Reflections from the Dome
Rock in his
typical practice field togs: old football pants, torn sweatshirt. On
game day, he was a natty and stylish dresser.
This edition of Reflections from the
Dome will feature the story of Rockne's famous "Win One For The
Gipper" speech. The following discussion will include excerpts from
three prominent authors who have written on the subject: Murray Sperber in Shake
Down The Thunder, Michael Steele's Knute Rockne A Bio-Bibliography,
and Castner and McCallum's We Remember Rockne.
The first excerpts will be from We Remember Rockne.
John McCallum speaks:
Breathes there a football fan with soul so dead that he has never heard
of "Win one for the Gipper"? George Gipp, the first All-American
in Notre Dame history, was a magnificent halfback, the stuff of legend.
Pudge Heffelfinger, the unforgettable lineman at Yale in 1888-89-90-91, once
told me that he rated Gipp even above Red Grange as the most versatile
ball-carrier of all time.
"Minnesota stopped Grange by having its ends hold their stations and
turn him inside," Pudge said, 'but nobody ever stopped Gipp. He ran
harder than Red, if not so elusively, and how he could pass and kick. I'II
never forget the forty-yard pass he pitched to Roger Kiley from behind his
own goal line against Army at West Point in 1919. Kiley muffed the ball, a
perfect pass, but that daring play was typical of Gipp. He always did the
Heffelfinger recalled the Notre Dame-Purdue game in 1920 when Gipp made a
spectacular eighty-yard run, only to have it nullified by an off-side
penalty against the Irish. So on the very next play, he dashed ninety-five
yards to score.
That was the kind of romanticism that rang through college football in the
1920's, and specifically it was the kind of thing that transformed Notre
Dame from a relatively obscure institution to the most famous Catholic
college in America. Football, along with daily Mass ("We pray that
nobody gets hurt"), lay at the core of Notre Dame then, and it was the
magic combination of Gipp and Rockne that helped the school to grow.
Like Rockne, George Gipp enrolled at Notre Dame late. He was twenty-two and
had spent four years driving a taxi cab at Laurium, Michigan, his home town.
He stood 6-feet-1 and weighed 180
pounds, a natural athlete. In a football suit, he ran the hundred-yard dash
in 10.1, was a pin-point passer, and often boomed off punts of eighty yards
or more. In thirty-two college games (1917-18-19-20), he scored 21
touchdowns. In his last twenty games, Notre Dame won nineteen, tied one, and
scored 506 points to 97. The undefeated 1919 and 1920 Irish elevens were
recognized as Western champions.
A free-wheeling, untamed spirit, Gipp took naturally to any kind of a
competitive game. He was an excellent billiards player, and in 1920 even won
a gold watch as a ballroom dancer .
In an era of no miracle drugs, Gipp died of a strep throat at the age of
twenty-five, and on his deathbed, December 14, 1920, or so Rockne claimed,
he made two stirring pleas. He asked to join the Roman Catholic Church, and
"someday, Rock, when the going is tough and a big game is hanging in
the balance, ask the team to win one for the Gipper ."
Just before the end came, Father Haggerty baptized Gipp in the Catholic
Rockne's fight speeches on recordings still raise the hair on one's neck. In
1928, Rock's poorest season, the Irish traveled to New York to play Army. In
the locker room, Knute played his trump and told the Gipp story to his
undermanned team. He told it with flair and dramatics. When he finished,
there were only two dry eyes in the dressing room. These were Rockne's.
"All right," Rockne said softly, his voice heavy with emotion,
"this is that game."
The Notre Dame players then choked down their sobs and defeated Army, 12 to
6. The Cadets had the ball on the one-yard line of the Irish when the game
Years later, Jack Dries, the sports announcer, phoned Paul Castner from New
York before going on the air and grilled him about the win-one-for-the-Gipper
story. Dries was skeptical that it ever happened. While Rockne had a
tendency to be dramatic, Paul told him, he was not one to make up stories.
