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The Story Behind the Story: How ESPN's Latest '30 for 30' Documentary Came To Be

Oct. 26, 2016

By Jerry Barca

Perhaps you heard about what happened here at Notre Dame Stadium when the then undisputed kings of college football visited back in 1988.

Maybe you remember the scrawny coach with the lisp who sounded the alarm that woke up the echoes. This was that time when the kids in the gold helmets thundered through college football, defeating an arch nemesis along the way.

I was there on that mid-October day watching the No. 1-ranked and supposedly invincible Miami Hurricanes take on the underdog Fighting Irish. As an 11-year-old, I stood next to my older brother in the 59th row of what was then a 60-row stadium. Years later, what happened in that game would be ranked as the single greatest moment in the history of Notre Dame Stadium.

Now, there’s an ESPN “30 for 30” about that game. About that rivalry. About that phrase–the one that still brings discomfort to so many. The documentary made its world premiere earlier this week at the 52nd annual Chicago International Film Festival. The Notre Dame campus served as host for multiple screenings at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Friday night.

The film makes its national debut on ESPN at 9 p.m. EST Dec. 10 after the Heisman Trophy presentation. “Catholics vs. Convicts” tells the story of one of the greatest college football games ever played, a game remembered for an inflammatory–and irresistible–phrase that appeared on a bootleg T-shirt.

How this film came to life involves a book that hadn’t been written yet, the unwavering vision of an award-winning producer and some Internet research. Those raised in the faith might call it a divine Google search. In a couple clicks an ESPN executive found an acclaimed director who proved to be the only one who could tell this story.

What if I told you this latest edition in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series started with a conversation between holes on a golf course in Connecticut?

June 2012, The Golf Club of Avon

My brother Robert Keane, an ’89 Notre Dame graduate and the one I stood next to at that Notre Dame-Miami game, plays golf at the Golf Club of Avon in Avon, Connecticut. On this particular round he was randomly paired with Robert Abbott, a senior coordinating producer at ESPN. My brother had known Abbott for a couple years. He also knew Abbott had a good friend who was a decision-maker at ESPN Films.

Abbott, a one-handicap golfer who walked on the team at Florida State, gave my brother pointers. On the sixth hole, Abbott talked about the approach shot, stressing that if you miss the green, miss it to the left.

Walking away from that hole, my brother did what good older brothers do. He started talking to Abbott about me, his youngest brother. He mentioned a book I was working on about Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team. “”Unbeatable” wouldn’t be published for more than a year, but it caught Abbott’s attention. He seized on the Miami-Notre Dame rivalry from that era.

“That’d be a good ’30 for 30,'” he told my brother.

July 2012, Columbus Circle

I met Abbott in person about 20 minutes before we headed up to the ESPN Films offices just off Columbus Circle in New York City. We had spoken on the phone and exchanged emails. I looped in my producing partner, Dennis Joyce, a 1998 Notre Dame grad. By the time the three of us met in a coffee shop, we had already created a pitch for “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

In a windowless conference room, we sat at the table with ESPN. For me and Dennis this was supposed to be our big break. The one that says, Ta da, we’ve arrived.

That didn’t happen.

“There was something there. There was an intriguing aspect to it. No doubt. The question for us really became a concern about how much we had done on Miami,” said John Dahl, Abbott’s friend and vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films, who led the meeting.

“The U” debuted in December 2009 and, we didn’t know it at the time, but the “The U Part 2” was already on the horizon.

Plus, a key ingredient was missing.

“We’re filmmaker-driven at ’30 for 30′ and we wanted to sort out that part of the equation, too,” Dahl said.

We reached out to some prominent filmmakers, people who had already made “30 for 30” films. We had calls and conversations. These directors expressed some interest, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Dennis would go on to become an angel investor in Seattle. Abbott and I stayed in touch. He stuck to his vision that the film had to be made.

January 2014, “No”

If there is a network, a platform, anything that shows sports documentaries, Abbott reached out to them, often times more than twice. They all said, “No.”

“Robert has always been persistent. It’s one of his great strengths. He can be a bulldog in the best way possible,” Dahl said. “When he believes in an idea he’s going to fight for it.”

Dahl and Abbott go way back to the fall of 1987 when they were both production assistants at CNN Sports. They worked together at ESPN Classic and ESPN Content Development.

Abbott, a six-time Emmy Award winner, kept bringing the idea to his friend. Dahl was nice about it, saying it still would get consideration, but there were other priorities at the moment.

On Jan. 14, 2014, 18 months after we had met with ESPN, Abbott sent me an email. “Looks like ESPN has passed for the final time… sorry.”

Turned out, “The U Part 2,” coupled with a “30 for 30” short on former Notre Dame placekicker Reggie Ho, made another film about Notre Dame or Miami a hard pitch at ESPN.

Abbott closed the email by referencing the story about Matthew McConaughey having just won a Golden Globe in a movie with a script that was turned down 86 times. “We’ve only got 80 more to go!!”

He didn’t stop. He made pitches to other networks. He’d gently remind Dahl, too. He sent more emails to me, signing off, “We can never give up on this!!”

May 2015, The Divine Google Search

Francis “Patrick” Creadon III stood at the pulpit in the church where his father had been baptized. The same place where his parents married.

