The Word of Life becomes known as "Touchdown Jesus"

In the fall of 1964, the Notre Dame football team won all five home games, including a 34-7 victory over Michigan State on November 14 that marked the end of the Spartans' 10-year dominance of the series. The Irish home-field advantage continued in the next two years, with a 4-1 home record in 1965 and a 5-0 home record in the 1966 championship season. While one might attribute the turn-around in Irish fortunes to new head coach Ara Parseghian, the Irish faithful couldn't help wonder whether the 132-foot-tall Word of Life mural (where Christ the Teacher appears to be "watching" the games from over the northern score board) had some influence on the team's performance.

When Fr. Hesburgh began planning the remarkable mural which would grace the southern face of the library tower, a connection to football was the last thing on his mind. "I had no idea of [the mural's] juxtaposition with the stadium; it never crossed my mind." The Word of Life mural on the library facade was to show the world that the University's Catholic identity was compatible with academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. Notre Dame would be a great university because of its Catholic identity, not in spite of it.

However, this new connection between Notre Dame's football and Catholic identities did not go unnoticed. It's difficult to say exactly when the nickname "Touchdown Jesus" was first used for the mural. Credit for the now universally known moniker is consistently given to the student body, but there is some uncertainty as to when the name became widely known. Scott Eden, author of Touchdown Jesus: Faith and Fandom at Notre Dame, addresses the question of the mural’s name: “The precise etymology has been lost, but almost immediately after its unveiling in 1964, some campus wit or other created the nickname by which it is now colloquially and universally known. He or she should have taken out a copyright.”

Others believe the term would not have spread that quickly, as the title might have struck Catholics as too irreverent.  Bill Schmitt’s 2013 book, Words of Life, notes that the 2012 research of University Archivist Peter Lysy finds the first print reference to “Touchdown Jesus” in a campus publication in Scholastic magazine’s October 4, 1968, issue.  A section called “On Other Campuses” featured a letter from a University of Oklahoma football player, which was alleged to have appeared in their campus newspaper following Notre Dame’s 45-21 defeat of the Sooners a few weeks earlier. “Rocky” was quoted as writing, “You are probably more interested in knowing why we lost the big game Saturday…What I think is that we were out-religioned. I don’t mean to sound sacrilegious or nothing, but it’s the truth. I mean, how are you going to beat a team that is practically playing on their own church lawn? On one end of the stadium, the north end I think, there is a big library building, and on its side is a huge picture of Jesus. And, Al, I swear that he has his hands raised over his head as if he were signaling a touchdown. The people up there call him Touchdown Jesus. You can imagine what kind of effect that has on a team. I mean, you look up there and you see this huge painting looming over the stadium staring at you. How are you going to beat a team like that?”

Other published mentions of the nickname surface in the following year. A November 3, 1969, Washington Post story, “Navy Given Lesson at Football U,” reports, “Notre Dame’s new library has a mural of Christ the Teacher with arms upraised, facing directly over one of the goal posts. Not surprisingly, it is called ‘Touchdown Jesus.’” Sociologist Rev. Andrew Greely also mentions the nickname in his 1969 book, From Backwater to Mainstream: A Profile of Catholic Higher Education: “Some of the more irreverent students have nicknamed this mosaic ‘Touchdown Jesus.’”

Whenever and however the nickname came about, it has inextricably linked the Library and Notre Dame football since the 1960s. “Touchdown Jesus” is known and loved by millions who have never been near Notre Dame Stadium. Along with aerial shots of the Golden Dome and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the mural is prominently featured in every Notre Dame football telecast. Following the stadium expansion in the 1990s, the iconic image is visible from fewer seats in the stadium, yet it remains an important part of Notre Dame football tradition. When preliminary plans for a second stadium expansion were announced in May 2013, South Bend Tribune sports writer Eric Hanson reported, “The hyperventilation on Twitter was palpable, at least what can be portrayed in an economy of words and hashtags. Eventually, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and executive vice president John Affleck-Graves filled in the most angst-producing blank following the university’s seismic announcement Thursday regarding Notre Dame Stadium. That is that the proposed expansion around the stadium — and it is proposed, not necessarily imminent — will NOT encroach on the existing view of the Touchdown Jesus mural on the Hesburgh Library.”


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