The Elusive Gipper

Who was George Gipp of Notre Dame, and why does his legend live on when so many others have faded?
December 30, 1991

He has been gone now for 71 years, his life cut short at the age of 25. He died only a month after his last football game. Yet the legend of George Gipp, the Gipper, lives on.

Who hasn't heard the phrase "Let's win one for the Gipper"? The origin of that exhortation is as uncertain as anything in the Gipp legend, yet it perseveres. The Gipp mystique was given new life during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who played Gipp in the 1940 movie Knute Rockne-All American. Reagan wasn't shy about referring to the Gipper.

Who was George Gipp? Who was the man behind the legend?

That's a difficult, nearly impossible answer to get at. Gipp's life is so shrouded in mythology, the facts are hard to come by, nothing is etched in stone. The Gipp story has become, largely, a folk legend—something created in part by Hollywood and in part by such chroniclers of the '20s as the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice.

But certain items are known, as I learned in conversations with several former Gipp teammates, all of them now dead.

What, in fact, did I learn?

Well, for one thing, I learned that Gipp was a fine pool player. Indeed, Gipp had a reputation as a hustler. "George played a lot of cards, and he shot a lot of pool—both for money, lots of money," said former Gipp teammate Heartly (Hunk) Anderson. I talked with Anderson a good while ago, just before his death in Florida in 1978. "Every once in a while some of the hotshot pool players from Chicago would come to South Bend looking for action, and George would play them at $100 a game or more at Hullie and Mike's poolroom," said Anderson. "They were crackerjack players who made their living shooting pool, but George would take them almost every time."

Gipp was also a masterful card player. He was a fixture in the nightly poker game at the old Oliver Hotel in downtown South Bend; obviously, Gipp spent much of his time downtown. "You didn't see George around the campus very often except at practice," said Gene Oberst, another of Gipp's former teammates, who died last May in Cleveland. "And he didn't always show up at practice. But Rockne didn't seem to mind, because he knew George was something special. And the players didn't object, because every-one liked him a lot. He was a very friendly fellow and very handsome. The ladies loved him."

Most often their love was unrequited. "The girls around South Bend would have given anything to meet and go out with him, but George stayed aloof, more interested in his poker, pool and football," said Fred Larson, one of Gipp's closer friends on the team, now deceased. "He was a strange person, fun-loving in a way, yet withdrawn. George had no real close friends—Hunk and I were as close as any. He was friendly enough, but I always got the feeling he didn't want to get too close to anyone, even those of us who had known him for years.

"He was a very complex person," Larson continued. "He'd come in during the middle of the night or later, usually after playing cards or shooting pool, but he'd never say where he'd been. George wasn't the type of person who volunteered personal information, but I once asked him how he was doing at poker, and he told me he had made at least $5,000 the previous year and, from the looks of things, would top that amount that year."

Gipp bet on football, as did many players—including some of his Notre Dame teammates—of that era. His former teammates testified that Gipp would wager as much as $500 a game on the Irish. There were times, said the old-timers, when he bet that he alone could outscore the opposition; on the field, he would make certain that he scored enough points to back his personal parlay. His former teammates emphasized that he was always on the up and up, never betting against himself or against the Irish. They said that if anything, Gipp's bets spurred him to greater play. "He hung around plenty of gamblers," said Anderson, who succeeded Knute Rockne as Notre Dame's coach. "But he was honest, completely honest."

Gipp's greatest performance may have taken place at Army on Oct. 30, 1920, and it may have had something to do with money. Notre Dame was en route to its second straight unbeaten season and was playing an Army team that was undefeated at 5-0. That day, Gipp gained 480 yards running, passing and returning punts and kickoffs as the Irish won 27-17. "A lithe-limbed football player named George Gipp galloped wild through the Army on the plains here today, giving a performance that was more like that of an antelope than a human being," reported The Chicago Tribune. "...On the next kickoff [in the fourth quarter] he dodged and twisted his way through the whole Army outfit for a run of 48 yards to the Army's 45-yard-line. Gipp hurled another long forward pass to Capt. Frank Coughlin for 15 yards.... When he was taken out of the game a few minutes before the end, the Cadets gazed at him with sorrow and wonder in their eyes, and then a storm of applause broke out in the stands as he staggered off the field."