People filled the pews at St. Mary’s Church in Riverside, Illinois. They even packed the basement, watching the funeral on a closed-circuit TV.

From bullet points on the back of an envelope, Creadon eulogized his father, a 1960 Notre Dame graduate. Creadon’s dad had attended 380 Notre Dame football games. When the younger Creadon entered Dillon Hall as a freshman in 1985, he was a third-generation Domer. His grandfather had been recruited by Knute Rockne. His father sang in the Glee Club. As he looked out on the church that morning, Creadon had no idea these family stories would form the foundation of his next film.

“How many of you asked my dad to sing at their wedding?” he asked the mourners. Half the hands went up. “How many of you asked him to sing at the funeral of a loved one?” Most of the rest of the hands went up. “Right there, that’s who my dad was. On one of the biggest days of your life, you asked him to be a part of your celebration. He learned his lines, he played his part, and when the moment arrived he’d take a big breath, close his eyes, and sing his heart out.

“Thank you for everything, Dad…. We love you very much…. Go Irish,” Creadon said as he stepped down from the pulpit and heard the applause in the church.

At about the same time, in his office, John Dahl started mapping out a three-year schedule of “30 for 30” films. He realized they were light on football films. The idea for “Catholics vs. Convicts” had stayed with him because of the reminders from Abbott, but it still needed something.

Dahl and Jenna Anthony, ESPN Films’ manager of development, started looking for a Notre Dame filmmaker. “It didn’t have to be a graduate of Notre Dame,” said Dahl. “We wanted somebody who had a passion for Notre Dame and a point of view from Notre Dame’s end of it.”

He and Anthony turned to his computer and started Googling: famous Notre Dame graduates. He found a Wikipedia page. There, under the entertainment sub-heading, Dahl found Patrick Creadon, the director of “Wordplay” and “I.O.U.S.A.,” well-known documentaries and commercially successful films.

Within weeks, Dahl and Anthony were on the phone with Creadon and his filmmaking partner and wife, Christine O’Malley, the daughter of James P. O’Malley, a 1961 Notre Dame graduate, and granddaughter of George O’Malley, an alumnus from the class of ’30.

When Creadon heard ESPN’s proposal, he turned to his wife with a jaw-dropped look.

“I was a senior at Notre Dame when that game was played,” he said into the phone. “Our quarterback, Tony Rice, lived next door to me in Dillon Hall. My best friend since high school was in the middle of the whole T-shirt thing.”

Dahl couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “At that point, it felt like this was meant to be.”

June 2016, That Name, That Phrase

Abbott, who had moved on from ESPN and is now directing a “30 for 30” for his own company, became the executive producer of “Catholics vs. Convicts.” “Unbeatable” had been out a couple years and I became a producer, armed with boxes of research, artifacts and relationships with the players and coaches, who would be interview subjects for the film.

Creadon told a story only he could tell because he lived it. He never liked the Catholics vs. Convicts T-shirt and his best friend, Pat Walsh, paid dearly for being involved in its creation. Creadon knew this look back at the past would peel away the scab on a wound that hadn’t completely healed over the course of three decades.

“I was excited to make the film, but I also knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Creadon said. “The price that my best friend Pat Walsh paid for printing that T-shirt still haunts me. It was a very difficult thing to watch a friend go through.”

We filmed in New York City, Chicago and in San Francisco. Tony Rice, Pat Terrell and Chris Zorich rode Harleys beneath the eyes of Touchdown Jesus when we filmed at Notre Dame. Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt and Barry Alvarez sat down for interviews. So did Digger Phelps, and he has one of the more unusual stories in a film filled with them. Pat Eilers, a walk-on transfer from Yale who was told he would never play at Notre Dame, held back tears talking about the game. Brent Musburger and Cleveland Gary debated a 28-year-old fumble call off-camera at the Loxahatchee Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, where we interviewed them.

On planes, Creadon spoke to other passengers, telling them he was working on a film about the Notre Dame-Miami game from 1988. It didn’t register for most. When he followed up with that phrase, “Catholics vs. Convicts,” they immediately knew what he was talking about.

That name is something everybody involved in the film has been uncomfortable with at some point.

Notre Dame doesn’t like it. Miami doesn’t like it. ESPN didn’t invent it.

We looked at other options. We wrote down lists. We talked about it. And talked about it. The racial tensions that have become national news stories had us talk about it some more.

In the end, it’s what the film is about and what the game is remembered for, and that name, with its spirited collegiate jab and its insensitivity, is addressed.

December 2016, Heisman Night

Now, I’m not going to spoil the film for you. I’m not going to tell you about Jimmy Johnson’s personal, heartbreaking loss early in his career or the incredible story behind why this game had a title unlike any other in football. Or what was said on the Miami sideline before they went for the two-point conversion. Or what Lou Holtz said in the locker room after the fight. Or where his wife was during the fourth quarter.

You’ll have to watch it after this year’s Heisman Trophy is awarded. When you do, you’ll know how it came to be, a winding story of relentlessness, relationships and a holy assist from a Notre Dame grad, and proud Notre Dame dad, who will be watching from somewhere that night.

Jerry Barca is a 1999 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a former student assistant in the athletic media relations department. His latest book is “Big Blue Wrecking Crew: Smashmouth Football, A Little Bit of Crazy, and the ’86 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.”