From the back of the ambulance, Dean Brown sounded normal. The trouble he had breathing that morning was due to either a nasty cold or a respiratory infection, so he would go to the hospital, maybe get some antibiotics and get out of there. He couldn't believe he was even in the ambulance. He could have driven himself.
It did free him to work out important logistics with his brother, Mike, who had just called. Dean was a member of Notre Dame's last national championship team, a 330-pound starting offensive tackle, his mass matched only by his ebullience. I love all y'all mugs, he would bellow at teammates all the time, shoulders back, eyes smiling, his voice foghorn-deep and warm.
These days, he wore his title ring only when speaking to youth groups or high school teams, as proof of where hard work could take them. Otherwise he didn't want to be known as Dean, the Football Player. Truth is, he wasn't a believer in his alma mater for a while in 2012. But he did believe long before Notre Dame was back in the national title game, back in position to do what hadn't been done since 1988.
In the ambulance on the way to the Cleveland Clinic, it seemed as good a time as any to make big plans.
"Look," Dean told Mike, "get the hotel room, get the flight, I got a line on the tickets. And we out of here, going to South Beach, to be with Notre Dame."
"Cool," Mike replied. "Just call me when you come up from out of there and let me know everything is OK."
By nightfall, Mike Brown had listened to a doctor explain how his brother walked a lap around the emergency room, passed out about three-quarters of the way through, recovered to return to his bed and then took his last breaths a few moments later.
Until the evening of Nov. 29, members of Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team devoted all energies to the abiding hope that by the end of Jan. 7, the day the current Irish players meet Alabama in the BCS title game, they no longer would be members of Notre Dame's last national championship team.
"Here's the truth: For a while, we had that feeling of the (1972) Miami Dolphins, but that's not the case anymore," said former Irish running back Mark Green, alluding to the NFL's last unbeaten team, which celebrates every year when no teams remain undefeated.
"We're 24 years out. And we want them to win."
Then Dean Brown died. They had lost teammates, five before this, from Bob Satterfield's fatal seizure and cardiac arrest on the day the team returned from its 1989 visit to the White House to Andre Jones suffering a brain aneurysm in June 2011. When they got together, they did what anyone else does: They told stories, laughed, remembered good times, and life carried on and time buffered them from the acute sense of loss in those moments.
Meanwhile, what they saw in 2012 rocketed them back to 1988, the recall invigorating and frighteningly precise. The last Notre Dame championship team won with a gravel-knuckled defense, a stout running game and a starting quarterback from South Carolina. The current iteration has won 12 of 12 games with a ferocious defense, a stout running game and a starting quarterback from South Carolina.
Both seasons featured validating mid-October victories: over Miami in 1988 and Stanford in 2012. After the latter, Frank Stams sent an email to his former teammate Wes Pritchett, saying they probably should book tickets to Los Angeles for the season finale at USC. I think they can go all the way, Stams wrote. Pritchett wrote back: I think they can too.
"I can tell you," Pritchett said, "we haven't said that since '88."
The whole thing coiled upon itself week after week, and the memories raged back, and once again they were seeing Lou Holtz wear a Smokey the Bear hat to practice to break tension, once again they were hearing Holtz pour sugar into the media's ears about West Virginia before the Fiesta Bowl while telling his team the Mountaineers didn't stand a chance.
"You might call it winning ugly, but it's not a beauty contest," said Pat Eilers, a flanker on the '88 team. "You're finding ways to win. And that's what the '88 team did. That's what has kind of defined this team."
Dean Brown wasn't sold early on. The Irish indeed were winning ugly — barely grinding by Purdue, surviving against Michigan despite intercepting five passes — and the ugliness gave him pause. But the wins kept coming, and suddenly the ugliness faded into a soft-focus glow.
These guys have a chance, Brown said.