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GameDay Greatness: Orange Van a staple for Notre Dame fans

A group of Notre Dame alums and their friends have kept the Orange Van a staple of Notre Dame's tailgating scene since the early 1980s. Courtesy of John Gibbons

One of the most endearing moments in the three-decade history of the Orange Van came in the early 2000s, when the late Notre Dame kicker Harry Oliver and friends were enjoying themselves at the van’s famous tailgate.

John Gibbons, one of the founding fathers of the Orange Van, noticed that, in addition to Oliver, former holder Tim Koegel and former offensive lineman Bob Burger were amongst the crowd that day as well. And so Gibbons improvised: Why not recreate Oliver’s historic 51-yard field goal that beat Michigan in 1980?

So Burger snapped an empty soda can -- or was it a beer can? -- to the awaiting Koegel, with the left-footed kicker Oliver booting the aluminum through Gibbons’ upright arms nearby.

“To me that’s one of the great stories of the tailgate,” said Gibbons, who has both undergraduate (’82) and law school (’85) degrees from Notre Dame. “Those are the kind of things that happen at the tailgate -- really good people coming back, sharing a lot of fun with each other and just having a good time”

Good times they have had, all part of a weekly tradition that grew somewhat organically in the early 1980’s, when Gibbons and his buddies were fresh out of college and, like most 20-somethings, low on cash. Enter the Orange Van, which friend Jim Wacklawik bought off a co-worker for roughly $500, and whose legacy has grown with each passing fall in South Bend, Indiana.

The Orange Van is on its third different model now, but the memory bank keeps on growing. There was the aforementioned field goal recreation. There was the time Joe Montana visited, drawing a reaction that could have rivaled the Pope’s … with tight end Dave Casper going virtually unnoticed in the same circle. There was the USC fan who had to sing the Notre Dame fight song on the van’s roof every time the Irish beat the Trojans, and there was Gibbons, a noted Giants fan, who was forced by Chicago buddies to sing the “Super Bowl Shuffle” on the roof after the Bears won Super Bowl XX.

More than anything, though, there are the crowds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, all of whom know where to look upon arriving to each Notre Dame home game. Ask anyone for its location, and you get the same answer:

Joyce Lot South. Kick a field goal through the South stadium uprights and go another 150 yards.

There are the old college buddies, Goose (Gibbons) and Wacko (Wacklawik). There are more of their school friends, and there are their children. And even some grandchildren now.

They come from Chicago and Cincinnati, Detroit and even sometimes California. They have their local ties, too, with friend Al Harding, a South Bend resident, playing the vital game-week role of buying all the beer before Saturday. There is John Buckley, who does most of the cooking nowadays. They all remember friend James Smith, who served in the Air Force and lost his battle with cancer last year.

After each home win, the gang assembles back at the Orange Van and performs something of an initiation, as the group dedicates a sticker to someone new, who then suffers the indignity of standing on top of a cooler and giving a brief speech before the heckling crowd.

Back before the 2013 BCS title game, Wacko and his son, against many’s wishes, decided to drive the Orange Van down to Miami Gardens, Florida, for the tilt with Alabama. Not surprisingly, an antenna flew off in Tennessee, and a tire blew out once father and son crossed the Florida border. (They somehow made it back in one piece.)

“It was not stupid,” cracked Wacko, a 1981 Notre Dame graduate. “We hadn’t been to a championship game since ’88.”

The current Orange Van stays secure now, parked near a friend’s off-campus condo, where it goes untouched for about 359 days a year. This one, which is just a few years old, features the same game-day menu as its original roots: a couple hundred brats, burgers and hot dogs, with an assortment of pretzels, chips, booze and soda. Upon purchase of the original Orange Van -- colored so because Wacko’s colleague was a Bears and Fighting Illini fan — Goose and his buddies stripped the inside and built some shelves for tailgating storage. It lasted about a decade. The second one came from a used car lot, the third purchased off Wacko’s high school, St. Edward Central Catholic, which was no longer allowed to use it for transportation to school activities. Both the second and third vans required orange paint jobs that far exceeded the price of the actual vans.

Before each van’s first game, the group has had a priest from Notre Dame get on top of the van, bring holy water and give the vehicle an Irish blessing. Each week, all are welcome to join the circle, be it visiting fans from Oklahoma, Army or Navy, be it major donors or fans of modest means.

“I’ve only been to one official Notre Dame reunion in my 34-odd years,” Wacko said, “because we have six or seven reunions every single year at the tailgate.

“And the Orange Van, you know where it is.”