Irish Legends: George Gipp

Over the years there has been quite a bit of ambiguity associated with the legend of George Gipp. In 1940, Ronald Reagan portrayed the Irish legend as a bold, quick-witted, and overly charming young man. Gipp became second at Notre Dame, only to Rockne, in iconic stature, as the immortal words of "Win one for the Gipper!" became a national rallying cry.

However, Hollywood's Gipp was a far cry from the real George Gipp. Irish Legends takes a look at both the good and the bad, in hopes of extracting the truth from the myths surrounding the one we call, "The Gipper."

George Gipp was a legend long before he stepped on the campus of Notre Dame. As a youngster growing up in Laurium, Michigan, Gipp was a superb athlete, participating in several sports, including track, hockey and sandlot football. However, Gipp's true love was on the baseball field. As he would trot out onto the diamond, the local kids would gather around the field, peeking through holes in fences, just hoping to catch a glimpse of the great George Gipp.

While Gipp was a local hero on the field, he was not quite as legendary in the classroom. In fact, Gipp was a poor student who dropped out of the Calumet Public School system. Living in a poor mining community, Gipp made a living playing semi-pro baseball, shooting pool and gambling. For a little extra cash Gipp would drive a taxi on weekends chauffeuring miners to the local brothel.

After leading his semi-pro team to the 1915 championship of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Gipp was contacted by Notre Dame baseball coach Jesse Harper. Having dropped out of high school, Gipp was well short of the high school credits needed for Notre Dame. Fr. Matthew Schumacher, who was the Director of Studies at Notre Dame, allowed Gipp to enter the University as a "conditional freshman." This meant that Gipp would need to makeup the credits needed, either during summer school or in his first year. With the blessing of Fr. Schumacher, Gipp enrolled at Notre Dame as a twenty-one year old freshman. It was arranged that Gipp would work for his room and board as a waiter in Brownson Hall. Gipp soon realized that his job would not provide much in terms of spending money and sought out other means of cash flow.

In 1916, Gipp joined the Notre Dame baseball team as a centerfielder. After getting into an argument with Coach Harper, Gipp quit the team. Shortly thereafter, then assistant football coach, Knute Rockne, discovered Gipp dropkicking footballs on the Notre Dame practice fields. Despite having never played organized football in high school, Gipp accepted Rockne's offer and played on the freshman football team in the fall of 1916. As Gipp practiced with the team it became apparent to Rockne that he was more than just a kicker. Rockne said of his young phenom:

"I felt the thrill that comes to every coach when he knows it is his fate and his responsibility to handle unusual greatness...the perfect performer who comes rarely more than once in a generation."

On October 7, 1916, Gipp showed his first glimpse of greatness. The Notre Dame freshman football team was trailing Michigan's Western State Normal. Gipp dropped back in punt formation. When he received the snap Gipp surprised everyone, including Rockne, and dropped kicked the ball 62 yards into the wind. The field goal would prove to be the game winner. With the record-setting kick occurring in a freshman game, it will not be found in any Notre Dame record books.

In 1917, Gipp became a member of the varsity squad at halfback. Gipp stood a shade over six feet tall and weighed approximately 180 pounds. His physical stature coupled with his speed—he supposedly ran a sub 10.2 100 in full pads—provided a nightmare for opposing defenses. On Defense, Gipp played defensive end. Rockne said that in his entire career a forward pass was never completed against Gipp's defensive zone.

However, in 1917, Gipp did not report to campus until mid October, missing his first two games. In November he broke his leg in a contest against Morningside and proceeded to dropout of Notre Dame after spending only a month on campus. Even with just a small amount of time on the team, Gipp made his mark. He led the Irish to a 7-2 victory over a more talented Army team.

After dropping out, Gipp left to enroll at the University of Wisconsin. Not wanting to let his star walk away, Rockne went after Gipp and convinced him to come back to Notre Dame. Rockne recognized that Gipp was a special talent and went out of his way to make sure Gipp was happy. This included tolerating Gipp's maverick lifestyle, even if Rockne did not approve of it himself.

