Joe Ross watched as the young men filed reverently into Holy Name Catholic Church in Chickasha.
They walked with heads up and shoulders back. They wore suit coats and ties. They were larger than life to the seventh grader.
And not just because they played football for Notre Dame.
Ross was the altar server the day that the Fighting Irish came to his church. They arrived at the parish, celebrated pre-game Mass as they always did, then headed to Norman.
Eight hours later, they had shocked the sports world by beating Oklahoma and ending the Sooners' 47-game winning streak.
With a resurgent Notre Dame coming to town this weekend to play a surging OU, many in the Sooner Nation are mindful of that day in November 1957. It not only fueled the rivalry but also stoked the ire.
Ross has vivid memories of that day. They aren't from the game but rather from the Mass.
“I didn't get to go to the game,” he said, “so that's as close as I got to the action.”
And as a Catholic boy in Oklahoma, that was something special.
At the time, Catholics made up only about 2 percent of the state's population. It was a much smaller percentage than any of the surrounding states, and what Catholics there were in the state tended to flock together.
Many towns, even smaller ones like Okarche, Vinita and Anadarko, had Catholic schools. Kids went to school with other Catholics, played sports with other Catholics and competed against other Catholics.
Oftentimes, their parents either worked for Catholic business owners or employed Catholics if they were the ones running the business.
“It was kind of a different world, a little more separate world,” Ross said. “It was more of a Catholic ghetto.”
Being Catholic in America wasn't always easy. They faced discrimination and disdain on a regular basis. At the worst, they became the targets of the Ku Klux Klan. At the least, they were often frozen out of certain spots.
Ross remembers hearing tale of a Catholic boy who was named valedictorian at a public school in another small town in the state. When it was learned that he was Catholic, he wasn't allowed to speak at graduation or receive the award.
There was another story of a Catholic boy who played American Legion baseball in the summers. When his family moved to Chicago, he happened upon a professional baseball tryout one day. They were short players, so they asked him if he wanted to join in.
Without any warm-up and wearing just street clothes, he struck out three consecutive batters.
“Wow, you're pretty good,” the scouts said. “Where you from?”
He told them Oklahoma.
“Any other players like you back there?” they asked.
“Oh, they're all better,” he said. “I never get to start.”
The day that Notre Dame beat Oklahoma, the Second Vatican Council, which would address the relationship with the modern world and usher in a more inclusive time for Catholics, was still five years away. It would be another three years before John F. Kennedy would be elected president and would change many stereotypes.
Prior to those milestones, Catholics often felt like second-class citizens. It was much like Oklahomans after the Dust Bowl.
And much like Oklahomans who found a point of pride in Sooner football, Catholics found solace in Fighting Irish football.
“Notre Dame ... was kind of a surrogate champion,” Ross said.
That was the backdrop against which Notre Dame came to Oklahoma in 1957.
More specifically, it came to Chickasha.
The team stayed at the Chickasha Hotel. To this day, Ross isn't sure why Notre Dame chose to stay there. It wasn't all that big. It's wasn't all that fancy. It wasn't even all that close to Norman. But it was owned by a Catholic.
Also, people often said it was the westernmost hotel in Oklahoma that would allow blacks until you got to Amarillo.
Notre Dame had its first black player in the early 50s.
News that Notre Dame was coming to town got Ross to thinking, and he went to the priest at Holy Name.
“I heard the team is staying in Chickasha,” Ross told him.
“I heard that, too,” the Father said.
“The team'll probably have Mass in the church?”
“You need a server?”
So it was that Ross was in the church that November Saturday in 1957. There wasn't a huge crowd. Just the folks who were normally there for Mass every Saturday morning. And the Notre Dame football team.
The team chaplain said Mass, which was still done in Latin in those days. Afterward, he gave Ross a religious medal as a token of gratitude.
Then as reverently as they arrived, the Fighting Irish were gone, on their way to beat the Sooners and stage one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
Ross still remembers that Mass even though he has celebrated Mass thousands of times since then. He is now Father Joe Ross, the pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Lawton. He earned his master's at Notre Dame, studied for his doctorate there, then spent time at parishes all over Oklahoma, including two stints at St. Thomas More University Parish in Norman right across the street from the OU campus.
So, he's a Catholic priest who once served communion to the Notre Dame football team, who has a degree from Notre Dame but is an Oklahoman who once ministered to the OU campus.
Who exactly does that mean he's cheering for Saturday?
“It is tricky,” he said.
His eyes danced.
“I'm looking forward a good game.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. You can also like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.