My father, God rest his soul, was a big Notre Dame Fighting Irish fan. I don’t know why, but he was. He wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t Irish, he never attended there, he didn’t grow up in that part of the nation…it was a puzzler. All he ever said by way of explanation was, “I just like the way they do things there.”
I have come to believe that perhaps the main reason he was enamored of Notre Dame has to do with the legacy created at that institution by the legendary player and coach Knute Rockne.
I hear of Knute
My initial encounter with the Knute Rockne legacy came when I was in grade school and our family was traveling from Garden City to New Jersey on the Kansas Turnpike between Wichita and Kansas City.
My dad made it a point to pull off the highway near Matfield Green. At that age, any diversion from a long, boring road trip was welcome, and we kids all piled out of the car to see what could be so fascinating at Matfield Green.
For those who don’t know, this is where Knute Rockne was killed in a plane crash in 1931. The actual crash site was a few miles north, near Bazaar, Kansas, but the memorial was placed at Matfield Green because, well, that’s where the nearest busy highway was.
These days, there is a turnpike rest area there with a fast food restaurant, convenience store and a small museum-like display/memorial to Rockne inside.
As I recall, though, back in the day, there was only a roadside “historical marker” type memorial. In reverential tones, dad tried to convey to us rug-rats the importance of the man who was being commemorated there. Even if we didn’t completely understand, we could tell that Rockne had been important to him.
My dad would have been about 9 years old when Rockne went down, and it would have been big national news. Similarly, I was 9 when President Kennedy was killed, and he’s always been a big hero to me.
At that young age, my understanding was sketchy and incomplete, but I have always been interested in learning more about JFK throughout my life, because at the impressionable age of 9 it had been a big deal that he was killed. I can see my dad having developed the same type of fascination with Knute Rockne.
Who was Knute?
Rockne was born in 1888 in Norway, emigrating with his family at the age of 5 to live in Chicago. It was there that he learned the game of football that would have such an impact on his life.
Page 2 of 4 - After graduation from high school, Rockne worked for four years as a mail dispatcher to earn the money for college.
In those days, there weren’t as many grant and loan programs available to students, and many collegians were older than we usually think of college students being, owing to the need to have earned the money for college before attending.
Matriculating Notre Dame at the age of 22, Rockne joined the football team, playing end. His main claim to fame as a player was to popularize the use of the forward pass along with his friend and quarterback Gus Dorais. They didn’t “invent” the forward pass, but they did add some new wrinkles to its use that allowed Notre Dame to stun the highly regarded Army team 35-13 in 1913.
Rather than the short pitches and shovel passes that had characterized the passing game hereotofore, Rockne and Dorais practiced the long overhand pass to a receiver who would catch the ball in stride far downfield.
After graduation in 1914, Rockne took a job as a lab assistant and assistant football coach at Notre Dame. In 1918, he was offered the head coaching job, and the Rockne Legend began.
The Rockne Legend
In 13 seasons as head coach of the Fighting Irish, Rockne went 105-12-5, won three national titles and boasted 5 undefeated/untied seasons. He coached famous players like George “the Gipper” Gipp, Frank Leahy who went on to achieve his own fame as a football coach, and Curly Lambeau who pioneered pro football, originating the Green Bay Packer franchise.
Rockne is credited with initiating the backfield shift, wherein his players, collectively referred to as the Four Horsemen, would shift from the T to a box formation. He was also instrumental in redesigning football equipment, decreasing the weight and bulk without sacrificing protectiveness.
He was a tireless promoter of Notre Dame football, recognizing the “show business” aspect of collegiate sports. Ironically, that boosterism would be what led to Rockne’s untimely death. He was on his way to Los Angeles from Kansas City, where he had stopped off to visit family, when his plane went down. The purpose of his west coast sojourn was to offer technical advice to a film that was in production, called “The Spirit of Notre Dame.”
Probably the most famous incident of Rockne’s coaching career was the halftime speech in which he invoked the dying words of former player George Gipp to rally his team from deficit to a come-from-behind win.
In 1920, while still a player at Notre Dame, Gipp died of strep throat, a not uncommon occurrence in the pre-antibiotic days. He is believed to have uttered the following words to Rockne as he lay on his deathbed: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”
Page 3 of 4 - In 1928, trailing Army 6-0 at halftime, Rockne exhorted his team with that story, and the Irish responded with a stirring 12-6 upset of heavily favored Army.
The Rockne way
But all of the accomplishments aside, what makes Knute Rockne special in my mind, and what I believe my dad appreciated about Rockne, was the way he went about his business. He espoused what he called the 25 Commandments that Fighting Irish players were expected to abide by. A look through them is like a primer on old school values, and I mean that as a compliment.
For just a few examples: “1. Scholarship: The player should first be a good student. Do not neglect your studies. Your first purpose should be to get an education. 2. Cooperation: Everyone should work for the common good of the school and the squad. Everyone should boost everyone else; a disorganizer has no place on the squad.
8. Morals: A high standard of living and thinking. 9. Sportsmanship: Good sportsmanship means clean and fair play. Treat your opponent with respect. 19. Remarks: Be careful of your remarks about anyone; if you cannot say something good, say nothing. Talking too much is bad policy.
23. Winning: If you are the rightful winner, be willing to take credit for it, but keep in mind that it was only your time to win and that your winning was probably due to conditions or a reward for your sacrifices; a kind word or a handshake goes a long way toward forming a lasting friendship, and does not change the score.”
Anyhow, you get the idea. It makes one wonder what Rockne would make of the current athletic culture of win-at-all-costs, of egregious self-promotion, of trash-talking as a modus operandi, of athletes running amok in society and of coaches putting out bounties to injure other teams’ players. Yes, society has changed, but that doesn’t mean it has changed for the better.
Win for Rockne
So I think that’s why my father liked Notre Dame, he “liked the way they do things there.”
For a number of years recently, there have been questions as to whether the Irish could ever win again, continuing to insist their players went to class once in awhile, for example.
It would appear that this year’s version of the Fighting Irish has answered that question in the affirmative, being ranked in the top 5 nationally at the time of this writing, while maintaining a 95% graduation rate.
Therefore, I believe that whenever any team has won a game, but more significantly won it by doing things the right way, they have “won one for the Gipper,”…and even more importantly, they have won one for Knute Rockne.
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