Terrell recalls “Catholics vs. Convicts”
Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, October 4, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a new Observer feature. The “Waking the Echoes” series intends to inform fans about some former players and will feature weekly stories profiling them and their lives since Notre Dame.
They were one point behind. There were 45 seconds left in the game and they were one point behind.
Miami and coach Jimmy Johnson could have gone for the tie – but instead elected to try a potential game-winning two-point conversion on an October day in 1988 in South Bend, Ind. The Hurricanes lined up on the left hash mark and quarterback Steve Walsh had three receivers lined up to his right. Walsh dropped back and back again before floating a cross-field pass to receiver Leonard Conley.
Former Irish safety Pat Terrell was out on an island. He was all by himself with Conley in the corner of the south end zone. Terrell rose and batted the ball down, destroying Miami’s play, its swagger and its season all at once while preserving a 31-30 win for the Irish.
“The crowd has never been so loud and intense for any game I remember playing at Notre Dame,” Terrell said in a phone interview with The Observer. “The coaches have never been so intense. Each play was big. That’s one game I remember, I’ve played in playoff games, NFC championship games, for some reason, that game, you remember that second and third [down]. It was like every play was electric.”
In the buildup to the game, students produced “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts and other “Hate Miami” shirts that made it tough for the team to escape the buzz around campus.
“You would have thought that every student was going to strap it up and play,” Terrell said. “There was an electricity in the hallways, in the dorms. It was electricity in South and North Dining Halls during lunch. It was unlike any other week that I’ve ever been involved with in my four years at Notre Dame.”
Four years earlier in Miami, Notre Dame accused Johnson and the Hurricanes of running up the score in former Irish coach Gerry Faust’s last game with the Irish. Miami won that contest 58-7.
In 1988, the Hurricanes strolled into South Bend with a No. 1 ranking and a 36-game regular season winning streak. Miami had won two national titles in the previous five seasons – and they had done it by dominating opponents and celebrating it, too.
“We felt Miami didn’t necessarily respect us as athletes and I think they were walking with a swagger and deserved to because they earned it, quite frankly,” Terrell said. “You have a lot of players, such as myself, that were recruited by those guys, too. All of a sudden, you’re looked upon as this ‘you couldn’t even play here.’ That made games pretty intense.
“We couldn’t wait to get out there and snap the ball. It wasn’t that we were trying to upset anyone, play beyond our means and hang in there for four quarters with the No. 1 team. We wanted them to snap the ball so we could smack them in the mouth. Period.”
Terrell was making just his second career start at free safety after making a move from receiver. The St. Petersburg native said he was nervous but not afraid of the flashy Hurricanes wideouts.
“I wanted to be a starter ever since I stepped foot at Notre Dame,” Terrell said. “For me, I had the opportunity not to come off the field. That’s what I wanted to be. I wasn’t out there like ‘Oh my God, look at these guys I have to cover’ because I covered all those guys in high school and kicked a lot of ass back then.”
While some believed Miami had more talent than Notre Dame, Terrell said the Irish – particularly in the secondary – were more athletic than the Hurricanes.
“We were a faster team than Miami,” Terrell said. “People don’t even realize that. Our corners, Todd Lyght and Sam Smagala, ran a 4.3 40 [-yard dash]. D’Jaun Francisco ran a 4.3 40. I ran a 4.3 40. There were no wide receivers on Miami’s team that ran a 4.3 40.
“Their quarterback, Steve Walsh had all the statistics but Steve Walsh couldn’t play basketball, jump straight up, do a 360 and slam it with two hands. That’s an athlete. Not one wide receiver they had was better or more physical to cover than [former Irish receivers] Ricky Watters and Rocket [Ismail] in practice.”
Even before the game, the teams mixed it up. During a Notre Dame punt return drill, Miami came out of the tunnel and bumped into Ismail. The two teams exchanged pushes, shoves and punches before being separated.
“Maybe in a different situation we would have moved but our guys felt this was our house, they were showing us disrespect by running through the line,” Terrell said. “Miami thought they were being disrespected by us by not giving them ground or making sufficient room … I don’t think the cameras picked up how intense it really was.
