Friday, September 23, 2005

The Real Story of the Gipper

george gipp
This is the second—and last—installment on the revisionist history of Notre Dame from the book “Shake Down the Thunder: The Story of Notre Dame Football” by Murray Sperber, an Indiana State English prof who accidentally discovered a ton of research in a basement at Notre Dame—producing a book that, while ignored, gives a new perspective on Knute Rockne and Notre Dame football.

All of us think we remember George Gipp but that’s because we remember the man who played him and went on to political immortality, Ronald Reagan. Reagan played Gipp the way Mrs. Rockne wanted him to be played, as a “gosh, gee whiz” kind of kid. After studying the university records, Sperber comes up with quite another profile. Born in the rough mining town on Michigan’s Upper Penilnsula, Gipp was discovered by Jess Harper, Rockne’s predecessor who offered him a baseball scholarship—a job at Notre Dame to pay his way. Gipp didn’t have enough high school credits so he had to make up the deficit during his first year and at summer school. Gipp was 21 years old when he arrived on campus. He found out that his job as a waiter in Brownson Hall wouldn’t cover the full amount of the tuition so he embarked on what his fellow students called his “own private job plan.” He earned money by shooting pool and cards with pool and card sharks in downtown South Bend. He was so skillful a gambler, he quit his job waiting on tables after one semester and moved out of the dormitory into a room, then a suite of rooms at the Oliver, South Bend’s best hotel.

Rockne’s almost full-time job was to protect Gipp’s secret life from the priests at Notre Dame and the media (which wanted to believe he was a clean-cut kid). But Gipp showed very little proclivity in academics, his transcript showing that for two of his first four school years he received no grades whatsoever (Gipp died in his fifth year). As a sophomore, he arrived on campus late—Oct. 14—missing the first two football games. Although he played varsity football, his transcript for the 1918-19 academic year is blank. While he was an overage warrior and a non-student card and billiard shark at that, Gipp was probably (for those who saw him play including Father Ignatius McDermott) the greatest college player of his time. But the priests caught up with him and he was expelled from Notre Dame in 1920.

By that time he was a national phenomenon and Army’s head football coach at West Point, Douglas MacArthur—yes the same Douglas MacArthur who would be a five-star general later—sought to get Gipp. Gipp disdained the military life, else he would probably have become an Army star and, who knows, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff one day. Rockne manuevered to get Gipp re-admitted all the while Gipp lived at the Oliver in comparative luxury. According to Sperber, Gipp did not confine himself to games of chance with cards and pool but bet on his team and on his own game performances.

Gipp’s fame ultimately came from dying at the height of his game. How did he die? Supposedly from pneumonia during the great flu epidemic. That’s correct so far as it goes but Sperber discovered documents from one Grover Malone, a Notre Dame player with Gipp who offered eyewitness info. “[A]fter the Indiana game in 1920,” Sperber writes, “Gipp visited him in Chicago and they went `on a rip-roaring three-day drunk’ When Malone finally put his friend on the train for South Bend, he noticed that he was coughing. By the following Sunday in Evanston, Gipp’s cough was much worse and Rockne kept him out of most of the Northwestern game.” Gipp’s fatal illness was a combination of strep throat, pneumonia and infected tonsils.

A romantic story has Gipp, born a Protestant,converting to Catholicism on his death bed (indeed one of the most famous lines in film has Reagan saying, “win one for the Gipper.” A Notre Dame priest gave him conditional baptism and absolution as the player was semi-conscious. Later Gipp’s sister, writing to his fiancee, said, “we could denhy it openly” (meaning his conversion) but that would hurt his pals at Notre Dame. She said Gipp would say, “oh, let them [Notre Dame] go ahead with it. It makes no difference to me.” But in 1930 when Rockne wrote his autobiography which spelled out his own conversion to Catholicism, he saluted Gipp’s “embrace of the faith.” Although Gipp’s mother, a hard-line Protestant disputed the story, Rockne’s autobio gave the legend wings.

Rockne himself never lived easily under the same roof as the Notre Dame priests. They were always accusing him of trying to short-change the university with side-deals to make money. He signed up as a radio spokesman for Studebaker, the car company headquartered in South Bend; he put on football seminars all for extra cash. On the other hand, Notre Dame had nothing to kick about—Rockne brought it fame.

Like Gipp, Rockne met death in a romantic way, in an airplane flying to California which developed ice on its wings and crashed in western Kansas. Rockne was flying to Hollywood in response to a $50,000 offer to make a film on football—and he really didn’t fill in Notre Dame on the deal. The legend followed him in death, particularly the story that when his body was found in the crash, his hand was gripping a rosary. But his old friend, Dr. Michael Nigro,. a Notre Dame grad, prepared the body from crash site to burial and never mentioned this. Nevertheless the legend has never died. In Chicago the funeral party met the cortege at the Dearborn street station and transferred it to the LaSalle street station, fighting a crowd of 10,000 qwhich wept when the train left for South Bend. With salutes from President Herbert Hoover and the King of Norway and the emotion-laden tributes of thousands of newsmen including Will Rogers who called him “a national hero,” Rockne and the image of Notre Dame soared never to be forgotten. And no revisionist history will ever change it.

No comments:

Post a Comment