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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."