“Catholics vs. Convicts”, the latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary extravaganza, takes its name from the racially suggestive, socially oblivious colloquial term that sprang up in advance and hung around in the wake of the fabled 1988 college football contest between Notre Dame (catholics) and Miami (convicts), a tilt that concluded 31-30 in favor of the former and that I, an amateur college football semi-historian, would hyperbolically deem the best played during my lifetime. That’s a lot to live up to for a movie and “Catholics vs. Convicts” partially does, though not completely because while every stone does not necessarily lie unturned in the recalling of this seismic gridiron event, you sometimes wish director Patrick Creadon would have dug deeper, poked his subjects a lot harder and gone in for a bit more complexity rather than falling back on obvious, timeworn contrasts. If Creadon does not completely portray the Hurricanes as un-sympathetic hooligans and does push back on the Catholics ideal a little, well, rest assured any controversy of the Lou Holtz era at Notre Dame is brushed aside. The film takes place firmly in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, not Under the Tarnished Dome.
This want for deeper insight makes it ironic that one of the documentary’s strongest aspects relates directly to an item of seeming frivolousness – namely, a tee shirt. Indeed, the unfortunate moniker “Catholics vs. Convicts” sprung directly from an underground tee shirt sold on the South Bend campus by Joe Frederick, a Notre Dame Basketball player, and Patrick Walsh, an undergraduate who was friends with the director. In one way, this tee shirt, given the NCAA’s ongoing insistence on profiting off its so-called student athletes, was a kookily radical act, an entirely rogue business model peddling tee shirts chock full of copyright infringement sticking it to the venerable Notre Dame bookstore.
At the same, however, the shirt was and is emblematic of the social connotations that fairly or unfairly permeated the game. That desire to cast things in black and white, often literally, was as relevant then as it is now, where continual acts of campus racism are often misguidedly shrugged off as acts of immaturity. Creadon has an exquisite set-up to unpack all this, but opts for only lightly pressing his interview subjects on subtext of the shirt they spawned and mostly leaving it at that. Catholics vs. Convicts was more than a tee shirt, but “Catholics vs. Convicts” might leave you wondering.
Then again, what ultimately most interests Creadon is the game itself, and in the back half of his doc he goes so far as to turn “Catholics vs. Convicts” into a mini “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.” The latter devoted what essentially amounted to its entire run time to the titular game, and while Creadon does not go that far, he does give the game itself plenty of due, foreshadowing the key players to come throughout in talking head interviews and then returning to them at their various moments of triumph or anguish, and allowing for myriad digressions on strategy, lingering in-game controversies and player reminiscences.
And as Creadon turns his film wholly over to the game, “Catholics vs. Convicts” becomes a wonderful anachronistic opportunity to time travel back to 1988, an era when you didn’t need a playoff because this game was the playoff and the national championship all rolled into one, decided not in some made-for-TV event but on a random October afternoon. It gladly re-lives all the game’s biggest moments on a micro level, so micro, in fact, that almost thirty years later, well, a few surprises might still be in store.
Creadon captures several people on camera stunned to realize, and I was stunned too, that the pass Miami’s Andre Brown caught to pull his team within a single point in the final minute before the do-or-die two conversion attempt…..might not have actually been a catch. I went a little haywire. I jumped up from the couch, kinda like I remember doing almost 30 years ago. For a second, it was real all over again.