’s true for each of us.

Kevin: We each have this sense that this is special to us, and it is special to us, but there are families I’ve met all over the country who love Notre Dame, too. There’s a family in Columbus, Ohio, that’s just as passionate about Notre Dame football as we are. I love that, but I hate it, too, you know?

Tierney Finster is a contributing editor at MEL. She last wrote about the cardiothoracic surgeon who believes CBD is the future of medicinal marijuana.

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