Rockne glowed when he talked of Gipp. "Once in a great while you can spot, among (these) clumsy beginners, genuine talent." Rockne would later state that Gipp was superior to Jim Thorpe and Red Grange on the football field.

As much as Gipp enjoyed playing football for Notre Dame, he felt that off of the field, Notre Dame was too constricting for the way he wanted to live his life. Gipp wanted to march to the beat of his own drum and that he did. He was a frequent visitor to the pool halls of South Bend. Skilled at the game, Gipp would clean up on a consistent basis. When he became bored with the competition in South Bend he would head to Elkhart seeking out railroad workers on payday. In addition to pool Gipp loved to gamble in card games. He became quite good at craps, poker, and bridge.

Gipp was such a skilled gambler that he quit his job as a waiter after just one semester and moved into the Oliver Hotel off-campus. In addition to being one of South Bend's most luxurious hotels, the Oliver Hotel frequently hosted gatherings of South Bend's high stakes gamblers. Gipp did not allow his higher standard of living to affect his relationship with the community. Everybody loved Gipp, not just because of his football abilities, but also the way he treated those around him. In secret, Gipp was a frequent visitor to the children's hospital. He loved spending time with kids, but did not want it to be known to the media. Another thing that Gipp was known for was his generosity. With the winnings that Gipp earned gambling he often offered financial assistance to many members of the football team. In those days scholarships were in the form of work-study jobs. Football players still paid their own way although they were guaranteed a job. When some teammates needed additional help financial Gipp was more than happy to oblige.

In 1918, Knute Rockne took over as head coach of Notre Dame football. The season only lasted six games before it was cancelled with the emergence of World War I. As a result the season did not count towards eligibility. While Notre Dame football was on a hiatus, so was George Gipp from the classroom. For two years at Notre Dame Gipp received no grades at Notre Dame. It is not clear whether he simply was not taking classes or if he skipped so many that he did not receive any grades. Either way Gipp was becoming a problem for the academia of the university.

1919 marked a breakout season for Gipp. In his fourth year of college, but only his third year of eligibility, Gipp led the Irish to a 9-0 record, outscoring their opponents 229-47. Notre Dame was named "Champions of the West."

Despite all of his success on the field the Notre Dame administration had seen enough, or rather not nearly enough of Gipp in the classroom. His incessant skipping of class, and attending of night clubs forbidden by the university, led to Gipp's expulsion in the spring of 1920.

Legend has it that after Gipp was expelled the sales of tar and feathers exploded in downtown South Bend. Notre Dame fans were irate with the loss of their football hero. South Bend residents took action as a petition was passed around to South Bend's most prominent figures. Meanwhile Gipp was being pursued by every school in the Midwest with a football team. As pressure increased from boosters, and the petition of eighty signatures was presented, Fr. Burns reluctantly reversed his decision and allowed Gipp to return to Notre Dame.

The fall of 1920 would ultimately be Gipp's last. As was becoming a tradition, Gipp once again left Notre Dame. This time he headed to the University of Michigan. Again, Rockne went after him and lured him back to campus. The greater Rocnke's gameplan revolved around Gipp, the more Rock let Gipp get away with. By now Gipp was only an occasional visitor to the practice fields, attending no more than three practices per week. Gipp's role on the team was clear to his teammates. Acting in a way that might be considered disruptive today, Gipp was actually beloved by his teammates. He was well received by the other players on the team as well as a leader. At 25 years old, Gipp was one of the senior members of the squad. What Gipp did or said was never questioned by the other players. Even Rock turned a blind eye.

It was well documented in "Knute Rockne All American" that Rockne despised gambling. He even went so far as to throw a gambler out of the locker room. The reality of the situation was that gambling was a major part of college football. Not surprisingly, leading the charge was George Gipp. As was customary the two teams would each put up a wager before a game with the winning team taking home the pot. Gipp claimed that he never bet against the Irish and always tried to win. He was pretty successful too. During Gipp's time on the varsity, Notre Dame won 27 games, lost two and tied three. In his last twenty games, however, the Irish posted a 19-0-1 record.

