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The Legend of ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’

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“Catholics vs. Convicts.” It’s a nickname more fitting for a wrestling match than a college football game.

Typically the history of college football is filled with magnanimously nicknamed classics like “The Game of the Century” or “The Tie.” The 1988 clash between No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 1 Miami (FL) was also a classic, but a “classic” nickname would never do in describing it.

This game wasn’t just a meeting of two Top 5 teams. It was a clash of cultures. Notre Dame, with its golden helmets and rich heritage, was in essence “America’s Team,” an idealized version of the sport. Miami was the brash upstart, the trash talkers, America’s Most Hated Team.

Such a dichotomous matchup demanded a dichotomous descriptor, even if it was on the politically incorrect side. And yet “Catholics vs. Convicts” wasn’t a product of the media. It was 1988 and ubiquitous sports TV or radio weren’t in vogue yet.

Rather it was the brainchild of a Notre Dame student who came up with the phrase for a t-shirt.

Patrick Walsh grew up on the South Side of Chicago a lifelong Notre Dame fan. He arrived in South Bend in 1985 intent on eventually walking on to the basketball team. And of course, like most Notre Dame students, he closely followed the football team.

Top-ranked Miami came to town during Walsh’s senior fall semester. While Notre Dame represented the Sistine Chapel, The “U” was the River Styx house of detention, as Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander would write in his recap of the game.

Walsh, an English major, came up with “Catholics vs. Convicts” and started printing t-shirts with the slogan. He was soon part of a campus cottage industry of t-shirt makers. Two of Walsh’s friends, Mike Caponigro and Joe Frederick, came up with an “Unfinished Business” shirt that borrowed Walsh’s “Catholics vs. Convicts” phrase for the back.

The shirts sold like crazy both leading up to the game and the day of. They capitalized on fans’ need to view this game in Good-vs.-Evil terms. Hence the banners such as “Can you read this? Miami can’t” that popped up around Notre Dame’s campus.

All that anti-Miami fervor would have dissipated had the Hurricanes come into Notre Dame Stadium and won. But they didn’t. Notre Dame escaped, 31–30, and the victory kick-started their run to the 1988 national championship. And the pre-game fight between the teams outside the entrance tunnel just added to the perception the t-shirt had created.

For one day, good triumphed over evil. The swaggering ways of the Convicts were no match for the purity of the Catholics. And so the convenient labeling of the two teams lived on as the game accrued legendary status among Fighting Irish fans, who voted it the as the greatest game in team history in a 2005 online poll.

But for Patrick Walsh, the onetime English major man whose phrase lives on in college football annals, his t-shirt transgression came at a cost.

As a senior, he had finally made it on to the Notre Dame basketball team as a walk-on under coach Digger Phelps. It was a dream that he had since second grade, when he had started writing letters to Phelps telling him of his desire to play for the Irish.

Then he started printing and selling those t-shirts, even though Notre Dame’s Office of Residential Life told him not to leading up to the Oct. 15 game. Walsh says he sold thousands of shirts the day of the game. Thirteen days later, he was booted from the basketball team.

In an op-ed he penned for Notre Dame’s school paper, The Observer, in April 2011, Walsh — who, according to LinkedIn, today works as a day trader in his native Chicago — sounded regretful 23 years later. Walsh did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

As it is, “Catholics vs. Convicts” lives on. And it’ll surely be on the minds of fans tuning in as the Irish and Hurricanes renew their rivalry this Saturday at Soldier Field - political correctness be damned.

 
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