By John Mahoney ’21
Each week prior to Notre Dame football home games, junior defensive back John Mahoney brings you State of the Nation, an inside look at the Irish from a walk-on’s perspective. A reference to the Walk-On Players’ Union and WOPU Nation, State of the Nation, will take you inside the locker room and on the sidelines throughout the 2019 season. Mahoney, a native of West Des Moines, Iowa, is a finance major in the Mendoza College of Business with a minor in history.
If you call yourself a fan of Notre Dame football, it’s likely that you’ve heard the backstory behind our longstanding rivalry with the Naval Academy. Both our nation and our school were in crisis, and the Navy allowed our university to remain afloat — while many men of Notre Dame went bravely to defend our freedoms abroad. With that in mind, I won’t bore you with the specifics, but suffice it to say that the bond between these two institutions runs far deeper than a football game played every fall.
So when I hear people say that this game should no longer be played — that they’re too hard to prepare for, that there are more exciting opponents, or that the shared history between us is no longer relevant — I can only shake my head. Not because what they’re saying isn’t true in some ways, because it is. Ask any coach across the country — the triple option is a nightmare to prepare for, especially on a week’s notice. And I probably don’t have to tell you that college football is big business; I’m certain that more TV sets would be tuned in to a game against any number of foes from a Power 5 league.
But at some point, it can’t be about that. At the end of the day, some things are simply more important than money, prestige or national acclaim. It’s not just that we have a long and storied athletic history with the Naval Academy, though that certainly plays a role. It’s that there is a deep respect — on both sides — for the devotion and fortitude that each institution requires of its student-athletes. One of our captains, Alohi Gilman, actually transferred here from Navy. In my conversations with him, I’ve learned more about his experience there and the ways it has shaped him into the player and person that my teammates and I, along with our entire fanbase, have come to admire.
Furthermore, though one of the core tenets of our program is an abiding respect for all our opponents, I believe I can speak for my teammates when I say that the esteem in which we hold the Midshipmen is without equal. When you can look across the line and know that your counterpart has willingly decided to put himself in harm’s way in defense of our way of life, a game that can often seem to have life-or-death implications can suddenly appear less significant. It’s meaningful in a way that simply can’t be replicated in a game against Michigan or USC, and to lose that would be to lose one of the many things that makes the Notre Dame football experience so unique.
Every time we enter our weight room, we do so beneath a sign that reads “God, Country, Notre Dame.” And though it looks great on a T-shirt or as a hashtag on Twitter, it implies something that I think is representative of everything that makes Notre Dame different than the rest of the world. It’s as much a responsibility as it is a battle cry and is, in many ways, an acknowledgement of the tremendous duty placed upon each of us as sons of Notre Dame. To truly understand this University is to understand that some things are greater than any one of us individually and that there are certain values that under no circumstances should ever be compromised. There is perhaps no greater depiction of this — and the values of loyalty, respect and honor that the Notre Dame experience imbues in each of us — than our rivalry with the Naval Academy.
In my three years as a player here at Notre Dame, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some absolutely incredible experiences. Whether it be through participating in any of our traditional rivalries, being a part of an undefeated season or playing in the College Football Playoff, I’ve made plenty of memories that I won’t ever forget. With that being said, I’m not sure if I’ve had a more special experience in a football uniform — or felt prouder to be where I was — than when we stood with the Midshipmen after the game as they sang their school song before they did the same for us. It sent chills down my spine and truly made me feel like I was a part of something much greater than myself.
So, this week, I have one thing to ask of you. Particularly since Veterans Day is this week, I’d ask you to hold your thoughts on the future of this rivalry and simply appreciate the uniqueness of what you’ll see on the field this Saturday. It’s illustrative of so many things that college athletics are meant to represent — perseverance, brotherhood, and a commitment to excellence, to name a few. And if you can, stay for a few minutes afterward and stand with us as we pay respect to our brothers from Annapolis. We can’t wait to see you and, as always, we’re incredibly grateful for your support.