As a boy in Southern California during the late 1960s, I watched Notre Dame football games with a neighbor, a middle-aged rabbi named Joseph Elsant. He was many things to me: a profound moral influence, a happy raconteur and a fellow football fan fascinated by the Fighting Irish. “Kickoff!” he would announce and settle back in his big chair. He would have relished the thought of Notre Dame’s presence in Monday night’s national championship game against Alabama.
The late Rabbi Elsant regaled me with stories about key Notre Dame players from earlier in the 20th century. He loved to tick off their surnames, particularly those that signaled a family’s immigrant background: Bertelli, Lujack, Patulski, Szymanski, Mastrangelo, Tripucka, Buoniconti.
He revered Notre Dame for its part in democratizing college football, in giving chances to kids for whom college might otherwise have been out of reach. The team’s golden helmets were emblems to him of the shimmering American ideals of grit and social mobility. In the ’60s, the presence on the Notre Dame squad of African American players such as the great defensive end Alan Page evoked for Rabbi Elsant the benefits of the racial progress absent at the time in the segregated Southeastern Conference, where all-white teams such as the University of Alabama’s were commonly regarded as inferior imitations of the integrated northern powerhouses.