That seemed to satisfy Dries, and that was what he reported to his American
Broadcasting Company listeners. As for the 1928 Notre Dame-Army game, Paul
remembers the details as though it were only the day before yesterday.
Army was loaded in '28. They had talent, depth - and Red Cagle. Biff
Jones, the Army coach, brought the Cadets down to Yankee Stadium primed to
the hilt for us. They had beaten us, 18-0, the year before and figured to
make it two in a row over Rockne.
Notre Dame appeared below par so Army was considered the outstanding
favorite. Still Rockne told his neighbor, Tom Hickey on Thursday night in
"We're going to take Army Saturday."
He told two of his former players, Elmer Layden and Bob Regan, who were
coaching at Duquesne in Pittsburgh and had an open date that permitted them
to see the game:
"Army has a better team than we have, but we are going to beat them
Notre Dame played a great Army team. The score was tied at zero at the end
of the half. It was then that Rock gave his team the "one for the
Gipper" story. The game ended 12 to 6 in favor of Notre Dame and is
recorded as a major upset of that year .
I taped some who were in that dressing room that afternoon to learn what
really transpired. What Rockne said is covered nicely by Ted Twomey the
six-one, 205-pound tackle in the starting line up. Another account of Rock's
talk is recalled by Ed Healy who at the time was assistant coach incognito
since Hunk Anderson had gone to St. Louis.
The team stayed at the Westchester Biltmore Hotel in Rye and we used the
golf course there to work out on the Friday before the Army game. Saturday
morning, we made the long, 45-mile trip into New York on busses and as we
approached Yankee Stadium there were Irish cops on every corner hollering,
"Beat Army! Beat Army!" It was terrific, and really got us keyed
up for the game.
In the dressing room, as we suited up, Coach Rockne suddenly strolled in
with Jack Dempsey on his arm.
"Fellows," he announced, "I want you to meet Jack
We were all great admirers of the old heavyweight champion. Rockne knew this
and as a psychological lift he asked Dempsey to say a few words to us. Jack
finished off his remarks by saying, .'Go out there and beat Army!'.
The game was played to an overflow sellout of 78,188. and in the first
half it was a 0-0 see-saw. That was the score when we went back to the
dressing room, where our team manager busied himself wiping the sweat and
grime off our faces. Rockne waited for us all to settle before he made his
appearance, and then he walked in and in a very slow, serious voice he said,
"Boys, I want to tell you a story. I never thought I'd probably have to
tell this story, but the time has come to tell it. So now all of you gather
around this rubbing table and listen."
We rose from our benches and surrounded the table.
Rock started off with this talk. That harsh staccato was gone. His voice was
soft, almost pleading, and very paternal. He leaned down over this rubbing
table, talking about George Gipp, and he was so dramatically convincing you
could almost see the Gipper lying on that table, dying. I was clumped with
Tim Moynihan and Eddie Collins and Jack Cannon and Moon Mullins and Bucky
O'Connor and Freddie Miller and Frank Carideo and all the rest of the guys
and Gipp was on that table, I tell you, trying to speak. Talking through
"It was eight years ago," Rock related to us, "and there I
was, up at that hospital with Gipp and Gipp was really passing away, right
in front of my eyes. There wasn't much time left. Gipp motioned to me and
said, 'Rock, can you hear me?' " -Rock bent his head a little closer to
that rubbing table for dramatic affect, and the deathly white face of George
Gipp suddenly reappeared in my imagination -and Rock said, " 'Yes,
George, I can hear you.' And George said, 'Rock, it's not so tough to go.
I've no complaint. It's all right. I'm not afraid.' His eyes then brightened
in a frame of pallor. 'Someday, Rock,' he said, 'when the team's 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.'
" Rock quietly straightened up and looked around the room, studying our
faces. We were all sobbing. He said, " All right, boys, let's go get
them! This is that game!"
Well, a tear-stained band of fighting Irish raced for the door. We hit it
with such force that we nearly tore off the hinges. When we lined up for the
kickoff, Army didn't know it but they were playing against 12 men - our
eleven regulars -and the spirit of George Gipp!