During the fifth game of the 1920 season Notre Dame was playing Army. Both teams came into the game undefeated. At halftime Rockne was livid at the poor defensive performance. Those in the locker room said later that they had never seen Rockne so mad. As a silence fell over the players Gipp nonchalantly leaned over to take a drag of a teammate's cigarette. Rockne turned and glared at Gipp.

"What about you? I don't suppose you have any interest in the game?" Rock said. Gipp, jovial as always, took another puff of the cigarette, looked at Rock and said, "Look Rock, I've got $400 bet on this game and I'm not about to blow it." Gipp went on to have a monster second half as Notre Dame destroyed Army 27-17. Gipp racked up over 330 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns as Notre Dame collected their $2100 in winnings from the Cadets.

After the Army game Notre Dame went on to beat Purdue 28-0 and then faced Indiana. Gipp separated his shoulder against Indiana and sat out most of that contest. It is at this time where historians disagree. Some say that Gipp, injured on the sidelines, developed strep throat. Another popular theory is that Gipp returned to campus late one night, where he was a steward at Washington Hall. Normally the door in the rear of the building was unlocked. This particular time the door was locked. Drunk and tired, Gipp passed out in the snow bank and slept there until morning. This led to Gipp contracting Pneumonia. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

In fact, Gipp had tonsillitis the summer before that football season. Back in Calumet, Dr. Andrew Roche recommended that Gipp have his tonsils removed to prevent further infection. Gipp told Dr. Roche that he had to leave for football training, but that he promised to have them removed when he got to South Bend. Needless to say, Gipp never had the tonsils removed. The tonsils really started bothering Gipp after the Indiana game, where he began coughing frequently.

The following week, still injured and sick, Gipp was benched and told that he would not play against Northwestern. Late in the game Notre Dame trailed. The crowd chanted for Gipp to come into the game. Gipp, who had been pleading all game for Rockne to let him play, finally was put into the game in the final minutes. On his very first play Gipp threw a 55 yard touchdown pass to win the game. As it turns out, Gipp had also bet on the Irish which is partially why he begged Rockne to put him in the game. The Irish won and continued their perfect season.

Despite a temperature of 102 degrees, Gipp stayed around after the game to teach some kids some punting lessons. That was the last game that Gipp would ever play football. Two weeks later he was admitted into the hospital with Pneumonia and strep throat. It is likely that penicillin could have cured Gipp's condition, but unfortunately it would not be invented for another twenty years.

When word escaped that Gipp was in the hospital newspapers from across the country provided daily updates on his condition. Back in Laurium, Michigan, the local newspaper posted hourly updates in the store window. The entire Notre Dame team rallied around Gipp, donating blood and doing anything they could to help their ailing teammate. Sadly, Gipp continued to fade away.

Only two weeks before George Gipp had been named the first Consensus First Team All-American in Notre Dame history. He had been a 25-year-old kid, throwing game-winning touchdown passes and collecting money off card games. In the blink of an eye, he was reduced to a weak young man, lying on his death bed.

When Gipp died there was a large disagreement over what had occurred. The priests claimed that Gipp had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Gipp came from a fairly strong protestant family, and thus his mother refused to believe that her son had converted. Notre Dame historian, Murray Sperber, assumes that Gipp probably was indifferent to the conversion and simply told the priests to go ahead with it since they were going to try and convince him anyway.

Another controversy surrounding Gipp's death were the funeral costs. Apparently Notre Dame left the Gipp family with a rather hefty bill when they elected not to pick up the costs of the funeral. Michigan's Coach Yost found out about this and made it public knowledge. It was considered a black-eye for Notre Dame in public relation, and ultimately may have weighed in on the decision to deny their Big Ten request years later.

Without question the biggest mystery surrounding Gipp's death was the famous dying request of George Gipp. Legend has it that Gipp whispered the following words to Rock before he died:

"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 -- 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."

It is widely believed now that this conversation never occurred. In fact it would have been more likely that Gipp's final words would have asked Rock to place a bet for him. In reality, Rockne was not at Gipp's bedside when he passed away. He was there earlier, but not at the time of his death. Also, Gipp never went by the nickname "Gipper." It was not until after the 1928 speech by Rockne, that "Gipper" was even referenced. As Gipp passed away at 3:30 am, many members of the Notre Dame student body knelt in the snow outside of his dorm offering their prayers.

