Commentary

Notre Dame fooled us all

Updated: December 3, 2012, 11:26 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Rick ReillyCourtesy of Rick ReillyFrom left, Mike Golic Jr., Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave and Jake Golic made sure Rick Reilly made good on his pledge to polish Notre Dame football helmets if the Irish beat USC.
If you hate me, you'll be delighted to hear what happened last week.

First, I guaranteed undefeated Notre Dame wouldn't beat USC on Nov. 24 in Los Angeles. I was sure of it. Flying across the country. Trojans with zero to lose. I was so sure, I tweeted:

Then USC coach Lane Kiffin decided to run approximately 473 halfback dives at the goal line straight into the Notre Dame line. Just to repeat: USC, a team whose best two players were wide receivers, kept trying to ram it through Notre Dame, a team with the best front seven in the country. Wished he'd have checked with Dad on that idea. The Irish won 22-13.

Minutes afterward, in the bedlam of the Irish locker room, Notre Dame co-captain DE Kapron Lewis-Moore couldn't wait to get to his phone so he could tweet this:

Me and my big mouth.

Which is how I happened to land in Chicago on Wednesday, which was inconvenient for my bag, which landed someplace else, which made me an hour behind schedule, which is why I drove like Brad Keselowski on 11 Rockstars up the Indiana Toll Road, which is why I suddenly had red-and-white state patrol lights in my rearview mirror.

Patrolman: License and registration.

Me: Yeah, sorry, officer. I was in such a hurry. See, I'm that ESPN guy that lost the bet? And has to come polish all the helmets at Notre Dame?

Patrolman: Oh, yeah! I heard of you!

Me (relieved): Right, right!

Cop: License and registration.

It wasn't just the tweet that made Domers so torqued. It was a column I'd written just before the season insisting Notre Dame's reputation far outkicked its performance ("it hasn't been a factor in almost 20 years,") and how Notre Dame gets far more hype and perks than it deserves ("Somebody needs to stick a pin in the still-inflated Golden Dome") and how Notre Dame should save itself the weekly NBC embarrassment ("Do the right thing and don't renew").

Oops.

They wound up 12-0, No. 1 in the nation, and will now play Alabama in the BCS title game Jan. 7 in Miami.

When I finally got to the equipment room, a bunch of gleeful players were waiting for me, especially Lewis-Moore, who opened his arms wide and hollered, "EXTRA SHINY!"

Then assistant equipment manager Adam Myers handed me a pair of scissors and a piece of shiny gold sticky paper. Turns out they don't polish the helmets at Notre Dame anymore. They patch them. They switched last October to a new kind of textured graphic helmet that's so shiny they look like miniature Golden Domes. When they get a gouge in them, you don't paint them, you apply a sticky gold bandage over it, the way you would on the skinned knee of a Trump.

Over the next three hours, every player who came in wanted to watch me do their helmet. Maybe they thought I'd spit in it.

But here's the weird thing: It was fun. It was an honor. This team will never be forgotten at Notre Dame, and saying that at a school with 11 national championships is a mouthful. Imagine: They went from unranked to No. 1 and finished up beating USC, a team that went from No. 1 to unranked.

Every player I met was not only cool about what an idiot I'd been, they all seemed to have stories.

I patched the helmet of center Mike Golic Jr., whose brother, Jake, plays tight end for the Irish and whose dad, Mike Golic, was so hacked off about the column he nearly knocked out Mike Greenberg in the ESPN radio booth. "Oh, he was really mad," Golic Jr. said. "But not as mad as the time my mom took a hammer to Jake's cell phone in high school." Not a family you want to cross.

[+] EnlargeRick Reilly
Courtesy of Rick ReillyRick Reilly became a master helmet-patcher over three hours at Notre Dame.
I patched the helmet of quarterback Everett Golson, who was benched, got a second chance, and became the surprise of the season. Golson plays all kinds of instruments, but piano and drums the best, not to mention defensive backfields. He's had only two interceptions in his last seven games.

I patched the helmet of center Braxston Cave, who grew up 18 minutes from Notre Dame and dreamed of wearing this helmet his whole life. He used to watch the managers painting the helmets on Friday nights with actual gold leaf dust scraped off the actual Dome.

"You should see the first day we get our helmets," says Cave. "All the freshmen go running into the bathroom so they can take pictures of themselves."

At one point, there were five seniors around, pestering me to unscrew their face masks faster, or patch straighter or disinfect the inside better.

Me: OK, be honest. How many of you thought you'd be 12-0?

Them: [Silence. Shrugs.]

Me: OK, what do you guys think of being an undefeated underdog in the title game?

Them: [Laughter.]

Golic Jr.: They had us 12½ underdogs at Oklahoma.

Cave: And weren't we underdogs against Michigan State? [Yes -- 4.5 points.]

Lewis-Moore: And you said we were going to lose at USC.

Cave: And we won all those.

Golic Jr: So good. Let 'em. Bring it on.

True, a few students screamed &#%@s at me as I walked the campus for two days, but nothing I don't get at family reunions. I even spoke to a journalism school class and nobody brought blow darts.

At one point, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly walked by.

Me: Hey, Coach. I'd like to apologize. I was wrong about …

Kelly: Hold on. I don't read anything anybody writes. So we're good.

Anyway, the helmets you see atop the Irish in Miami will have been hand-patched by yours truly. Which is why they have no chance of winning.

"Thank God," Golic Jr. said. "If you started picking us now, we'd be screwed."

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com