South Bend, Ind., is 435 miles from Johnstown; Miami is almost three times that far.
But it didn’t seem like it inside the Boulevard Grill, located at 165 Southmont Blvd., on Monday night.
Not with members of the Notre Dame Club of Central Pennslvania on hand and the sounds of the band of the Fighting Irish blaring from a nearby compact disc player.
Notre Dame is probably the third-most-popular college football team in Johnstown – behind regional favorites Pitt and Penn State – and fans turned out at public and private parties across the region to watch the top-ranked Fighting Irish play No. 2 Alabama for the national championship. While there are some Notre Dame alumni in the region, they likely are outnumbered by those who simply love to cheer on the football team with the gold helmets.
“Notre Dame always championed the poor and the Irish Catholics,” said Lonnie Luna, president of the local club, at the Boulevard Grill. “Whenever we won, they won. That was their claim to fame for the day. Notre Dame is the type of school that you either love us, or you love to hate us. There is no gray; it’s either black or white. We have just as many haters as we do lovers.”
Luna expected somewhere between 20 and 40 “lovers” for the event – although the turnout was much smaller about a half hour before kickoff. He said that the club, which has about 100 dues-paying members stretching from Ligonier to State College and from Somerset to Altoona, would likely have attracted a bigger crowd if the game had been played on a weekend.
The club isn’t just about sporting events. It also is involved in service projects, but the members love to get together for big games.
And none in recent memory was bigger than Monday night’s.
More Notre Dame fans gathered less than a block away at Murphy’s, 1189 Franklin St.
Meanwhile, the Popchak family was planning a get-together, as they have for Notre Dame games for decades.
Benny Popchak, 74, of Brownstown planned to have family members over to watch the game, although it wasn’t expected to be nearly as big as the gatherings that used to occur at the Brownstown fire hall.
Popchak said that Notre Dame’s unbeaten regular season had been a very exciting one for Fighting Irish fans.
“It’s been a long haul,” he said. “(There are) no big stars on that team. They all get together and play as one.”
A few local fans had even better seats than on a barstool or recliner in Johnstown. Ralph Trofino of Upper Yoder Township, who is the local club’s treasurer, was in Miami for the game, along with his son, Joseph.
“It’s great,” Trofino said Monday morning after watching a national talk show broadcast live from Miami. “(There are) a ton of people down here. I’ve never seen so many Notre Dame people in my whole life, and I go to South Bend all the time.”
Trofino said that he wasn’t lucky enough to win the school’s lottery for two of the $350 tickets, but his son, who is an attorney in Los Angeles, was able to get tickets through his work contacts. Trofino said that scalpers were trying to sell tickets for as much as $2,000 apiece on Saturday, but that their price had been slashed in half by Monday morning.
For the 59-year-old Trofino, the chance to see his alma mater possibly win a second national title – he also saw the Fighting Irish beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl in 1988 – would be well worth the expense.
“I may never see this again in my life,” he said.