While the famous last words of Gipp may never have been said, there is some indication that Gipp did mention something to Rockne. The night before the Army game in 1928, Rockne met with famous sportswriter, Grantland Rice. Rockne knew that Army was more talented than his beat up Notre Dame squad and hinted to Rice that he might finally have to ask his team to win one for George Gipp. The complete details of the conversation are unknown, but Rockne did indeed hint that he would be using the Gipp speech during the Army game. It is believed that the most probable occurrence of events was that Gipp did in fact ask Rock to win one for him, but Rockne created the term Gipper and enhanced the words that Gipp spoke.

After one half, Notre Dame, despite being undermanned due to injuries, managed a scoreless tie with the Cadets. Notre Dame was being physically beaten by the bigger, stronger Army squad, and was fortunate that they were not trailing. Seeing the fatigue in his team, Rockne orchestrated the most famous halftime speech in sports history.

Once the trainers had taken care of the injuries, Rockne ordered everyone out of the locker room with the exception of the players and three guests. Rock said:

"Men, I'd like you to meet Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City, former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, and the city's greatest cop, John Broderick."

Rockne was known for his energetic rah-rah speeches that motivated his players. This time, however, Rock had a long face. In the most solemn of voices, Rock said to his players:

"Boys, it will be eight years since I visited a sick, young Notre Dame man on his deathbed. He had already brought glory to his school as the greatest football player in America. His name was George Gipp. Remember that name. Never forget it.

"You know, before he died George Gipp called me over close to him and whispered that someday when things are going against us, tell the boys to go out and win just one for the Gipper. This is the day, boys, and you are the team…so GO WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER."

For those in attendance there were said to be grown men sobbing all around the room. The attitude had changed from self-pity to one of fierce determination. In the second half Army would score first, making the score 6-0. However, Notre Dame would tie the game with a touchdown run by Jack Chebigny. As Chebigny crossed the goal line he said, "That's one for the Gipper, now let's get another!" As it turns out, Notre Dame did get another touchdown and they went on to win the game 12-6. Sports writers in attendance reported that they had never seen a team play more inspired football than Notre Dame did in the second half against Army.

During his career Army was one team that Gipp seemed to own. Even when Army had the better team they could not stop George Gipp. Eight years after Gipp passed away, it was fitting that the Gipper would get one more shot at a heavily favored Army team.

1951, George Gipp was inducted into the inaugural class of the College Football Hall of Fame. He played a total of five seasons for Notre Dame, but with one season on the freshman squad, and one season abbreviated by war, his statistics reflect a total of only 27 games. Nonetheless, Gipp's career statistics lasted for half a century. He recorded 21 touchdowns while rushing for 2,341 yards and eight more touchdowns while throwing for another 1,789 yards. His career rushing record would stand until 1978 when it was broken by Jerome Heavens. On defense Gipp intercepted five passes. Rounding out his game, Gipp excelled on special teams as well. He averaged 14 yards per punt return and 21 yards per kickoff return. On the other side of the ball he kicked 27 extra points and averaged over 38 yards per punt.

There will never be another George Gipp in college football. In today's game where players are groomed for offense or defense, and only rarely play both, the all-around talent of George Gipp will never be touched. To understand truly how special George Gipp was to football, consider these quotes from those who watched him play.

"He was a natural athlete and possessed the three most important qualities needed to attain greatness: the qualities of body, mind and spirit. He had what no coach or system can teach—football intuition."—Knute Rockne

"His kicking and ball carrying was about as fine as anything I have ever seen on a football field."—Sportswriter Grantland Rice.

"We on the campus look upon George Gipp as the greatest football player ever turned out at Notre Dame. One whose ability has been surpassed if at all by few cleated warriors since the game was introduced in this country."—Elmer Layden

"George Gipp was the greatest athlete I have ever known. He will be forever remembered as a friend, a student, an athlete and a gentleman, for to know him was to love him." --1920 Notre Dame Football team captain Frank Coughlin


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