When the Irish men's lacrosse players take the field, they bring more than their game-face. For nearly 20 years, they have been led from the locker room by their very own bagpiper.
And not just any bagpiper. Since 1996, a rostered member of the team has taken on the additional responsibility of learning to play the bagpipes and leading the team onto the field for every game, both home and away.
Perhaps less intimidating than a haca, the bagpipe anthem nonetheless functions as a rallying cry and the focal point of team unity before facing any opponent. Head coach Kevin Corrigan clarifies, "It's not like we hang around playing the bagpipes in the locker room during the week or anything. It's just a game day thing, the last thing we do right before the game, and it gets 'em pumped up and ready to play."
The tradition began with Sean Meehan, a Long Island native whose family members all played bagpipes and were regularly featured in the annual Saint Patrick's Day parade on the Island. When his teammates found out that their quiet, unassuming freshman teammate had this great skill, they insisted that he play them out of the locker room with Scotland the Brave before the first game of the '96 season.
Meehan did more than wake up the echoes. Lyrics to the anthem include the lines
There where the hills are sleeping
now feel the blood a-leaping
high as the spirits of the old highland men.
Where he figured that one time would be the end of it, especially since the next game was away, the rest of the squad got such a rush from the anthem that they sneaked Meehan's bagpipes into their luggage on the plane and insisted he lead them onto the field again.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Meehan played the team out of the locker room before every game of his four-year Irish lacrosse career, by which time it was clear that the tradition must go on. Chad DeBolt was the first successor, suggesting that if Meehan would teach him, he'd take on the role of piper in his sophomore season.
Graciously, Meehan recorded a VHS instructional video to show DeBolt the ropes, or, the pipes, as the case may be. [Sadly, this historical treasure has been lost without archival preservation.] Turns out that learning this particular instrument is not at all easy and, unlike piano or guitar, "fake books" are not readily obtainable.
The only option, then, was practice. Lots of practice. DeBolt and his own successors identified a bagpipe instructor in Mishawaka and each in his turn devoted himself to a consistent regimen of lessons and practicing during the fall semesters of their piping tenures.
"Some of them sounded like they were strangling a cat out there," Corrigan says, "but when the guy maybe isn't the best piper, and especially if it's really cold outside, we just turn up the music coming from the stadium speakers, and our guys will start whooping and hollering to kind of drown out the pipes if a guy is struggling. They're quick to recognize if he needs that."
The most difficult part, according to junior defender and present-day piper Eddie Glazener, "is maintaining a constant breath. You blow up the bag, it expands, and then when you need to take a breath you squeeze the bag. The drone is constantly playing and the music continues even while you breathe, which is unlike a lot of other wind instruments. Your lips and cheeks get sore: you have to keep playing to maintain your lips and cheeks. It's a discipline and requires practice, just like lacrosse requires weight-lifting."
O Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling! Dan Hickey was third in succession, piping for games during the 2003-06 seasons. He handed off to Regis McDermott, whose father had played bagpipes in bands and for parades in New York.
"My dad was thrilled when he heard I was going to do this for the team," McDermott (who played the pipes from 2007-09) shares. "He ordered a brand-new set of bagpipes so that the team would have its own to keep handing down. We have a long Irish history in our family and tradition is important."
Growing up idolizing Notre Dame, McDermott never dreamed he'd get a chance to follow in his brother's footsteps and attend. "The first time the lacrosse coaches called me, I committed right there on the phone. My dad teased me that I hadn't even given him a chance to argue for a bigger scholarship but I was afraid if I didn't take the initial offer, they'd change their minds. Playing the bagpipes for the team and being part of that tradition was just so special. Plus," he adds roguishly, "I liked being on TV so much. As a defender, you don't get a lot of time in front of the camera."
Sports-casting crews always ensure that the bagpipe procession is included in game coverage, and fans of collegiate lacrosse have come to anticipate that minute before each Notre Dame game. Glazener, who hails from La Jolla, California, realizes the implications of this: "You gotta have a good face. You get a lot of TV time in the role and [your teammates] don't want you up there embarrassing yourself in front of everybody."
As a child, Glazener took piano lessons. "I couldn't have hated it more," he says. "Picking up a brand-new instrument at age 21 was definitely a wakeup call for me: I thought I was more musically talented than I am."
Second only to actually learning how to play the bagpipes proficiently is the difficulty of choosing a successor. Each of the guys has had certain qualities or characteristics in mind when considering his replacement upon graduation.
McDermott watched carefully at practices: "I was looking for someone who really wanted to do it, who loved the program and loved Notre Dame and would really put his whole heart into learning the pipes.Colt Power came out every day and gave his all in practice and I wanted him to have something special to honor his hard work."
Glazener admits to dropping hints around piping predecessor Mix, a native of Newport Beach, California, in the fall of 2013 -- "I didn't bribe him or anything, but I knew some of the other guys were also angling for the honor. He told me that fall that I'd be taking over on bagpipes after he graduated, but it was so early in the year I was almost afraid maybe he'd forgotten and asked someone else."
After a heartbreaking loss to end Mix' collegiate tenure, "He handed me the bag and said, 'Take 'em home, learn how to play... and don't screw up.'"
"Eddie's a pretty smart cat, he's not gonna let himself get hung out there," Coach Corrigan vouches.
Tipping his hand a bit, Glazener opens up about what he'll look for when it's his turn to pass the pipes. "I'd want to choose either a sophomore or freshman so they don't have to go through the trouble of learning to play for only one year. In terms of qualities, you gotta have fun on and off the field, you gotta be a good dude and you really gotta enjoy hard work because the pipes are not easy, but if you have fun with it you can make it a good time."
His bottom line? "If there's another California guy coming on the team in the next year I'll be sure to hand them on to him."
If the guys ever get to a place where they can't find someone to pick up the mantle, would coach be willing to play the bagpipes?
"Not a chance." Corrigan says. Even beyond the reality of such a great tradition, his favorite thing is that it was completely the players' idea. "The coaches and I have nothing to do with it. The players came up with it and they carry it out and carry it on, almost 20 years now."