Red Cagle didn't see any ghost, however, as he circled deep behind his own
goal line, reversed his field and tore off a long gainer . His runs and
passes continued to push us back, until Army was on our two. There Johnny
Murrell plunged over. Bud Sprague. Army's big All-American tackle, missed
We came right back, smashing and clawing for 80 yards, and Jack Chevigny
rammed into the end zone to tie the score. We also missed the point-after,
but we got the ball right back and started another march. Here Rockne sent
in "One Play" Johnny O'Brien. Johnny was a pass-catching demon,
and a pass play was called to him. Johnny Niemiec, our left half, dropped
back, spotted O'Brien in the end zone, and threw. O'Brien juggled the ball
as he lunged for it, but held on to it to put us ahead, 12-6. I can still
picture Chevigny. He had taken out the Army end on the play, and when he
looked down field and saw O'Brien in the end zone clutching the ball, he
yelled, "THERE'S ONE FOR THE GIPPER!"
Johnny O'Brien was so excited he didn't even rejoin us out on the field.
After catching that touchdown pass, he made tracks straight for the bench.
That's how he got his nickname -"One Play" O'Brien.
The fireworks were far from over. Cagle still had something left. With
little more than a minute left, he took our kickoff on his 10 and, circling
to his own goal line, started moving. He covered 65 yards before being
thrown out of bounds on our 35. After an incomplete pass, he swept 21 yards
more to the 14. That was his last shot. He had played himself off his feet
and had to be helped from the field. Johnny Hutchinson, his replacement,
attempted two passes, the second connecting on the four. Hutchinson smashed
to the one-yard line but before Army could fire again, time ran out.
Final score: Notre Dame 12, Army 6.
Somewhere up there, George Gipp must have been very happy.
Big Ed Healey was also there. The same Ed Healey who played tackle for
Dartmouth in 1916-17, went to war in France, then came back and fought his
way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a lineman for the Chicago Bears of
1922-27. George Halas calls him "the all-time Bears tackle." Ed
refers to Notre Dame as his "Midwest alma mater," because, in
1928, Rockne asked him to come down to South Bend and serve as his
On the eve of the Army game. I was with Rock when he entertained 50 or
60 members of the press at the Westchester Biltmore Club. During the
question-and-answer period of the program, Rock sat in the center of this
huge horseshoe-shaped table and like the master he was let the reporters
fire away at him at liberty. His answers came back trigger-Iike, there was
no attempt to dodge any issue. I sat alongside him and was amazed at his
optimism, considering the condition of our backfield. The only whole men we
had were little Jim Brady at quarterback, and Jack Chevigny at right half;
our other half, Johnny Niemiec, had a broken instep and was heavily taped,
and the great Freddy Collins at fullback still had his arm in a cast from
cracking it in the Loyola game, six weeks earlier. So I couldn't honestly
say our chances of upsetting the nation's No. 1 team were very good -and
yet, there was Rock telling the writers we were going to win! That
self-assurance in his voice almost had me believing it, too.
The following afternoon, we went to Yankee Stadium. There again Rock
demonstrated this terrific talent he had for getting a team up for a
In the dressing room, before the game, he turned to me and said, "Ed,
let's get out of here for about five minutes. We'll leave the boys alone in
peace for a few moments, and then we will come back and say a few words and
from that point on they can carry the ball themselves."
We left the room, giving the kids time enough to think things out. The room
was as silent as a tomb when we came back. Quietly, gently, Rock issued them
his final pregame instructions. Nothing was said about George Gipp. He was
saving the dramatics for halftime.
