- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

EL PASO, TEXAS (AP) - It’s no secret Notre Dame will enjoy tremendous crowd support in the Sun Bowl against Miami.

After all, an estimated 80 percent of the population in El Paso is Roman Catholic.

“I think we’re going to be treated like the home team,” Notre Dame offensive lineman Chris Stewart said Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It’s going to be fun.”

Historically, El Paso has been among the nation’s most supportive bowl cities. The game, which dates to 1935, always has been known for its hospitality and fans who support whatever teams are invited.

But El Paso has been buzzing since 2006, when a tie-in with the Bowl Championship Series broke up the traditional matchup between teams from the Big Ten and Pac-10, and made it possible that Notre Dame could someday make the trip to West Texas.

“It took a lot of different things coming together before it could happen. There were other bowls that picked ahead of the Sun Bowl,” explained Bill Blaziek, general manager of the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But it finally happened.”

And you can bet your Fighting Irish beer mug that this city on the Mexican border is excited. Hassan Al-Aamiri, a salesman at the Champs Sports apparel store at Cielo Vista Mall, said it has been challenging to keep Notre Dame merchandise stocked.

“We had some Fighting Irish stuff, but not enough,” he said. He also said the store requested additional Miami merchandise and it has been selling steadily, too.

But make no mistake. This week, El Paso might as well be South Bend on the border.

When coach Brian Kelly stepped off the airplane this week, one of the first things he heard _ along with the strains of strumming guitars and festive trumpets from a mariachi band _ was organizers and fans telling him about El Paso’s love affair with the Irish.

“We’ll take it,” Kelly said.

Kelly doesn’t want his players enjoying too much local culture. He took away passports before the Irish flew to El Paso to discourage players from crossing into neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the world’s deadliest cities because of a brutal drug war.

The Hurricanes didn’t bring passports, either. El Paso police and FBI agents met with both teams to underscore the potential dangers of going into Ciudad Juarez, where more than 3,000 people have died this year and 6,500 have been killed since the start of 2008.

El Paso? With a population of more than 600,000, it earlier this year was named America’s second-safest city for its size, trailing only Honolulu, by the Congressional Quarterly.

Miami’s interim coach, Jeff Stoutland, doesn’t sound too concerned that Fighting Irish fans in El Paso might provide an unfair boost to Notre Dame when the teams renew one of college football’s classic rivalries on Friday. He noted that Miami has a team priest, the Rev. James P. Murphy.

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