“I don’t think we were necessarily arrogant but we were confident. Sometimes confidence can rub an arrogant team the wrong way.”
In the locker room before the game, former Irish coach Lou Holtz was angry at his team for fighting before the game but in a quote immortalized in Notre Dame lore, told them to “leave Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me.”
“That was so intense because half was laughter and half was if this guy is ready to go at it like that and we’re not ready, there’s something wrong,” Terrell said. “That comment from Lou was timeless. It was perfect.”
While Terrell is remembered mostly for the two-point conversion play, he also returned an interception for a touchdown in the win. After defensive lineman Frank Stams tipped a Walsh pass, Terrell ran under the batted ball, caught it in stride before sprinting towards the end zone. Walsh was the only Hurricane that had a shot to stop Terrell.
“To be able to make a play early in the game like that, it’s a relief because it puts you in a good zone, your confidence level raises,” Terrell said. “I was more worried about [my teammates] laughing at me getting caught by a quarterback, even though he did have a huge angle on me … I had some hidden motivation factored in there and that was my secondary.”
Terrell said he had a bigger thrill at the time running back the interception than he did batting down the two-point conversion.
After a Tony Rice fumble late in the fourth quarter set up the Hurricanes with good field position and chance to tie the game, the defense took the field aiming to stop an offense that totaled more than 500 yards in the contest. Despite allowing more than 500 yards and 30 points, Terrell said the day was a good one for the Irish defense.
“They moved the ball, they absolutely did but they weren’t chucking 40- or 50-yard bombs on us or big runs for 20 or 30 yards,” Terrell said. “They knew how to move the sticks. We didn’t play with a bend-but-don’t-break attitude but because of their scheme, because of their talent, they’re going to complete passes.”
With 45 seconds remaining, Walsh found former Miami receiver Andre Brown in the corner of the end zone for a diving touchdown catch. The score cut the Miami deficit to just one point.
Terrell and the Irish did not immediately know Miami would go for two but were not surprised by the decision, Terrell said. Former Irish defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez prepared Notre Dame to expect a few plays the Hurricanes executed to perfection, Terrell said.
“They did like a pick so we anticipated to look out for that play, maybe a couple other plays that were effective for them,” Terrell said. “My challenge was to stay on top to make sure I could clear any picks. Steve Walsh had such a great arm that if you gave anybody any room in the end zone, he was going to zip it in on you and it’s over.”
Terrell said the pressure applied by George Williams was key and helped force a wobbly pass from Walsh. While the ball was in the air, Terrell said it looked like it was going in slow motion.
“At that point, as a defensive back, you want them to throw to your man,” Terrell said. “If you’re not thinking that way, you’re going to get struck. Teams with that attitude typically don’t win championships. Everyone out there wanted to make that play. Fortunately for me, it came at my guy and I was able to make that play.”
The win launched the then-No. 4 Irish to an undefeated season and a national championship. The Irish have not reached the pinnacle since.
Terrell played nine seasons in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams, New York Jets, Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers. After his playing days, Terrell took up a profession just as thrilling as football- flying planes.
He earned his pilot’s license his rookie year in the NFL and climbed his way up to captain, flying planes as big as Boeing 767s.
“It had been a passion of mine for years. A lot of my close friends always knew that,” Terrell said. “It was a great thrill of mine. It made me not miss football immediately after retiring from it because I was in a completely different career that, for me, was equally exciting.”
Terrell has since hung up his wings and now owns a construction business that builds runways and freeways in Chicago.
“I’ve been able to utilize all my tools from football and being an airline pilot to put everything together and I’m also doing something now that I’m very passionate about and very thrilled about,” Terrell said.
Terrell, 44, is married to his wife Elizabeth. The couple has five children – Seth, 14, Veronica, 12, Lucian, 10, Cecilia, 10, and Eli, 8.
A full transcript of our interview with Pat Terrell will be available Friday morning at ndsmcobserver.com
Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]