What I remember about his famous "win-one-for-the-Gipper" speech
is very simple. It must have made a big impression on me because I still
remember the gist of it. With the score deadlocked, nothing to nothing, at
the end of the first 30 minutes, I recall we walked back to the dressing
room. Rock let the boys cool off for a moment, then called them around him
and started telling them about his great halfback who had died in his arms,
in 1920. He told them: "Boys, when the great George Gipp was dying,
laying there on his deathbed ready to go on to the next world, he looked up
at me and said, 'Rock, when the going gets tough, tell the boys to go out
and win one for the old Gipper.' " He was silent for a moment, letting
his words sink in, then: "So, boys, go on out now and win this one for
the old Gipper. ..." Well, that got to them. There wasn't a dry eye in
the room. The kids came off those benches like they'd been sitting on spikes
and nearly smashed the doors down getting back onto that field. For the next
30 minutes, that bunch of cripples played like champions. The line was
terrific, and the backs performed like All-Americans. I can still see
"One Play" Johnny O'Brien taking that pass from Niemiec. When he
galloped back to the bench Rock hugged him and kissed him, you've never seen
And that great little Chevigny. When our other backs bogged down, Jack took
that ball and lugged it three, five, and seven yards at a clip, refusing to
be stopped. Rock's speech at halftime had him all fired up. He'd go back
into that huddle and say to the guys, "There's another five yards for
good Ol' Gipper!"
* * * *
The next segment of our coverage of the
Gipper speech story is an excerpt from Murray Sperber's Shake Down The
Although the Notre Dame coach became famous for his locker room
talks, legend outstripped reality. Paul Castner, a former Rockne player and
a longtime associate, stated that the coach "himself said that one talk
a year was enough and I don't believe that he gave many of the emotion
packed talks that the myth has him giving every game." For 1928,
however, Rockne decided to wheel out the oratorical artillery to attack
Much of Rockne's speaking success came from his acting ability. Even the
Notre Dame clerics, including former President John W. Cavanaugh,
acknowledged that "there never was a greater showman than Knute Rockne.
All his life long he was a play actor." And a C.S.C. historian who long
observed him wrote, 'Rockne had a great sense of the dramatic. ..in company,
Rockne was always the actor, a very clever and telling actor, with a superb
Jim Crowley, the "Horseman" who related the story of his coach's
plea to win the 1922 Georgia Tech game for little Billy Rockne, once listed
other locker room talks where his mentor fabricated stories. Crowley
concluded, without hostility to Rockne because he loved his dramatic side,
"They were all lies, blatant lies. The Jesuits call it mental
reservation, but he had it in abundance." In addition, the N.D. coach's
private correspondence reveals many instances where he attempted to
extricate himself from tight spots with half-truths or even total fictions.
When he wanted something badly enough, he would stretch facts to their
breaking point and beyond.
Rockne's success as a speaker also depended upon his rapport with and
control of his audience-in the case of the locker room talks, his team. Paul
Gallico, sports editor of the New York Daily News, visited the Notre
Dame training camp before the 1928 Army game and observed: "To the boys
it is a romantic thing that they are doing, and they are in love with it and
all its rituals and Rockne is the high priest...He stalks among them, author
and chief actor in the show and the boys simply hang upon his words."
The younger the team, the more naive the players, and the 1928 Notre Dame
varsity was the youngest since 1922.
In addition, Gipp's "final words" belonged to a subgenre of
American sentimental fiction-the deathbed and hospital request - that was
extremely popular in this era, for example, the pleas, mainly fabricated by
"Gee-Whiz" sportswriters, from young invalids to Babe Ruth and Lou
Gehrig resulting in magical home runs. The Notre Dame coach liked these
famous "last prayers" and used a number of them in locker room
talks during his coaching career.
But why George Gipp? He had died eight years before-during all of that time
Rockne had never mentioned his supposed dying request - and his memory was a
bit of an embarrassment to the Notre Dame coach and the Catholic school. Not
only had Fielding Yost conducted a public squabble about Notre Dame's
allegedly "welching" on Gipp's funeral expenses but anti-N.D.
reporters, including Nebraska's Cy Sherman, had mocked the school's
"overlooking" Gipp's academic failures. Moreover, although the
press had mentioned Gipp's athletic accomplishments in the years after his
death, by 1928 his memory had slipped under the hooves of the Four Horsemen
as well as such great running backs as Red Grange.
