Hey Coach, Immigrants Made America Great

We must never forget our identity, as strangers, as Americans, as fighting Irish.

Last month, at the RNC, the Daily Beast reported that former University of Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz went on an anti-immigrant tirade. In his speech, Holtz lamented the “invasion” of immigrants into the United States, harped on the differences between the immigrant “you” and the American “me,” and demanded immigrants attempt to better assimilate. He also noted that he would not be cheering for their soccer teams, implying that in this country, there is only one type of “football” that matters.

Like anyone else in this country, Lou Holtz has a right to speak his mind, and as a proud alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, I listened with respect.

Nonetheless, I do wonder what would have happened to our shared loves—Notre Dame, football, and this country—if anyone listened to the rhetoric he presented on Tuesday 100 years ago.

In many ways, the University of Notre Dame can be seen as a microcosm of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Founded in 1842, immigrants, predominately of Irish, German and Italian origin, but also by a good number of settled American citizens, built the university. They hauled mud from the nearby lakes to create the iconic yellow brick buildings that speckle Notre Dame’s campus in the same way that the immigrants in the rest of the country built our roads and buildings.

In exchange for their work at Notre Dame, these immigrant laborers could send their sons to Notre Dame to receive an education. In this way, Notre Dame became more than an old boys’ club; it came to embody the promise of American opportunity. These dirty, oftentimes illiterate immigrants are the true founders of this university, and, indeed, of this country.

By the 1920s, Notre Dame’s football team began to gain national attention. Traditionally a gentleman’s game, athletic conferences across the country hesitated to let Notre Dame join them because of the school’s Catholic and immigrant identity.  As a result, Notre Dame traveled nationally, happily picking up misfit fans along the way.

Around this same time, Notre Dame took on a Norwegian immigrant coach named Knute Rockne, who assembled a bunch of “Fighting Irish”. Rockne embraced the name and refused to assimilate to the traditional game of football—he instead transformed the entire sport with the forward pass.

Rockne loved the idea of a fight (in fact he boxed on the side from time to time). After the death of a young promising star player, it was Rockne who demanded his team come back from a large deficit to “win one for the Gipper.” On that day, Rockne the immigrant taught all Americans how to fight.

In many ways, immigrants around the country were doing the same thing: inventing, innovating, contributing, building, fighting for their place and for a place for their children. They were making America the country it is today—making America great.

Therefore, I admit I shuddered when I heard a coach of the Fighting Irish critique the modern versions of the men and women who have done so much for the University of Notre Dame and this country.

Had these men and women assimilated by only playing by the pre-established rules, had they been prevented from “invading” our country, we might still be playing football without the forward pass and be missing out on countless other innovations that impact our lives far beyond the football field.

I’ll close with this: A poor Jew from Nazareth once reminded us to love the stranger, for we were once him. Today His statue sits squarely in the center of the University of Notre Dame’s campus with arms open. And another statue sits in welcome off the coast of New York City.

We must never forget our identity, as strangers, as Americans, as fighting Irish. “They” are not them—we are “they,” those who made this university and country great and who will make them greater still.

Originally published in: Millennial Journal

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