Notre Dame is really in for a tough football season this year.
OK, I know, the Irish didn't have that great a season last year. They were 6-5-1, including the Fiesta Bowl loss to Colorado.
But this year they're on their own. For the first time in nearly 70 years, they'll be without their No. 1 fan. That was Baltimorean Chuck Burke, who died of cancer last week at 76.
Everyone who knew Chuck Burke -- and he was known by thousands -- knew of his great love for Notre Dame.
To be sure, the Irish have Subway Alumni all over the country, people who didn't go to school there but love the place -- particularly the football team. Burke himself was Calvert Hall '37 and Loyola College '41.
It's hard to believe that anyone anywhere could match Burke's passion for South Bend and the Golden Dome.
In Chuck's final hours, his family played for him a tape of Notre Dame's 49-14 conquest of Southern Cal in 1977 -- when the Irish warmed up in blue jerseys and coach Dan Devine sent them out for the kickoff in green jerseys, the first time that had been done in years.
When Burke died last Tuesday, he was wearing his Notre Dame cap. At the Mitchell-Wiedefeld funeral home, his Notre Dame jersey was in the casket with him. His 17 grandchildren wore Notre Dame memorabilia.
At the funeral mass at St. Joseph's in Fullerton, the Notre Dame Victory March was played as the casket was led away.
All this began in the early 1920s, when Burke's parents developed a love for Knute Rockne and the Fighting Irish. In 1927, Chuck and his brothers marched with the Midshipmen to the first Notre Dame-Navy game played in Baltimore. They peeked at the game from outside the stadium. When the Irish returned here in '29, Chuck was able to afford a ticket. That was a national championship year for the Irish.
In 1935, Chuck's mother was dying of cancer but she made the kids promise they'd go to the Navy game to root for Notre Dame. She died the day before the game. In Burke family lore that was said to be the only time Chuck ever cried after a Notre Dame victory.
Burke's loyalty was known at South Bend. He was no stranger there. He first visited in '32. He returned dozens of times.
Just a few years ago, Burke and eight family members and friends stood outside the Morris Inn near Notre Dame Stadium before the Southern Cal game when the Rev. Theodore R. Hesburgh happened by. The university president, who knew Chuck, blessed the group.
"We appreciate the blessing, Father," Chuck said. "But what we really need is tickets."
Five minutes later someone approached Chuck with tickets.
"I'm sure Father Hesburgh told that man to come over with the tickets," says Chuck's son, Mike, a 40-year-old Bel Air resident, "but we always wondered if the blessing had anything to do with it."
Lou Holtz knew Chuck Burke.
The Irish coach corresponded with the retired McCarthy-Hicks whiskey salesman. On June 7, 1994, when Holtz learned that Burke had cancer, he wrote:
It has come to our attention that you are going through some tough times right now and we here at Notre Dame just wanted you to know that we're thinking of you and hope you'll soon be feeling better and stronger.
You've got to keep your spirits up, Chuck, for that is half the battle to recovery. Your faith in God will carry you through, and never, never stop believing in miracles. They happen every day.
Among Burke's friends was football Hall of Famer and ex-Colt Artie Donovan. The two were competitors when they sold competing liquors.
"When Notre Dame was playing," Donovan recalled yesterday, "Chuck Burke would sit in front of the TV and say the rosary. At the church last week the flowers had Notre Dame in 'em. That was great.
"I always said if I had stayed at Notre Dame and graduated -- a big Irish guy like me -- and then came here and played for the Colts, Chuck Burke would have built a shrine to me."
Ex-Colt Jim Mutscheller, who did graduate from Notre Dame, has long known of Burke's undying love for his alma mater. Chuck's three sons and two daughters and their families were pleased to see Mutscheller at the funeral.
"Chuck truly had a great love for Notre Dame," says Mutscheller.
"My father," says son Mike, "believed in the four F's -- faith, his Catholic faith; family, friends and the Fightin' Irish."
In March, when Burke's health improved temporarily, Holtz wrote:
Keep up that positive attitude, keep on getting stronger and don't ever forget the words to the Irish Fight Song. See you in the fall!
Holtz won't see Burke this fall. When the Irish open Sept. 2 against Northwestern, Chuck won't even be saying the rosary by the TV set.
"He'll be there in spirit," says his son Mike.
Everyone who knew Chuck Burke knows that's true.