But Gipp remained vivid for at least one journalist. Francis Wallace had
seen him play for Notre Dame and, two days before the 1928 Army game, he
wrote a New York Daily News article emphasizing Gipp's role in the
1919 and 1920 N.D. victories at West Point and how the latter contest
"earned [him] a rating as the outstanding player of the year."
Not only did Rockne and the team-training in Westchester County -see this
article but apparently so did
W. 0. McGeehan of the New York Herald-Tribune. On Friday morning, the
leading exponent of "Aw- Nuts" sportswriting provided his readers
with a full-page laudatory column on "Gipp of Notre Dame."
McGeehan termed him "the greatest individual football player I ever
saw" and described at length his outstanding game on the plains of the
Hudson in 1920.
McGeehan's praise and particularly his conclusion must have astonished
Rockne: after discussing Gipp's death, the writer added, "What manner
of youngster he was personally I never knew, but I imagine that he was of
the type of Hobey Baker of Princeton. I suppose that the men of Notre Dame
remember him with the same emotion with which the men of Princeton remember
Hobey Baker. They should especially when the Anny-Notre Dame games roll
Hobey Baker, the model for generations of eastern establishment youth, had
been a superb athlete and sportsman, so clean-cut and high - minded that
even his cynical classmates admired him and were devastated when he died at
the end of World War I. Off the field, he was the antithesis of the gambling
and hard-drinking Gipp. That W. 0. McGeehan, the most skeptical sportswriter
in New York, whitewashed Gipp's reputation gave Rockne the sanction to use
the memory of his former player in any way that he saw fit.
No doubt, the N.D. coach read the Friday Herald-Tribune at the
training camp in Westchester County. Rockne had long believed, and had
written in his book, Coaching, that "the history or traditions
of the school are a great thing to recite to your team, and to keep before
them. Exaggerate these as much as you can." And he told Walter
Eckersall, scheduled to referee on Saturday, that although this team was
young, because Notre Dame "has a lot of tradition, these kids will
fight it out until the [final] whistle blows."
Whether Rockne conceived his plan to use the Gipp deathbed story the day
before the game or on the spur of the moment in the locker room is unknown.
Grantland Rice, the other featured columnist in the Herald-Tribune,
claimed in his memoirs that the N.D. coach telephoned him on "Friday
night before the game," suggesting, "Grant, the boys are tucked in
for the night. How about coming down and sitting around with Hunk [Anderson]
and me here at the hotel?" Instead, Rice persuaded Rockne to come to
his apartment - Hunk presumably remaining with the "boys" -and
during their long chat the N.D. coach revealed, for the first time, Gipp's
dying words. Rockne then added, "Grant, I've never asked the boys to
pull one out for Gipp. Tomorrow I might have to."
This conversation is cited by sports historians as the best proof of the
authenticity of George Gipp's request - no one heard him speak the words to
Rockne but, eight years later, the coach did not invent them in the locker
room because, the night before, he related them to Grantland Rice. Moreover,
Rockne would not have lied to the most important sports journalist in
America. Unfortunately for this argument, the originator of
"Gee-Whiz" sportswriting was as great a fantasist as the N.D.
Grantland Rice was not in New York that Friday night! The following Sunday's
Herald-Tribune featured his eyewitness account of the Saturday game
between high-flying Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt in Atlanta, and newspapers
in that city noted his presence in the pressbox. For the writer to cover
that event, he had to be in Georgia on Friday night or on a train moving
through the South. But a few thousand miles of railroad track never kept
Grantland Rice from inventing an imaginary meeting, particularly one that
gave him an exclusive preview of the most famous locker room speech in
sports history. He compounded his lie by placing Hunk
Anderson in New York on that Friday night; in fact, the head coach of the
University of Saint Louis football team was in the Missouri City, awaiting
his Billikens' Saturday afternoon home game against Loyola of Chicago.
