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Notre Dame-OU Football: The Sooners, the Irish and one critical Mass

Eight hours before the 1957 Notre Dame team shocked Oklahoma and the world, the Irish celebrated Mass in Chickasha with an altar boy who knew he was witnessing something special. Guess who he'll be rooting for Saturday?
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 25, 2012

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.”

The reason?

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.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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