Yankee Stadium hits homer with football

NEW YORK -- Yankee Stadium did a great job disguising itself as a cathedral for college football Saturday night.

Marching bands blared fight songs from the bleachers. Cheerleaders led the sold-out crowd in time-honored chants. And the football field itself looked authentic, as both dugouts were hidden by makeshift walls and the infield dirt was covered by Kentucky bluegrass sod.

After a 23-year absence, college football made a triumphant return to the South Bronx as Notre Dame topped Army 27-3 in front of a record crowd of 54,251.

And although the 50th edition of the storied Notre Dame-Army rivalry was largely a dud, the atmosphere at the first football game at the new Yankee Stadium lived up to the hype.

"It was electric," defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said after Notre Dame's win.

"It was an exciting atmosphere," Irish coach Brian Kelly added. "I know our kids fed off of that energy."

The grand history of the Army-Notre Dame rivalry was apparent early on, as 1947 Heisman Trophy winner and Notre Dame alumnus Johnny Lujack joined Army's 1958 Heisman winner, Pete Dawkins, for the opening coin toss. Minutes earlier, four paratroopers from the Army's Black Daggers dropped into the stadium with team and American flags, putting the sellout crowd on its feet.

"That was just unbelievable," Irish quarterback Tommy Rees said.

After a 41-year absence, the Irish and Black Knights seemed to be right at home in the South Bronx.

The Notre Dame-Army rivalry once was one of the premier events in American sports. The two teams played 20 games at Yankee Stadium from 1925 to '46, when they were often two of the top teams in the country. In five of those contests, either side was ranked first or second, including 1945 and 1946, when the rivalry produced back-to-back No. 1 versus No. 2 matchups.

The Irish own a 15-5-3 mark all time at Yankee Stadium (both new and old), with the last meeting in the Bronx a 45-0 Notre Dame win in 1969.

Kelly made sure his players understood the historical significance of playing at Yankee Stadium. The coach showed them a video detailing the history of Notre Dame's rivalries with Army and Navy after a walk-through practice at the Stadium on Friday night.

"All of that history, that was just amazing to me," senior cornerback Darrin Walls said.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding the rivalry's rebirth started about four hours before kickoff when the 400-member Notre Dame marching band warmed up across the street from Yankee Stadium at Macombs Dam Park. It concluded shortly after the final whistle, as both bands played their respective fight songs -- Army in the left-field corner and Notre Dame spread across the field.

No, there was no Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" -- the song that's usually played after Yankees games -- playing Saturday night.

For one night, that seemed just right.

"New York's a lot of things," Kelly said after the game. "And what it was tonight was a college football town."

Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

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