In the end, only Rockne knew the truth about the authenticity of Gipp's
dying wish. However, all the circumstances in 1928 - the pressure to
alleviate Al Smith's election loss and the humiliation of American
Catholics, the necessity of beating Army to salvage the terrible season, the
whitewash of Gipp by W. 0. McGeehan, and, finally, Rockne's extraordinary
talent and long history as a storyteller - indicate that George Gipp's
legendary request was first made on Saturday, November 10, 1928.
Many controversies surround Rockne's speech to the Fighting Irish at Yankee
Stadium on that day in 1928, not the least of which concerns his actual
words. The most famous version is:
- "He [Gipp] turned to me [on his
- 'I've got to go, Rock,' he said. 'It's
all right. I'm not afraid.' His eyes brightened in a frame
of pallor. 'Some time, Rock,' he said, 'when the team's 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 in Collier's,November 22, 1930;
reprinted in his posthumous Autobiography, 1931
This was the N.D. coach's only printed rendition of the speech and many
later accounts of the event, including the Hollywood biopic, follow this
autobiographical passage. It is doubtful, however, that Rockne actually said
these words. Not only did they first appear two years after the event but,
in all probability, Rockne's ghostwriter at Collier's, John B. Kennedy,
wrote them. Rockne's correspondence reveals his use of Kennedy's services,
and the Collier's narrative of this event both fits the professional
writer's style-"brightened in a frame of pallor," and so on - and
contains howling errors that the coach-as-author would not have made. In
describing the immediate consequences of the speech, the writer says,
"the boys came out for the second half exalted, inspired; overpowering.
They won. As Chevigny slashed through for the winning touchdown he said:
'That's one for the Gipper!' " End of story.
In fact, after the halftime interval, Army broke the 0-0 count with a TD,
and later, Jack Chevigny scored the tying touchdown. Then, in the fourth
quarter, the Notre Dame coach made a brilliant strategic move to win the
game. He substituted an obscure end for one play-the winning touchdown
pass-and the player gained Notre Dame fame as Johnny "One Play"
O'Brien. Surely if Rockne had written these passages about the 1928 Army
game, he would have remembered the scoring sequence and his masterstroke.
-Francis Wallace in the New york Daily News, November 12, 1928
- "They were underdogs and that
helped. They had Rockne and he helped. Football people knew
that Rockne would fire the boys up in his speech before the
game. This is what he told them - and then perhaps you can understand
the cold forgetfulness of self of those Irish kids.
- 'On his deathbed George Gipp told me
that some day, when the time came, he wanted me to ask a
Notre Dame team to beat the Army for him"
Wallace broke the story of Rockne's speech two days after the game. He had
not been in the locker room but Joe Byrne, Jr., an eyewitness, told him
about the talk and, on Monday, he published the story in his paper under the
headline "GIPP'S GHOST BEAT ARMY," with the subhead "Irish
Hero's Deathbed Request Inspired Notre Dame."
When the Daily News's Monday article appeared, the N.D. coach was
angry at his protege for going public with the story. Wallace attributed
Rockne's displeasure to the writer having "violated a [locker room]
confidence," but possibly the coach did not want the tale known because
he worried that it would not withstand press and public scrutiny. Certainly
Gipp's request was at odds with his character in life--one wit later noted
that "it would have been much more like him to ask Rock to put down a
bet for him some day when the Irish were a sure thing." In addition,
according to Gipp's teammates, he "never referred to himself as 'the
Gipper,' " and that nickname only caught on after the 1928 incident.
No wire service or New York newspaper picked up Wallace's "death-bed
request" story - probably because of their low opinion of the New York
Daily News - and it remained in semi-obscurity until the Collier's
piece two years later and the subsequent reprinting in the posthumous Autobiography.
Only when Hollywood featured it in Knute Rockne-All American did it
enter the mainstream of American culture.
Other controversies surround the famous speech. Did it occur before the
game, as Wallace implied, or at halftime, as most of the players later
claimed? Ted Twomey, the starting right tackle, recalled that before the
game, Rockne brought Jack Dempsey into the locker room and the great fighter
spoke at length to the team, ending with "Go out there and beat
Army!" In all probability, the N.D. coach would not have attempted to
top Dempsey's appeal and would have saved his Gipp speech for halftime.
