Thursday, August 3, 2017

Defining presence

Permanence is the great unattainable for matters of the flesh, except when it is not. A man or woman can achieve great things in life, but few ever become synonymous with those things, ever transcend mortality to become carved in stone on, say, a mountain in South Dakota, or in some leafy glade on a college campus in northern Indiana.

And so we come to Ara Parseghian, gone now at 94, and Notre Dame football. Who were of one piece for an entire generation of us, a generation that will never think of Notre Dame football as anything but Ara and Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour, and particular measures of time in a childhood now passed.

Ara, for instance, will for me always be that hour after church when I'd come home and turn on my TV, and there would be Navy unable to move the ball, so they punted to Notre Dame. Lindsey Nelson would forever be moving on to further action in the third quarter. And for some reason, instead of Hanratty or Theismann or Tom Clements, it was always Cliff Brown -- the first black quarterback ever to start at ND -- who was calling the signals.

Ara was that hour for me, even though I wasn't really a Notre Dame fan. He was a November afternoon in 1966 in East Lansing, Mich., when Bubba Smith knocked Hanratty out of the game and Coley O'Brien had to replace him, and the Irish and Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie in the first Game of the Century -- one which forever marked Ara, fairly or not, as the Guy Who Played For The Tie.

Of course, he was also that night in 1973 when the Guy Who Played For The Tie became a riverboat gambler instead, instructing Clements to throw out of his own end zone to tight end Robin Weber, thus preserving Notre Dame's 24-23 win over Alabama and Ara's second national title.

He left not long after that, at the still-young age of 51. Notre Dame football would go on with other men on the sideline, and some of them would win national titles, too. But with the possible exception of Lou Holtz, they would never define football at Notre Dame the way Ara did.

Perhaps that was a function of age, of our generation growing to adulthood and losing some of that child's wonder that makes things like football at Notre Dame seem so much larger than life. And perhaps some of it was also the fact that Ara never coached again anywhere, while Holtz went on to his strange afterlife at South Carolina.

Perhaps, too, it was Ara's own afterlife, which was noble and unbearably tragic at the same time. He lost three teenaged grandchildren to a rare disease. He lost one of his own children. And he was indefatigable in leading the fight to find a cure for the disease that killed his grandkids, becoming as synonymous with that as he had been with Notre Dame football.

And now he is gone, after the full measure of a rich and purposeful life. Cliff Brown is gone, too, passing in 2012. And of course Lindsey Nelson has been gone for 22 years.

Notre Dame football, on the other hand, starts up again in a month.

Or, you know, something vaguely like it.

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