On Saturdays, Allen Pinkett puts on his best smile and something dapper in blue and gold and jaunts across Notre Dame's museum of a football field with a passion that would be unseemly if it weren't balanced by an odd bent for trouble making that causes him to throw away his Fighting Irish dignity every so often and do things like dance on table tops.
Pinkett loves the life at Notre Dame, even though it has been a turbulent one for him. Fall Saturdays are the only days that count here, and on those days Pinkett has put himself on the wall of honor, along with the photographs browned by time.
The fact that the former high school star from Sterling Park, Va., should become Notre Dame's most accomplished running back is only slightly less strange than the fact his fate has been to rush for 3,666 yards and 43 touchdowns, both all-time records, during a time when Notre Dame has suffered its worst string of seasons in recent memory.
They are the worst, in fact, since Joe Kuharich went 19-23 in 1959-1963, the worst in school history. Permanently embattled Coach Gerry Faust is 28-23-1 overall, and in the last year of his five-year contract, a 3-3 season that the Irish are trying to salvage. Pinkett's main ambition, a national championship, is unfulfilled, and his chances for a Heisman Trophy appear slim, two of the few things that can make him appear solemn.
"I'm able to deal with reality," he said. "Reality is, we've lost three games and there's no national championship."
Pinkett has been both a revered figure and a loser here and has hung around long enough to know that the prideful Notre Dame fans can turn on you once a week. His understanding of Notre Dame, and particularly the Notre Dame of the last four years, has helped him endure a highly volatile and frequently hilarious era.
It has been a period in which, at one moment, Faust is chased through airports by reporters asking if he has resigned, and is hailed the next, as when a tractor-trailer pulled up in front of the stadium last week after the victory over Southern California and a truck driver emerged with a gift case of pretzels.
"When you lose here, it's magnified and it comes from all directions," Pinkett said. "When Oklahoma loses, they get criticized by some people in the state and maybe a few in Texas. When we lose, we get criticized by New York, California, Oklahoma and everybody else.
"It's a place where extremes are very evident. When you win, you're on top of the world -- you're a god. When you lose, it's all out of proportion, and sometimes you're even made to feel like you did it on purpose. But it's a challenge we all knew when we signed the letters of intent."
Pinkett was vocal about his hopes for a national championship before this season after years of 6-5, 6-5, 6-4-1. Going into Saturday's game here with Navy, he acknowledges his disappointment, although with a measure of philosophy.
"We have faced a lot of adversity, so I figure I'm set for life," he said. "You talk about hard times -- try losing three straight games in Notre Dame Stadium. Twenty years down the line, when I have financial problems or marital problems, I'll probably ask myself, how did I react when I lost that third game at home. That will get me through it."
That Pinkett should have become such a loving son of Notre Dame was improbable. He once harbored a dislike for Notre Dame born of years of rooting for underdogs and against the hulking Irish in the black shoes.
Bound for North Carolina out of Park View High School, he received a late call from the Irish and made a visit partly because he was flattered by the attention and partly out of curiosity. He made the trip in miserable weather conditions. The temperature was 20 below in a near blizzard.
There was no accounting for the powerful impact of the school, with the Indiana plains on one side of the campus and the banks of a lake on the other. First, he was weakened by the creeping ivy and elegant spires, then he was sucker-punched by "Fair Catch" Corby, the bronzed statue of a priest with his hand raised. The Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus brought him to his knees.
Pinkett can recite whole passages of Notre Dame history, and he is a common sight wandering the campus with a visitor, pointing out the landmarks with a reverential look in his eye that has become something of a joke among his teammates.
"He loves that old tradition," said defensive tackle Eric Dorsey, a distant cousin and teammate who grew up with Pinkett and came with him to Notre Dame. "The statues, that Rockne was here. He even brings it up with us. We'll be walking across campus, and he'll stop and say, 'Look at that dome, look at the way it's shining.' Then we tell him: 'We see it every day, Allen. Now be quiet.' "
Notre Dame was as thrilled by Pinkett as he was by it. Despite his 5-foot-9 height, he demonstrated his 4.6-second speed in the 40, spectacular cutting ability and great strength. When he told strength coach Gary Weil he could bench-press 365 pounds, Weil shook him off. "I thought he was laying a line on me," Weil said. But then Pinkett did it, and now has three weight-room records.
His freshman year, he started one game when Phil Carter was out with an injury. He got more playing time later because of other injuries and led the Fighting Irish to an upset of top-ranked and previously unbeaten Pitt, scoring two touchdowns.
"All it took was one scrimmage," Faust said. "The first thing he did was break away for about a 40-yard touchdown . . . He's got great acceleration and change of direction, and he can cut on a dime."
"Even I like watching him run," Dorsey said. "And I don't like running backs."
This ability has earned Pinkett the nickname "Gremlin," because he's someone who Weil says can "get in there quick, cause trouble and disappear before anybody knows it."
Pinkett began to cradle footballs at the age of 8, when he was tinier than the smallest member of a small junior league team in Virginia called the Ankle Biters. He learned to run from his brother, Michael, a local high school idol who never was admired by anybody more than by his younger brother.
He learned from Park View Coach Ed Scott to disregard his stature. Scott made him a fullback as a 5-7, 145-pound freshman, showed him he was talented and also taught him that injuries, like size, are something else to ignore at times.
He took the title of town high school star from Michael when he scored five touchdowns in the state championship game his junior year. It was about then that Pinkett began vaulting his linemen teammates, some of them 6-5. He would sneak up behind them, place his hands on their shoulders, and leap-frog over them. It was undoubtedly a spectacular sight, one that caused Scott to clutch his throat and yell, "Allen, don't do that."
All of this havoc is from an honor student majoring in business who is so gracious that Weil says the more autographs he is asked to sign, the "more polite he gets with each passing person."
Pinkett can't even remember having been punished for anything, except for the time when he was 8 and he discovered his leaping ability and delightedly began jumping from sidewalks onto car hoods.
Pinkett has no explanation for his behavior other than, "I don't remember it when I do weird things. It comes from being hit in the head too many times, maybe."
Faust had another idea.
"He's serious. But he never lets it take away from the comedy of life."