Twomey also described the emotional sea in which the team swam: " As we
approached Yankee Stadium there were Irish cops on every corner hollering,
'Beat Army! Beat Army!' It was terrific, and really got us keyed up for the
The game itself was very different from the later depictions of it,
particularly the movie version. The first half was tough, mean football, and
although Notre Dame had the best scoring drive, the Fighting Irish stalled
when their fullback fumbled on the Army two-yard line and the Kaydets
recovered in the end zone for a touchback. The half ended 0-0. In the locker
room, according to Joe Byrne, Jr., the N.D. coach launched his Gipp talk
with a description of the player's career, his illness, and his hospital
room; finally, Rockne announced the dying wish.
One of the N.D. assistant coaches, Ed Healy, later said, "There was no
one in the room that wasn't crying, including Rockne and me. There was a
moment of silence, and then all of a sudden those players ran out of the
dressing room and almost tore the hinges off the door. They were all ready
to kill someone." Unfortunately for N.D., it was not yet Army - the
Kaydets took the second half kickoff and slowly moved down the field, with
"Red" Cagle leading the attack, and scored a touchdown.
But Notre Dame hung in the game and, near the end of the third quarter, Jack
Chevigny plunged over from the two. Even the cynical Westbrook Pegler in the
pressbox noticed that the Fighting Irish were playing with special
intensity; he wrote the next day-before the Gipp story was known-that the N
.D. comeback "must have been one of those strange mind-over-matter
affairs that the coaches...talk about with such simple faith."
At 6-6, the teams battled through the fourth quarter until Rockne sent in
Johnny O'Brien with a pass play. He ran his pattern to the goal line and
Niemiec, on the forty-three-yard line, hit him perfectly for the touchdown.
Notre Dame missed the PAT but was ahead, 12-6. Army did not give up; Cagle
returned the kickoff to the N.D. thirty-one-yard line, then battered his way
to the ten, where, according to a journalist, he "has to be dragged out
of the game because he is groggy from the sustained pummeling he has
undergone since the opening scrimmage."
On a pass-and-run, Army then moved the ball to the one-foot line, but before
the Kaydets could attempt another play, the referee blew the final
whistle-starting a huge controversy about whether he had ended the game too
soon and robbed Army. A telegram from the New York World demanded
that Rockne state "WHAT THE SITUATION WAS WHEN WHISTLE ENDED ARMY GAME.
..WHOSE BALL WAS IT?" According to the rules, if the Kaydets had made a
first down, they were entitled to another play. However, in a telegram to
Francis Wallace, the N.D. coach replied: "PERSONALLY THINK THE MATTER
OF NO IMPORTANCE." He elaborated: "THEY [OUR PLAYERS] CLAIM ARMY
DID NOT MAKE FIRST DOWN BY OVER A YARD BUT BEFORE ANYTHING COULD BE DONE
WHISTLE SOUNDED AND GAME WAS OVER. ..MATTER IN MY OPINION IS OF NO
The referee who blew the whistle was Walter Eckersall. The Chicago
Tribune writer later felt badly about his call, and Wallace wired Rockne:
"ECKERSALL AND [WEST POINT COACH] BIFF JONES CLAIM ARMY BALL WHEN GAME
ENDED. I AM HOLDING THE BAG [IN DEFENDING NOTRE DAME]." But a day
later, Eckersall blurred his story, telling Wallace and the Daily News,
" As time was up when an Army man made a plunge, I did not pay any
attention to the ball reverting back to Notre Dame or remaining in
possession of the Army." Rockne shunned the controversy and he wired
Wallace, "IT WAS A GREAT GAME AND THE SCORE IS TWELVE TO SIX."
