UMass fans eager to be part of Notre Dame experience

By Mark Chiarelli

Courtesy of The Observer

(Courtesy of The Observer)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — University of Massachusetts students Patrick Ahearn and Mike Benson didn’t waste any time Saturday.

The students, both juniors, arrived in South Bend at approximately 11 a.m. Saturday morning, hailed the closest taxi and immediately headed to Notre Dame’s campus, where the Fighting Irish hosted UMass at 3:30 p.m. It was the culmination of a 20-hour train ride that began Friday afternoon in Springfield, according to the students.

Standing in a parking lot packed with tailgating fans, Ahearn and Benson, along with a group of friends, said they made the trek to be a part of the experience.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that our school is going to be playing in a big game like this,” Ahearn, an accounting major, said. “So we wanted to come check it out.”

The friends joked they arrived at Notre Dame “on a business trip,” and Benson said he hoped Notre Dame, which entered as nearly a 30-point favorite and went on to beat UMass 62-27, would “sleep” on the Minutemen, and the group would witness an upset.

But they said seeing a game at Notre Dame, which is traditionally regarded as a pristine Division I program, was well worth it. Benson said they planned to walk around campus and visit the iconic “Touchdown Jesus” mural painted on the campus library.

“I think that’s the whole reason why any of us are here,” said the sports management major.

The friends, clad in UMass gear, stood out as maroon specks among a swath of navy and gold.  Roughly 200 yards away, on the other side of an array of tailgate tents and smoke billowing from grills, stood four more UMass fans, all of which were recent graduates from the University.

Saturday’s game also offered them a chance for a reunion.

“It’s all about coming out here, soaking up the atmosphere and seeing some friends I haven’t seen in a while,” said Alex Mercer, ’15, who made the trip early Saturday morning.

Mercer said he and his three friends, all sport management majors, hadn’t reconnected since graduation last May. Mercer, who now works at a sports marketing firm in Salem, said his group of friends arrived on campus nearly six hours before the game and were impressed with the environment.

“The people have been super friendly wherever we go and have welcomed us to Notre Dame,” he said. “It’s probably a product of them being super nice and knowing they’re probably going to beat us,” he added with a smile.

Mercer noted he was impressed with the UMass contingent at the game and said he even gave another Minutemen fan, who was walking on the side of the road en route to a tailgate, a ride to meet up with his friends.

And while Mercer knew UMass’ chances at beating the Fighting Irish were slim – “I don’t think the Notre Dame fans were too threatened by our presence,” he said – UMass’ involvement against a high-quality opponent was worth the trip, according to him.

“I’m just trying to soak up the whole atmosphere and see what it’s about,” he said.

“It’s big time college football. It’s Notre Dame. This is the top of the top. If you had a list of places you wanted to go for a college football game, I think this makes anyone’s top five.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.