I spotted my first cicada 17 years ago on the running track at Charley Trippi Stadium, right on the ground as I rounded the turn near the scoreboard in the middle of my daily jog. I instantly knew what it was. After all, much like today, the newspapers in the spring of 2004 were filled with photos and warnings. The cicadas were coming! The cicadas were coming!
I had read about their coloring, but it was not until a close examination in person that I noticed their similarity to, of all things, the Notre Dame football team. At least that’s what popped into my head as I bent down for a closer look. There was a green sheen to the cicada’s wings, a color that, thanks my mom’s Emerald Isle roots, always makes me think “Irish,” but what struck me most was the predominant navy blue and gold. This little guy could have been running onto the field in South Bend with “Touchdown Jesus” looming in the background.
My Uncle Eddie, a guy for whom I lovingly bought a piece of Notre Dame apparel every Christmas from the time I started earning a paycheck, was alive then, and I couldn’t wait to tell him about this discovery. Even something as wacky as seeing the Fightin’ Irish in a cicada was sure to make his day.
But I hoped to be able to tell him more and began to wonder if this navy and gold clad insect might be a sign, a harbinger of good things to come for the team that played in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
Some research was in order. What if Notre Dame actually had a great season the last time the cicadas had come around, 17 years earlier in 1987? My heart was pounding as I went looking. I must admit, however, that I cannot remember how I proceeded. Google was around in 2004 but I can’t say for sure it was part of my world. I actually may have wound up in a library.
But how I searched makes no difference. What I found does. And that can be described in one word: disappointment.
The 1987 Notre Dame football team went only 8 and 4, a respectable record for some schools, but this was Notre Dame. And they got hammered 35-10 by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. Uncle Eddie must have brooded for a week after that one. A smile did cross my face when I discovered Notre Dame lost to Penn State 21-20 at Beaver Stadium that year in a nationally televised game. I reminded myself to be sure to wipe it off before showing up at Uncle Eddie’s door.
I don’t know what made me do it, but while I was at it I decided to look up Notre Dame’s record for the 1988 season, the year after the cicada infestation. And guess what? The Fightin’ Irish went undefeated, 12-0, that year and won the National Championship, beating West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl.
That was all the proof I needed. The cicadas, I concluded, were indeed a sign. According to my research, unscientific as it was, Notre Dame played championship football the year after a cicada invasion, and therefore, their upcoming 2004 season wouldn’t matter, a championship awaited the following year.
And I was right!
About 2004, anyway. If ever a Notre Dame football season didn’t matter, it was that one. The Irish went 6-6 and accepted an embarrassing invitation to the Insight Bowl where they were further embarrassed by Oregon State 38-21.
But who cared? That just made way for the 2005 season, right? The cicadas had spoken, right?
Notre Dame went 9-3 and ended the season losing to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
So, what do this year’s cicadas have to say about next year’s Notre Dame football team? Will it be 1988 all over again, or 2005?
A little more research, I reasoned, would shed some light. According to the “every 17 years” cycle, there had to be cicadas in 1970, which made the 1971 Fightin’ Irish season the perfect test for my theory.
And it fell right on its face.
After going 10-1, and winning the Cotton Bowl in 1970, not to mention having the cicadas in their corner, Ara Parseghian’s team opened the 1971 season as everyone’s favorite to win the national title. Then they went 8 and 2 and were so disgusted with themselves the players voted to decline an invitation to the Gator Bowl.
So, don’t get your hopes up, Notre Dame fans. Cicadas are nothing but a tease.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.