It is the embodiment of a school’s heritage and pride. It links the Fighting Irish of today to the Fighting Irish of yesteryear. A symbol that has, for decades, served to rally the sons and daughters of Notre Dame to sing her glory and sound her fame. It is the single most respected emblem in collegiate sport. It is the golden helmet.
Laced with actual gold flakes taken from one of the more recognizable structures in the state of Indiana (the Golden Dome that tops the school’s iconic administrative building), the helmets have long been synonymous with one of the most successful teams in NCAA football.
Almost every football fan in America can at least hum the words to the Irish fight song—“Raise her gold and blue, and cheer with voices true,” etc. So great is the team’s cultural significance that movies have been made in honour of its heroes. One starred a hobbit (Sean Astin) in the role of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger; another, the future 40th President of the United States as George “The Gipper” Gipp. But beneath the Hollywood romance stands a sports institution defined by tradition.
Regarded as the team that popularized the forward pass, the Irish have worn more or less the same uniform for 100 years. Aside from the golden helmets (which replaced the leather helmets used by The Gipper and Co. in the early 20th century), the Irish have sported gold pants and a rotation of navy blue, green and white jerseys for as long as any living human can remember (though the team’s original jerseys were closer to baby blue than today’s navy). And apart from the rare occasion when the team has tampered with its uniform for one-off games, the Irish have opted to maintain and honour their simple-yet-antiquated uniform design. Not even that angry leprechaun can be found on the team’s traditional garb.
For decades, student managers collected players’ helmets on Mondays so that they could be cleaned, buffed and freshly spray-painted. It’s that attention to detail that entrenched a pride in the helmet and ensured that, come game day, every Fighting Irish head was as lustrously covered as possible. Sadly, that tradition died in 2011 when the team updated its helmets, brightening the colour with 23.9-carat-gold-flecked paint to more closely reflect the school’s dome and entrusting the painting to professionals. It’s change, but change that respects tradition. After all, tradition is what Notre Dame is all about.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.