SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Blake Bell's newlywed cousin dropped everything, booked a last-minute flight from Houston and will happily sleep on the floor of the five-bedroom house his family rented here this weekend.
That the house will be a tad overcrowded — 16 family members and close friends will cram in it together — shouldn't come as a surprise in this devoutly Catholic group, which includes an aunt who watches OU football games on TV with a statue of the Virgin Mary nearby; and an 86-year-old grandfather who couldn't make the trip, but plans to watch at home and pray the Rosary.
Yes, this is a pretty big game for the Bell family.
The Bells began planning this trip months ago — renting a house near the Notre Dame campus and two vans for the large group that would travel to witness Blake's first career road start at the preeminent Catholic university.
All that planning will pay off when he trots onto the field a little after 2:30 p.m. Saturday to lead No. 14 Oklahoma against the Irish, but only a month ago, the family figured they'd spend the afternoon watching Blake watch the game.
“It's the ideal situation: Watching him play probably the most storied program of all time, Notre Dame, and especially after the way he won the starting job,” said Austin Muck, Bell's cousin who hadn't planned on coming to the game until a sudden change of heart this week compelled him to travel more than 1,000 miles and sleep on a floor.
The family always stays together — or at least at the same hotel — when they travel to OU games, but they knew last spring that hotels around Notre Dame would be wildly expensive this weekend.
Then they discovered that lots of locals in South Bend rent houses to out-of-towners on game weekends and for other big campus events. Family members and a few close friends lined up to join the Bells in the rent house, despite the fact many of them didn't have a ticket to the game.
“There was a group of them that didn't have tickets, but they were going no matter what,” said Sherry Bell, Blake's mom. “If they didn't get tickets, they would've just watched the game somewhere in town.”
The entire clan eventually managed to get tickets to the game they had expected Blake would start — until, that is, OU coach Bob Stoops' late-August announcement that redshirt freshman Trevor Knight would be his starting quarterback.
Bell was understandably upset and discouraged, but stayed focused and got his opportunity after Knight was inconsistent in the first two games, and then suffered a knee injury.
Bell started Oklahoma's 51-20 win over Tulsa two weeks ago, firmly grabbinging hold of the job with an outstanding performance and ensured his family's big trip wouldn't be at all sullied.
The Bells, though, say the entire group would've made this trip regardless of Blake's place on the depth chart.
“We're an extremely close family so we were going to be there for Blake,” Sherry Bell said, emphatically adding, “No matter what.”
Blake's mom thought back to her first — and, before Saturday, only — trip to Notre Dame. She and her husband Mark attended the Irish's 1999 season opener against Kansas, and left blown away by the university's beauty and grandeur.
Mark and Sherry watched Notre Dame's players exit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart after pregame Mass and solemnly walk to the stadium. The Bells strolled through the Grotto, a solemn, landmark shrine to the Virgin Mary and popular spot on campus for quiet prayer and reflection.
Sherry went home and told her two sons, “One of you is gonna play at Notre Dame.”
Her youngest became a coveted recruit at Wichita's Bishop Carroll High School and eventually received a scholarship offer from Notre Dame.
Blake Bell picked Oklahoma; even so, on Saturday afternoon he'll make good — in a way — on his mother's 14-year old demand.
“Being a lifelong Catholic, to sit in the stands at Notre Dame and watch your son start at quarterback for Oklahoma … what could be better than that?” Mark Bell said. “Watching Blake throw a couple touchdowns, then look up at Touchdown Jesus?”
The proud dad paused, feeling the weight of what he'd just described.
“It gives me chills thinking about it,” he added in a quieter, more reflective tone. “It'll be a day we never forget.”