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Not Fair Weather Fans

It is expected to be 82 degrees and partly sunny when Notre Dame's plane touches down in southern Florida Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of football fans will join them in the week that follows, some arriving without tickets to soak up the sun and environment of the BCS National Championship game. And why wouldn’t they?

Football in the South is special. That corner of the country prides itself on breeding the most dedicated and crazy college football fans in the country. It’s easy to get caught up in the game down there. Sitting outside on a warm, sunny day waiting for kickoff while co-eds in sundresses drop in for barbecue and a beer? That’s the kind of passionate obsession a guy could get used to.

But Notre Dame fans bring their own brand of crazy. They’re Midwest people, the types that have convinced themselves life wouldn’t be as bright if they didn’t watch fair weather fade away into autumn each year and then suffer through the dead of January and February. They take their football in cycles, too.

They wade faithfully through the desolate winter of mediocre seasons in South Bend while others hibernate. Every quarter century or so the Irish Punxsutawney Phil can’t find his shadow and new hope springs to life.

This 2012 season is a well-earned surprise that came right on schedule for Notre Dame fans. Not the type you’ll see walking around South Beach without chalky sweat stains on their new, blue and gold hats or with tags hanging on the back of their leprechaun t-shirts, but the loyal folks who have suffered enough pain to understand joy.

Like Jim Corgel, who has seen almost every play inside Notre Dame Stadium since his freshman year when he watched Joe Theismann throw an interception against Northwestern in 1969. Corgel has missed five Irish home games since that day. You’ll excuse him for those, though, he had a bit of a commute. He lived in London during the falls of 1997 and 1998 and only managed to make it through Heathrow for seven of the 12 home games those years.

Those were torturous Saturdays for Corgel. Fiddling with the early stages of the Internet for updates, listening while his parents held the phone up to the television speaker on the other end of the line. Football karma had rewarded him before.

He sat in the end zone through four quarters of tsunami conditions in West Lafeyette in 1971, and eventually saw Mike Creaney catch a two-point conversion to beat the Boilermakers in the closing minutes of an 8-7 game. He skipped Thanksgiving in 1973 and saw the home finale of an undefeated championship season — the last time a game at Notre Dame Stadium didn’t sell out. He made it through the early 1980s and reaped his rewards with Lou Holtz.

“The Faust years were the most painful,” Corgel said. “I’ll never forget the unusual uniforms in the first game against LSU. Even the way the offensive linemen crouched, it was kind of an odd five years. But never did I consider not going.”

Each week he returns to his post in the ninth row of Section 129 and sees dozens of familiar faces. They’re all Johnny-Come-Latelies in the eyes of Charles Falkenberg.

Falkenberg sat just a few sections down, a timeout’s distance away from the concourse men’s room, until this fall. In September he watched an Irish home game on television for the first time ever. When he first started coming to Notre Dame football games, sports weren’t on television.

When he was nine years old, Falkenberg and his father rode the Powerhouse express train from South Station in Chicago right on to Notre Dame’s campus to watch the Irish play in 1939. And for the next 82 years he never missed a game. That’s 382 in a row.

He tested his new bride by bringing her to games in the ‘50s where they sat in piles of snow. He bonded with his 10 children, most of whom went to Notre Dame, on football Saturdays and watched their children join the student section as well. When Falkenberg was a student he worked as a team manager for a couple of Frank Leahy’s undefeated seasons in the 1940s. He’ll plead the fifth when it comes to stories about how Leahy treated the managers back then, after all he’s a true fan, through thick and sin.

“Id like to see them go undefeated this year too,” he said. “Tell them I expect a great effort. I’m not particularly fond of Alabama.”

He’s probably earned that. The sun will be shining in Miami Mr. Falkenberg and Mr. Corgel, enjoy it while you can.

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