One decade, 10 years of adventure, separates two far but united moments of time rooted in traditionalism, turkey, and the fortitude of gratitude.
In Thanksgiving of 2005 and 2015, I walked beside my father, a Notre Dame grad, to dazzling stadium seats that looked onward to the fight of the Fighting Irish in the all-American, Thanksgiving tradition of fervent football.
This last Saturday, perched in golden seats with optimal viewing of the sparkling Stanford stadium, dizzying smells of alcohol swirled the air, while heavy feet clanged into the cold metal of stadium seats in rhythm with “We Will Rock You” – and quietly, I was reminded of thanksgiving.
The glittering gold helmets of the glorious Notre Dame Fighting Irish run circles with the Stanford Cardinals, who are unimpressive wearing dull red and white uniforms. Decked in four-leaf-clover green, gold stickers on my face, and the love of the Irish engraved in my heart by my father, I watched a ravaging rivalry.
There is a far, faint familiarity in the tossing of spinning cheerleaders, the stadium roar that echoes around 70,000 seats, while the buttery goodness of popcorn and grilled hot dogs’ sizzles in the air above and around. In the buzz of the beating speakers, the warm-ups of the worlds finest sportsmen, I am reminded of my doe-eyed, eight-year-old self enchanted. Exhilarated. There is an intensely infectious thrill that swirls in a stadium of 70,000, an energy that has no preference for age, experience, football knowledge, or gender.
For Thanksgiving Day football games in the United States are nearly as old as the game – and the holiday itself. The first Thanksgiving Day football game came two weeks after the first American Football game in 1869, only six years after Abraham Lincoln declared the first fixed national Thanksgiving holiday.
The traditional, conventional nature of Thanksgiving that is embodied in Charlie Browns Thanksgiving special or the Hallmark Channel’s holiday movies is one that is more apart of my imagination than my experience. My Thanksgivings have been spent in the terrains of the tropics, the sunshine of Singapore or the mountains of China, even the waters of Thailand. As a third culture kid overseas, the traditionalism of Thanksgiving was at the discretion of our choosing – the utilization of our hands in the kitchen and our values as Americans no longer apart identifying as entirely Americans. For the Dragon Boat Festival, Lunar New Year, and 春节 celebrations come more natural to me than the national anthem as a routine part of my school day.
Moon cakes are my Thanksgiving pies, tea is my egg-nog, dumplings are my casseroles.
I imagine traditional Thanksgiving as extended relatives, aunts you don’t recognize asking about your relationship status, while Grandpa is passed out on turkey and silky chocolate pie, ESPN buzzing in the background.
What is it to taste traditionalism a decade apart?
Filling and fulfilling.
The last time I entered an American arena of football players and alcohol guzzling fanatical fans, I was eight and unaware that in the coming January I would make one of the grandest moves on my life – an international journey to Asia, to the completion of my family, and to the reinvention of the intertwining of values and tradition. I grew up in China and Singapore with the Irish on TV at 3:30 in the morning due to the lovely nature of varying time zones. The world of American athleticism felt continents away (as it was) after our international departure, but the Notre Dame logo never lost familiarity. I was an American born child of a Wheaton and Notre Dame grad who raised his little ones to experience and be enthralled by the uniting power of this grand, concussion-granting, nationalism-inspiring sport. But you can only imagine the thrill and the vigor of the arena, the fighting fans, when you are too far away to touch it, to hear it, to feel it for its energy, its vigor.
As a Third Culture Kid overseas, I longed for this rooted American sense of tradition, this devout loyalty, deep football knowledge, love for Hallmark Thanksgiving movies, Charlie Brown specials, the ability to predict NFL drafts like a pro. I sought this innate American identity that escaped me in my years abroad. In the dysfunctional, magical infinite amount of opportunities abroad to travel, to share our home with other cultures, Thanksgiving had no structure of tradition, routine, reliable consistency.
Tradition keeps us close to a time, an age, a collection of people that preceded us with what we assume to be radiant experience, knowledge, and intricate wisdom. But there’s something challenging about holding onto the consistency of the past – for the golden-helmet Irish that I watched battle the raging red Stanford Cardinals this Thanksgiving weekend are not the team that set the tone for the face of American football in 1869.
This last weekend, I watched as a young pink-cheeked, five-year-old boy and his dad (one row ahead of my father and I) celebrated their first game together. There was a joy that escapes the depths of words on his young son’s face. There is an atmosphere of the circular arena that is spellbinding. You can see so much, yet your depth of perception is so far. The stadium holds 70,000 strangers who are instantly bonded by a loyalty that warrants American-wide, even international travel to honor their team of choice.
The Irish will always be and have always been worth the travel. A miserable five-hour flight all the way from Chicago to San Francisco to Stanford was overwhelmed by the anxious joy that lit my father’s face and the comforting nod of pride that fellow Notre Dame fans pass to one another with navy and gold hats. It’s hard to explain the bizarre normality of belonging to a community you are not always physically apart of. I will likely not be able to attend all future Notre Dame games in my lifetime, but the ones I do, are ones for the books, markers of my decades, and paradoxically loud but quiet moments of some strange sense of home.
In the stadium, thousands, couples, families, children, alumni, half-naked body-painted fans are united by a love for a community, a sport, a team, an identity greater than a logo, a Heisman trophy, or an NFL draft. We are an image of that that we love. I am honored to know, to wear the glory of the Fighting Irish, a team that even when broken with injury, or exhausted by loss, still embodies a timeless tradition of heart, humility, and hope on and off the field.
Feeling the fast-paced, fortuitous face of football, inspires a quiet look towards the fortitude of gratitude. With 14 major injuries, the defensive line wounded by the loss of great players, Notre Dame walked into the glow of Stanford’s stadium with the intention and the diligence to – play on. With a quick, heated loss to Stanford due to an untimely field goal in the split two seconds before the fourth quarter buzzer, we Irish sulked in a moment of quiet sorrow but we walked away undeterred. I did not take my four-leaf-clover green hat off, nor was I ashamed to have flown across America to watch my team take a loss.
When Stanford attacks your defensive line, you play on. When you have to bump your backup quarterback to being your full-time starter after the original shattered his ankle, you play on. When Stanford scores a likely illegal touchdown that is accepted by the referees, you play on.
We humanly assume outcomes and are assuredly met with proof of change from what we acknowledge to be true. I knew we could win and I though we would win. In two blinks of the eye the obnoxious, drunken Stanford fans perched pompously behind us in the Notre Dame section were chest-bumping like animals, celebrating a numerical victory, a win of 38-36, while I was celebrating much more; pride that couldn’t be stolen by a two-point field goal.
There is no season of gratitude, for thankfulness is a lifestyle, a choice, a perception of vision in observing the world and relationships. Football is a friendly, fiery reminder of loves, losses, wins, and wooing.
In our 38-36 loss, I still win.
Next time Uncle Joe is in a Thanksgiving food coma with the Notre Dame Thanksgiving Day game on the TV far too loud for you to converse with Aunt Susan, take a seat, wake Joe up, watch the game – and play on – the game of football, the game of life.