It is more than 17 years since a Notre Dame football player slipped a ring over his finger and proudly declared himself a champion.
Since that 1994 Fighting Irish victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, the blue and gold have lost an embarrassing nine straight bowl games.
Well, that’s not strictly true.
There are Notre Dame ‘players’ out there sporting a ring from 2007 and another bowl game victory (or defeat) beckons this weekend when Notre Dame and Penn State meet in Fantasy Bowl II.
In 2007, this unusual Irish team – clad in authentic Notre Dame uniforms – narrowly beat Penn State 16-15 to win Fantasy Bowl I and with it a ‘championship’ ring made especially to celebrate the achievement. This Friday, they meet their Nittany Lions rivals again in the sequel, naturally titled Fantasy Bowl II.
The game is a unique semi-contact 11-on-11 flag football clash between passionate participants in the annual Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp who have traveled to take on similarly diehard fanatics from the Penn State Football Fantasy Camp. They will do battle at 6.30pm on Bigler East Field in the shadow of Beaver Stadium, 24 hours before the real Nittany Lions face Alabama in Joe Paterno’s season home opener.
These are men with an average age topping 40-years-old, but with attitudes 20 years younger. They will proudly wear the colors of the Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish themselves, renewing a rivalry as fierce as any in college football. Fantasy Bowl II is about defending bragging rights for the Irish faithful and is about revenge for the Penn State faithful, beaten by a single point on home turf the last time the teams met.
Lee Becton, named Notre Dame’s Outstanding Player in that 1994 Cotton Bowl win, and touchdown-scoring fullback Marc Edwards are of a similar age these day to the players who will line up for the Fighting Irish in State College, PA. But some of those in action on Friday night are considerably older.
“Taking part in the annual Fantasy Camps realizes a dream of living briefly in the shoes of a college football of their favorite team,” explained Global Football president and game organizer Patrick Steenberge. “But playing each other in a spirited 11-on-11 flag football game with an element of friendly contact brings out the competitive nature in them. They have trained hard for this game and it is all the two groups of friends and rivals have been talking about for months.”
The 41 fanatical Penn State and Notre Dame Fantasy team players arrived at Penn State this week with their game faces on, though for some, the trip to State College was an adventure in itself.
In the past 24 hours 11 inches of rain fell upon the Lancaster, PA, home of Notre Dame captain Bob Johnson, as 16 players stayed overnight to review the team’s game strategy. He led a convoy of seven cars through detours and flooded roads, taking four hours to make the 130-mile trip to State College. The team is now settled into the RVs they will call home during the weekend.
“This event is a thrill to be part of, and I am very excited to participate in my second Fantasy Bowl,” said Johnson. “I have played in all eight Notre Dame Fantasy Camps and this will be my last game. It will be a great way to end my career.”
Bigler East Field itself was pristinely lined for flag football, only for the early September rain to wash away yard markers ahead of Friday’s kickoff.
“A relatively minor inconvenience such as faint field markings won’t discourage the two teams,” added Steenberge. “Nothing can dampen their enthusiasm. If the weather allows we will re-line the field, but if not we will use cones and the players will be just as pumped for victory.”
Notre Dame won the inaugural Fantasy Bowl – and that elusive ring – with a narrow 16-15 victory as quarterback Mike Haveard completed 20 of 27 passes completed for 215 yards and two touchdowns. The Nittany Lions opened and finished the scoring, but 16 unanswered Fighting Irish points, including a botched punt snap for a safety, proved the difference.
The Penn State Fantasy team will by coached by Nittany Lions greats Rick Sayles and Tim Bronish, while Frank Bagatta, a mainstay of the fantasy camp, will take charge of the Fighting Irish team, assisted by former Camp players Tim Kopp and Gene Faut, Snr.
“In order for us to win, we need to keep control of the ball and have no turnovers, stay disciplined and execute our game plan,” said Johnson of the Irish, echoing the sentiments of both teams. “We are confident and ready to play in the Fantasy Bowl game.”