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The Holy Shirt! Story

Their t-shirts have become famous for Syracuse University sports phrases such as ‘Overrated?!!’, "Double Trouble" and ‘Marathon Men.’

But the story behind these shirts does not start in the Carrier Dome. It starts at Holy Shirt!, and the story of Holy Shirt! starts with a pair of boxers.

John Groat, Holy Shirt! owner and founder, started this company over 25 years ago and has built the now-family business into a well-known print company world-wide.

Groat grew up in Syracuse as the oldest of five siblings. He worked for $3.75 at a local grocery store, was the president of his senior class at Corcoran High School and had one goal.

‘From the age of 4, I wanted to be in broadcasting,’ said Groat, whose father, Rod Wood (his stage name), is a local broadcaster on ABC News Channel 9. ‘Later in high school, I was heck-bent on going to Newhouse … and nothing else could have competed with that. I couldn’t be reasoned with.’

So he applied to SU with an early decision application and was thrilled when he received his acceptance letter, Groat said. But he had one problem: his family could not afford to send him to the school of his dreams.

‘He said, ‘Mom, you gotta get a job at SU so I can go,” said Nanette Groat, John’s mother. ‘But it was hard to juggle three girls and work up at SU. It was too much for me. So I said no to that and hoped to help John in another way.’

In the meantime, John sold custom-made boxer shorts to raise money for the senior class of Corcoran High School. A late ’80s fad, boxer shorts were not readily available in stores and he had to work with an independent company to have them specially printed. The sale was so successful that an employee of the company told Groat he could make $300 selling the boxers at another school.

But Groat initially ignored the offer. He focused on school and graduated at the top of his class. He still did not have the money to go to SU though. When the time came to register for classes he enrolled at Onondaga Community College, where his father could afford the then $700 registration fee.

John was not happy with the decision. ‘Going to OCC wasn’t the same,’ he said. ‘I felt disappointed. Actually, disappointment was an understatement at that time. It just wasn’t the same as Newhouse.’

He attended the first day of class at OCC but still felt that something didn’t fit, he said. So on the second day of class, he went to the bursar’s office and asked for a refund of his father’s money. He went home and begged his mother not to tell his father, which she didn’t, and began deciding what to do next.

He tried several odd jobs, including waiting tables and selling art, but those didn’t fit either. 

‘At that point I remembered a conversation about boxer shorts, about $300,’ Groat said.

With that in mind, he typed out letters and sent them to about 24 high schools in and around Syracuse. ‘They started: Dear so and so, I have these cool boxer shorts,’ he said.

Groat had a phone line installed in his bedroom at his parents’ house – the unimpressive brown room still has the phone, a reminder of the state of his business when it began. He bought stamps, envelopes and practiced his professional ‘phone voice.’ Then he took his parents’ rule of not swearing and the family habit of finding ways to ‘almost’ swear and came up with the name ‘Holy Shirt!.’ He was in business.

Groat sent out more letters each day, and after a few weeks he had heard back from about 12 schools.

‘Cha-ching. I thought, $300 times 12 schools, I’ll be going to Syracuse in no time,’ he said.

But the money didn’t come that easy. Of the 12 schools, only a couple actually bought boxer shorts. To make matters worse, his father found out he was no longer enrolled in school and began charging his son rent, significantly cutting into the small profits.

Instead of giving up, Groat, in what he called a test of fate, decided to risk all the money he had made thus far on a mass mailing to 5,000 schools. He refined his presentation by having more professional letters, envelopes and catalogs printed. Then, he got his whole family together and started an assembly line to prepare the letters to be mailed out.

‘It was definitely a home basement business,’ Nanette said. ‘The girls did a lot, and even Grandpa got involved, too.’

It worked. Three months after the mailing, Groat grossed more than $100,000, he said. Although he did not get to keep all of the money, he was able to make enough to enroll in his first year at SU.

Groat continued to work on Holy Shirt! while he attended school, first out of his bedroom in his parents’ basement and then out of an off-campus apartment. He was able to consistently make enough money to pay for all four years of college. His brother, Chris, eventually joined him and worked his way through SU as well.

‘I wanted to go to SU and I thought, ‘How am I going to pay?’ Then I thought of John,’ Chris said. ‘I grew up as an artist, so I could handle that part of the business well … it’s a good fit for both of us.’

When John graduated from SU in 1992 with a degree in broadcast journalism, he was unable to find a job in the field. 

‘I graduated. With my luck, into a recession,’ he said.

So he decided to invest more time into his already profitable business. He bought a house the year after he graduated and lived upstairs while running Holy Shirt! on the ground level of the house.

Holy Shirt! ‘grew organically,’ John said. ‘It’s very Syracuse … In my grandparents’ age, mom and pop stores had owners that actually lived upstairs. That was common. I lived upstairs, too.’

Eventually he was able to move out and expand the business, which now employs 22 people and is run out of three houses and five storage sheds. While it still completes orders from local high schools, Holy Shirt!’s clients now include New York colleges in addition to SU, TV shows such as ‘Family Guy’ and even U.S. military bases overseas. 

But despite the business’ expansion, John and his brother keep the business close to home.

‘We’re avid SU fans … So we were going back and forth, competing on who could come up with the perfect phrase,’ John said. From Overrated?!! to Marathon Men to Devil Wears Orange to Beat Nova to Cardiac 'Cuse to Double Trouble... the list of hits goes on.

Holy Shirt!’s Marathon Men shirts, made after last year’s six-overtime game against the University of Connecticut, have become a hit across the country and were featured on ESPN and in ‘Sports Illustrated.’ The Marathon Men design has sold over 60,000 shirts thus far, the most in SU’s history, he said.

John said, ‘It’s neat for students to realize that … you’re not only supporting a local business but also a couple of brothers who were walking in your shoes not that long ago.’