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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 the age of 21 on a baseball scholarship. As with so much of Rockne's life, there are conflicting accounts as to how Rockne and Gipp linked up. According to one, recently perpetuated by Clarence Manion, dean of the Notre Dame Law School (1941-52), in his foreword to We Remember Rockne, when Gipp was practicing baseball one day, a football sailed over a nearby 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.
Although Rockne's autobiography, originally published as a serial in Collier's in 1930, deserves at best a C minus for accuracy, at least its account of the discovery of Gipp has the merit of being 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 both 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, billiards 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 even blocked well when asked to perform such drudgery. 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. Although in the summers he played in municipal and industrial leagues, and went to Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship, he never won a letter in that sport or, so far as the records show, ever took part in more than three games in an intercollegiate season. He lettered in football four times. (The three-year eligibility rule then in force was waived in 1918 because of World War I.)
Commenting on Gipp's penchant for taking chances on the field, Rockne wrote in his autobiography, "He had proved to me that he was a gambler. I learned later, after his death, that this was so. I had often wondered why George Gipp, not a rich boy, had always sufficient funds. He was an expert card player, an expert billiards player—expert as he would have been in anything he took up. It was his pastime to rendezvous with visiting gentlemen of the trade and beat them at their own games."
It is hard to believe that, unless he was wearing a water bucket over his head, Rockne did not know that Gipp was gambling. The two South Bend papers at times reported Gipp's victories in pocket and three-cushion billiards at establishments like Jimmy and Goat's, and Hullie and Mike's. Moreover, Rockne often ate at Hullie and Mike's, a diner-pool hall near the campus.
In mid-October 1917, when Gipp, a sophomore aspirant for the varsity, turned up on campus, classes had been underway 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 late November, he disappeared until the following autumn. He spent most of the next academic year, 1918-19, on campus but, it seems, left without taking his final exams. It is often said that Rockne treated each player individually, bearing down on those who needed it, going easy on the sensitive. His technique for Gipp evidently was to pamper him.
Despite his gypsy ways, on Dec. 14, 1919, exactly one year before he would die, Left Halfback George Gipp was elected captain of the 1920 Notre Dame team. Three months later he lost his captaincy. In his autobiography Rockne says Gipp was expelled for cutting too many classes, but won reinstatement by taking an oral examination that proved he had covered the required academic ground. Patrick Chelland, a conscientious biographer of Gipp, maintains that Rockne's account is so much bunk. According to Chelland, the administration, already fed up with Gipp's ways, canned him after he was seen coming out of an off limits night spot. The dismissal caused a clamor—a petition was signed by townsfolk—and Gipp was readmitted. Apparently repentant, he played in three baseball games that spring, and the next fall actually showed up three days before the first football game on Oct. 2.
Gipp was a loner, known well by only a few of his teammates. One of those close to him was a backfield mate, Norm Barry. "Usually at practice we would not see George until Wednesday or Thursday," Barry, now a practicing lawyer and retired judge living in Chicago, recalls. "Johnny Mohardt and I would knock ourselves out, and when George finally showed up, Rockne would say in his staccato voice, 'George, George, where have you been? Where have you been, George? Get down there on the sixth team.' So George would get on the sixth team and work with a lot of boobs, and on Saturday he'd be in the game."
According to one tale supported by respectable testimony, once when Gipp arrived very late for a practice, Rockne told him there was no reason for him to have come at all. Gipp thereupon retired from the field and went back to the poker game he had left.