All for the greater glory of Notre Dame? Well, according to Rice's 1954 book, The Tumult and the Shouting, the Gipper had $500 on the Irish that day. Others have said that Gipp placed a bundle of bets for his nonstudent pals back in South Bend, as well.

Gipp grew up in Laurium, Mich., a town in the ore-mining region near Calumet, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The legend has it that during his short time at Calumet High, his indifference to studies and his frequent absences made him ineligible for football. After he departed high school around 1913—he was either kicked out or he dropped out—Gipp spent the next three years hanging around Calumet. At one point he had a job as a cab driver. He also played some organized baseball locally and sharpened his skill with a pool cue.

So it wasn't until years after his high school class had graduated that Gipp entered Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship; in those days, the lack of a high school diploma didn't keep a young man from entering college, particularly if he was a good athlete. Gipp had been spotted by an Irish scout named Dolly Gray, who had played ball in the White Sox chain.

One of the unverifiable elements of the Gipp legend, one that is dramatized in the Reagan movie, has Rockne just happening by one day as Gipp, wearing street shoes, is booming 50- and 60-yard punts on a Notre Dame field. However Gipp's recruitment to the Notre Dame football program was accomplished, he was soon wearing cleats. Only a few weeks into his college career, Gipp really did drop-kick a 62-yard field goal to win a freshman game against Western State Normal of Kalamazoo, Mich.—just the kind of heroism Reagan displayed in the movie. "He was the greatest I ever saw, and I played against Jim Thorpe," said Larson, who, with Anderson, later played for the Chicago Bears. "He was completely different than anyone else I've ever met—a great inspirational force in his calm, cool way. Nothing ever ruffled him."

As a passer, Gipp was accurate up to 50 yards and could throw even longer, using an egg-shaped ball that was far more difficult to throw than today's football. A former teammate, Arthur (Dutch) Bergman, who coached Sammy Baugh for one season with the Washington Redskins in 1943, said that except for Baugh, Gipp was the best long passer he ever saw.

Even so, it was as a runner that Gipp truly excelled. A lithe six-footer who weighed about 185 pounds, he was a marvel of speed and balance. His total rushing yardage record of 2,341 at Notre Dame stood for more than 50 years, until it was broken in 1978 by Jerome Heavens.

"He constantly amazed me," said Larson. "No one ever thought of Gipp as being exceptionally fast, yet one day I saw him in the gym talking to a few sprinters. The next thing I knew, he was racing them in the 60-yard dash—in his street clothes and shoes! And he beat them."

For fun or money? Larson said he didn't ask.

Slender, with light brown hair, Gipp had a pale, sallow complexion. "It was the smoking and the hours he kept," said Anderson. Poor grades and a bad attendance record caught up with Gipp in the winter of 1919. Gipp apparently was expelled from school. He turned up briefly on another campus, that of the University of Michigan. The Michigan coach, Fielding H. Yost, had been soliciting the services of Michigan-bred players, whether they were enrolled elsewhere or not. Gipp listened to Yost's siren call but, according to the legend, at the last minute he decided not to attend school at Ann Arbor and returned to South Bend. Meanwhile, Rockne had persuaded Notre Dame officials to arrange a special examination for Gipp, with the understanding that if he failed he would not be readmitted to the school. Besides the fact that Rockne wanted Gipp back in pads, Rock seemed to have a special place in his heart for Gipp, even though George was a rebel. Gipp, in this instance, responded positively to Rockne's intervention. In a rare display of scholarship, he hit the books hard, passed the exam easily and returned to the South Bend campus for his senior season. Or so goes the legend. According to a 1985 article in Smithsonian by James A. Cox, Irish alumni so pressured the school's administration that the football star was reinstated without any tests being given.

