SI Vault
 
The Elusive Gipper
Jack Cavanaugh
December 30, 1991
Who was George Gipp of Notre Dame, and why does his legend live on when so many others have faded?
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 30, 1991

The Elusive Gipper

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4