According to Morris residents Mike, Jim and Austin Feeney, their trip to the BCS championship game at Sun Life Stadium last week was one they will never forget. Lifelong Notre Dame fans, the trio savored their time in South Florida before, during and after the game.
"Twenty-five years ago, Notre Dame played in the championship game and I remember sitting and watching the game with my dad (Jim)," Jim Feeney said.
"Notre Dame beat West Virginia that day, but it's been 25 years since it happened. Hopefully that won't happen and (ND coach Brian) Kelly can get them back, but even if that's so, it was a great experience despite the outcome."
While Alabama beat Notre Dame to claim the national title, the trip was more about the experience and atmosphere than anything else.
Combing South Beach
Jim and his family stayed at his wife Wendy's place in Naples on the trip while Mike stayed in Ft. Lauderdale. Mike said that one of the most memorable times of the trip came on their trip to South Beach the Sunday before the game.
"ESPN was down there and they had a setup there," Mike said. "Alabama had a pep rally first and there were probably 350 people there. For the Notre Dame pep rally there was more like 20,000 people there. It's definitely the best pep rally I've ever experienced."
Tailgating in style
"The day of the game we left early," Austin Feeney said. "We probably got to the stadium a little after noon and tailgated. When the gates opened about two hours before the game, we went into the stadium."
The tailgate drew quite a bit of attention according to the three. It was a party which included a life-sized poster of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
"Mike Goolsby and his buddies had a big tailgate in the parking lot and that's where we spent most of our time," Austin said. "There was a lot of people from Morris there. That's where the big picture of Manti Te'o was at on top of one of the cars."
Mike Feeney said that they really went all out to honor the Irish senior linebacker.
"It was a six-foot life-size poster picture of Manti Te'o. The guy who made it went to the Home Depot, framed it and put it on top of one of the vehicles," Mike Feeney said. "Everybody was going by and taking pictures of our tailgate. In fact, one of the pictures made the Miami Herald and there was another in one of the Chicago newspapers."
It was body-to-body as far as the eye could see.
"To go to the in-laws, go to the game, the tail gating at the stadium, the atmosphere was great," Jim Feeney said. "I think the stadium holds 80,000 people but there had to be another 50 to 100,000 Notre Dame fans in the parking lot who weren't even going in for the game."
Meeting an old friend
Both Jim and Mike played football at Millikin University at the same time current Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin played safety. Needless to say, the Feeney clan was chomping at the bit to see him before his team's big hour.
"Austin, myself and (daughter) Brenna got to see him the night before the game," Jim Feeney said. "We talked to him about an hour or so. We did a lot of reminiscing, but we also talked a lot about Notre Dame football."
Jim said that he, Austin and his youngest son, Nolan, were also eager to get in the gates as soon as Sun Life Stadium was open to the public.
"The day of the game, me Austin and Nolan made it a point to get in as soon as the gates open. We wanted to get down to the lower levels, that's where we watched the ESPN guys live. We also got to see some of the Notre Dame players come out and loosen up," Jim Feeney said.
"Some of the coaches also came out, including Chuck and he was on the bench right in front of us. I sent him a text and asked him if he had time and he came over and talked to us for about 15 minutes again."
Inside Sun Life
As far as the stadium itself, Sun Life got a thumbs up from both Mike and Jim.
"It's a great stadium. There's not a bad seat in the house," Jim said. "Our group was all split up ... Nolan and I were on the 400 level. Fourth row on the 20-yard line. They were great seats."
"I don't think there is a bad seat in the house," Mike said. "Our seats were in section 435 in the corner of the end zone, but my seats were great."
Alabama won the game 42-14, which did put something of a damper on the reflections of the Irish faithful. Still it was an experience they wouldn't trade.
"The atmosphere was great," Jim Feeney said. "Obviously we went there wanting the team to win, but I knew Notre Dame was going to have to play a perfect game to win. But I thought it would be closer than that."
"Everything about the trip was what I expected and more," Mike Feeney said. "That is until about the second touchdown. But it was incredible to be there and experience it."