The Gipper's old teammates said he looked paler than usual during the 1920 season, and that he had a persistent cough, which some attributed to his smoking. The week after the Nov. 13 Indiana game, they recalled, Gipp developed a sore throat. Despite his illness, he accompanied the team to Evanston, Ill., for the Northwestern game that Saturday. Rockne had no intention of letting him play. But with the Irish leading comfortably in the last quarter, the crowd began to chant, "We want Gipp!" Rockne yielded. Sick as Gipp was—and he was far sicker than anyone realized—he still thrilled the crowd by throwing two touchdown passes on a bitterly cold, windy afternoon. It was to be his last appearance on a football field.

The following week Gipp attended the team's annual dinner at the Oliver Hotel. Oberst, who played with both Gipp and the Four Horsemen, was seated beside Gipp. "He began to cough quite a bit," said Oberst, whose death came at age 89 after a long career as a college-athletics administrator. "He turned to me suddenly and said, 'Excuse me, Kentuck,' which was my nickname. He got up and left. It was the last time I ever saw him."

Shortly thereafter, Gipp was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital in South Bend and was placed on the critical list with what was diagnosed as a streptococcal infection. Then pneumonia set in. Gipp's mother, brother and a sister came from Michigan to be at his side. As he lay dying, a group of Notre Dame students kept vigil outside the hospital, kneeling in the snow to pray. At about 3:30 on the morning of Dec. 14, Gipp died.

Supposedly, one of Gipp's last visitors was Rockne, and therein lies the heart of the legend. Millions have seen the deathbed scene in which Ronald Reagan says to Pat O'Brien, who played Rockne, "I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell 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."

Rockne—the real Rockne—always insisted that Gipp did indeed make that dramatic last request, and in 1928, before a game at Yankee Stadium against Army, Rockne delivered his famous win-one-for-the-Gipper talk. Perhaps for dramatic effect, in the movie this was changed to a halftime oration during a 0-0 tie. Rice, writing in 1954, went along with the at-the-half version, even adding that he had shared cocktails with Rockne the night before and that Rockne had confided he might use the Gipper gambit against Army. Whenever the pep talk was given, it seemed to have had the desired effect: Notre Dame scored two touchdowns in the second half and won 12-6. As he crossed the goal line for the first Irish touchdown, Jack Chevigny, who would be killed at Iwo Jima 17 years later, cried out, "That's one for the Gipper!"

Do we know for sure if Gipp asked Rockne to win one for the Gipper? No, we don't.

"I doubt very much if George would have said that," said Anderson, whose skepticism was shared by his teammates. Those who knew Gipp said that it would have been out of character for him, even on his deathbed, to have made such a request.

Gipp's death cast a pall on the Notre Dame campus. Practically the entire student body of 1,221 accompanied his coffin in a procession from the campus to the South Bend railroad station. In Chicago, hundreds turned out to meet the funeral train. And in Calumet, thousands paid their respects; Gipp's body lay in state in the armory, to accommodate the crowds. On the day of Gipp's funeral, schools and businesses in Calumet and Laurium were closed. A raging snowstorm blew as Gipp was buried in Lake View Cemetary.

Today, a small footstone marks the place where Gipp is interred. Inscribed on the stone: GEORGE GIPP. 1895-1920. In his hometown of Laurium, Gipp is commemorated by a stone monument in a small park at the corner of Tamarack Street and Lake Linden Avenue. At Calumet High, there's a plaque awarded in Gipp's name each year to the school's best male student-athlete. And in the Irish locker room at Notre Dame Stadium, there's a plaque on which the Gipper speech is etched.

After covering a Notre Dame game in 1920, sportswriter George Trevor wrote of the 25-year-old Gipp: "He blazes fiercely like a meteor, not long destined to dazzle earthly eyes." Weeks later, Trevor's tribute proved to be prophetic.

PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSGipp was a superb kicker, a better passer and a runner nonpareil. PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSRockne was a father figure to his boys, even the rebellious Gipp. PHOTOReagan's deathbed scene, with O'Brien as Rockne in attendance, added significantly to Gipp mythology.

Jack Cavanaugh is a free-lance writer living in Wilton, Conn.

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Eagle (-2)
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