FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Brian Kelly, Notre Dame's football coach, stood on the airport tarmac here Wednesday afternoon and mused about his safety as he looked out at the media hord awaiting his thoughts about the BCS championship game Monday against Alabama.
"Do you see that," Kelly said, gesturing at the sea of microphones and cameras. "I'm not going in there!"
But he hesitated for only a moment as he led his No. 1 ranked Fighting Irish off their chartered flight and four days of preparation, mixed with pre-game celebration, for the biggest game of his coaching career.
"We're going to get our work done and we're going to enjoy our time here and we're going to get the proper rest necessary," Kelly said. "You don't go 35 days and condition your team to come out and blow it. We've had plenty of fun, we'll enjoy our time here, but we're here to win a football game."
That is a formidable challenge for the only major college undefeated team. Alabama is familiar with the rituals and distractions of a championship game, having played in three of the last four. And the Crimson Tide is a double-digit favorite to crush the Irish.
That didn't seem to bother Notre Dame, which started the 2012 season unranked. That changed when the Irish upset Michigan State and Oklahoma, and defeated highly-ranked Stanford.
"We've played a lot of games as underdogs this year," said Robby Toma, Notre Dame's senior wide receiver and the only player the media was allowed to speak with at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Jet Center.
"A lot of people doubted us," said Toma. "Nothing's going to change. We're going to compete for four quarters. We're not going to guarantee a win. We're just going to go out there and play."
The national title game kicks off at approximately 8:30 p.m. EST Monday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. It will be the seventh meeting meeting and third major bowl game between the two schools. Notre Dame owns a 5-1 advantage in those games, the last of which was played in 1987.
The storied history of both football programs has created uncommon interest in the game, and Kelly admitted that fact isn't lost on the players.
"It's not like any trip that they've had before. It's not like any trip I've had before," he said. "It's something you dream about when you play this game and when you coach this game."
It is also something Notre Dame fans across the country thought they might never see again. Many of them lined the fences at the airport to get a glimpse of their heroes. Among them was Tim Wallace, a 2011 Notre Dame graduate who suffered through more losses than victories during his four years on the South Bend campus.
"I never thought this day would come," Wallace said. "I'm a little bit jealous that I wasn't on campus to enjoy it, but mostly it's pure bliss."
Michael Wanbaugh is managing editor of The Goshen (Ind.) News. Contact him at email@example.com