GEORGE GIPP, the best and most mythical of all Knute Rockne's heroes, was not recruited to play football at Notre Dame. Gipp came from the tough Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan at age 21 on a baseball scholarship. There are conflicting accounts as to how Rockne and Gipp linked up. According to one, while Gipp was practicing baseball one day a football sailed over a fence and hit him on the head. The annoyed Gipp booted it back over the fence into a group of players working out under Rockne. "Who kicked that?" Rockne allegedly cried, and when he got the answer, one of the great partnerships between coach and player was born.
The account in Rockne's 1931 autobiography is more logical. Rockne wrote that on an autumn day in 1916 he came upon Gipp in street clothes drop-kicking a football with another lad. Impressed by the distance and accuracy of Gipp's kicks, Rockne asked him to come out for the frosh team.
Gipp was an extraordinarily gifted athlete who was also adept at poker, pool and burning the candle at both ends. He had little interest in press reviews or money. It was winning and the brash gambles winning requires that he fancied. He was an excellent kicker, passer, runner and secondary defender. He was good at both ends of the basketball court. In baseball he was a sort of long-ball Ty Cobb.
For all his gifts, at Calumet High in Michigan, Gipp had been a truant, athletically as well as academically, and at Notre Dame his behavior was hardly better. In mid-October 1917, when Gipp, a sophomore aspirant for the varsity, turned up on campus, classes had been under way for five weeks and the football team had already played two games. Still, Gipp served nobly in a loss to Nebraska and in victories over South Dakota and Army. On his first carry in the sixth game of the season, he struck a post out-of-bounds and broke his right leg. After a brief return to school in November, he disappeared until the following fall. He spent most of the next academic year on campus, but it seems left without taking his exams.
Despite his gypsy ways, on Dec. 14, 1919, left halfback George Gipp was elected captain of the 1920 Notre Dame team. Three months later he lost his captaincy--either, as Rockne wrote in his autobiography, for cutting too many classes or, as other accounts had it, for being seen at an off-limits nightspot. Either way, Gipp was readmitted and the next fall actually showed up on Sept. 29, three days before the first football game.
In 1920 Gipp had dislocated his left shoulder in Notre Dame's stirring 13-10 win over Indiana. On a blustery day the following week, while helping Grover Malone, a former teammate, coach high schoolers, he caught cold. Despite the ailments, Gipp traveled with the team to Evanston to meet Northwestern. Even with Gipp sidelined, Notre Dame was leading comfortably by the end of the third quarter. But the alumni association had billed the game as "George Gipp Day," and the crowd was clamoring for Gipp. Rockne relented in the fourth quarter and put in his ailing hero.
It was Gipp's last scene, and a great one. On his first series he passed 35 yards to right end Eddie Anderson for a touchdown. On the next possession he set an intercollegiate passing record for distance, throwing 55 yards to halfback Norm Barry for another score.
By the next Saturday, when Notre Dame finished another perfect season, beating Michigan State 25-0, Gipp was hospitalized with a streptococcus infection that was later complicated by pneumonia. He beat the pneumonia, but the infection lingered. In the predawn of Dec. 14, 1920, the lights of South Bend's Oliver Hotel, where Gipp had many friends, momentarily flicked off, signaling his death. While hospitalized, Gipp learned he had been picked as a first-string All-America, the first Notre Dame man so honored.
Did the dying Gipp ever ask Rockne to tell the Irish someday, when the going was rough, to win one for the Gipper? Because both men are now dead, the question is forever moot. For sure, at halftime of the 1928 Army game Rockne fired up his sagging, underdog team with such a request from Gipp. And for certain, when halfback Jack Chevigny plunged over for the tying score in that game, Chevigny did cry out, "There's one for the Gipper!" Indeed, as quarterback Frank Carideo recalls, at least half a dozen times after a gain, when they lined up in T formation for the next play, he could hear Chevigny behind him saying, "One for the Gipper." Final score: Gipp 12, Army 6.