ANN ARBOR -- As Notre Dame's team bus wound through Ann Arbor and passed tailgate parties on a fall Saturday afternoon in 1987, the enormity of the rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame dawned upon Irish kicker Ted Gradel as the team bus pulled up to Michigan Stadium.
If there wasn't any more pressure, he'd just been told two days earlier that he would be Notre Dame's starting kicker against the Wolverines.
"I had my headphones on and I was thinking, 'whoa, this is pretty big,' " said Gradel, a 1983 St. John's Jesuit graduate. "Seeing it from that perspective, of a player who's going to be an important part of the game, that's pretty amazing."
Twelve years later, more than just a rivalry was on the line for Jeremy Miller, a long snapper for the Wolverines. So was a scholarship. A 1997 St. John's graduate and a walk-on, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and his staff sent a message to Miller that week: Earning a scholarship will hinge upon how you play against Notre Dame.
"But," Miller said, "I remember being in the locker room after that game and singing 'The Victors' with my teammates."
In the stands of that game was Nathan Parseghian, a former Miami (Ohio) and St. John's kicker who, at the time, was a grade-school student. The grand-nephew of former Irish coach Ara Parseghian, he and his family watched as Jeff Del Verne, another St. John's graduate, kick four field goals to help the Wolverines defeat Notre Dame 26-22.
"All summer long, you're anticipating football, and that's one of the first games that comes along on the schedule," Parseghian said of Michigan-Notre Dame.
Saturday brings another chapter of one of the nation's most recognizable college football rivalries -- one that has plenty of local ties.
Michigan safety and Clay graduate Jordan Kovacs, as well as offensive lineman and St. John's graduate Jack Miller will dress for Saturday's game, continuing a line of players with Toledo connections to play in the annual Michigan-Notre Dame game. Among them are former Michigan and Whitmer tight end Kevin Koger, former Notre Dame and Central Catholic tight end Dean Masztak, all from an area that has a certain allegiance to Notre Dame, in addition to the predominant fan bases of Michigan and Ohio State.
"Both Michigan and Notre Dame have the longtime winning tradition, where it seems like they've been around forever," Parseghian said. "Both have been so successful and the fan base, it's such a huge following. That's what separates it from other rivalries."
With the changing landscape of college football, it's a rivalry that could be put on the shelf. Last week, Notre Dame announced it was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except football and men's hockey. While the hockey team will begin play in Hockey East next fall, the football team will have a contractual obligation to play five ACC opponents each season.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Notre Dame will continue to play traditional rivalry games against Stanford, USC and Navy, but the future of Notre Dame's games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue is undetermined.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wouldn't state an opinion on Notre Dame's impending move and how it could affect its rivalry with the Wolverines.
He did say, "this is a great national rivalry. The storied history of both programs, on and off, how this series has gone, I think it's special. And I think it's one reason why you come to Michigan, to play in that rivalry."
Parseghian, however, has seen other traditional rivalries become casualties of conference realignment.
He fears the same could happen to Notre Dame-Michigan.
"I think it's a terrible thing to lose those rivalries, especially with those close proximities," Parseghian said. "There's talk about how Notre Dame doesn't want to lose the Stanford game, but Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue are important [rivalry games] because of the proximity."
Parseghian is now studying for his master's degree in education at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., but football was the center of his childhood in Toledo.
As an admitted underachiever in high school, he couldn't gain admission to Notre Dame -- "Notre Dame wasn't going to bend its admissions policy for my last name, and that's a good thing," he said -- but when he went to Miami, some of his allegiance diminished, in part because his Saturdays were spent playing college football and not watching it.
Still, he kept an eye on the annual Michigan-Notre Dame game.
Miller grew up a Notre Dame fan and admitted to some conflicted emotions during his first season at Michigan.
Miller believes the outcome of the game, whether it's in favor of Michigan or Notre Dame, ultimately sets a tone for the season.
"The winner of that game, it usually catapults them into the national picture," said Miller, who now works in real estate and is the president of the U of M Club of Toledo.
When he walked through Ann Arbor during the week of the Notre Dame-Michigan game, Miller heard a distinct buzz. The campus, he said, became little more vibrant in the days leading up to the game, whether it was at Michigan Stadium or in South Bend.
Gradel said it was the same way in South Bend.
"It's a special game on the schedule," said Gradel, a futures trader in suburban Chicago. "The campus knows it, the team knows it, the coaches know it -- and they try to downplay it. But it's an important game."
Neither Miller, Gradel nor Parseghian will be in South Bend this weekend. Yet Parseghian made sure to impress the importance of Michigan-Notre Dame upon his girlfriend in Montana.
"I put off plans with her for Saturday night," Parseghian said, laughing. "I'm going to sit on the couch at home and watch the entire game."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.
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