The subsequent accounts of the 1928 game always portray the Notre Dame win
as inevitable--once the Fighting Irish heard the 'Win One for the Gipper"
speech nothing could stand between them and victory. In reality, if Kaydet
star "Red" Cagle had been able to remain and function or if
Eckersall had not blown the final whistle when he did, Army might well have
scored the tying touchdown. One New York columnist believed that if the game
had continued "ten seconds more. ..the Army almost certainly would have
scored, as its desperate attack had Rockne's team backing up in
bewilderment." With the TD and conversion, the 1928 result would have
been Army 13-Notre Dame 12; without the PAT, a 12-12 tie. With either score,
Knute Rockne's invocation to the memory of George Gipp would have gone to
the same unmarked grave as all the other locker room speeches that failed to
One can also speculate on what the absence from history of the "Gipper"
speech would have meant for the Hollywood film on Rockne and especially the
political career of the actor who portrayed George Gipp. Would Ronald Reagan
have been as successful, particularly in appealing to the crucial voting
bloc of "Reagan Democrats" -many of them Catholic--without his
appealing campaign slogan, 'Win One for the Gipper"? But football games
and elections cannot be replayed; Notre Dame won the famous game and Ronald
The final part of our discussion of the
"Gipper speech" comes from Michael Steele's Knute Rockne:
A Bio-Bibliography. It consists of three interviews held in 1979
during research at Notre Dame's International Sports and Games Collection.
Interviewed were professor Richard Sullivan, who was an undergraduate at
Notre Dame in the twenties, Chet Grant, one time roommate of Gipp's ,
quarterback on the 1920 team, and long-time authority on ND athletic
history, and Paul Castner, team mate of Gipp's and one of the best
all-around athletes ever at Notre Dame. [Mr. Steele discusses Paul's opinion
of the Gipp speech in the following introduction:]
Introduction to the interviews:
According to Rockne, as Gipp neared death he said, "Some time, Rock,
when the team's 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." This is the request that Rockne shared
with the 1928 team as Army team.
Two of Gipp's teammates, Chet Grant and Paul Castner, differ with the
details of Rockne's account of this central event in American sports
mythology. Castner believes that Gipp was entirely capable of making a
request and that it was typical of Rockne to have used it later at the right
moment. Both men admit that no one will ever know the truth. But one thing
is certain, according to Grant and Castner, and that is that Gipp never
referred to himself as 'the Gipper. ' They believe that it is possible
that something transpired between Rockne and Gipp on that fateful day. They
agree that it is possible that something like the words recorded by Rockne
was uttered. It is probable, then, that Rockne's active imagination
simply recalled the thrust of the conversation and not the minute
particulars. In the eight years that had passed from the time of Gipp's
death until the 1928 Army game, it is quite likely that he gave much thought
to the incident. It is almost certain that he bided his time for the correct
psychological moment to employ it. Ultimately, it must be admitted that the
famous exhortation, "Win One for the Gipper!" might have a general
basis in truth but that Gipp never said it in so many words. One
contemporary writer, Wells Twombley, goes as far as to say, ' 'There is no
indication of any bedside bequest to the Notre Dame football team. In any
case, the coach wasn't at his side when he passed away.". That Rockne's
rhetoric produced a galvanizing effect on an inferior team and that it
immediately caught the public's fancy and has entered our culture is a
measure of Rockne's unique genius in motivation. Rockne loved the dramatic
value that football displayed. In this instance, he certainly outperformed
Richard Sullivan interview:
INTERVIEWER: Just a personal opinion now; this is a hard one: Do you
think that there's any possibility that Gipp, talking to Rock in 1920,
actually made a death-bed request? We know for a fact what Rockne said to
his players for the 1928 Army game. Then Chevigny said, "That's one for
the Gipper" when he scored his touchdown in the second half. That much
we know happened. There were people who heard Rockne say all this to the
team, and the players from Army and Notre Dame heard Chevigny say that as he
crossed the goal line. Now, what's your estimation? Do you think that Gipp
actually said this to Rockne? Number one, do you think it's possible or
number two, does it even matter?
SULLIVAN: Number one, it is possible. (Pause.) Number two, yes, perhaps in
the interest of truth, it does matter. Certainly, I would never be able to
pronounce on it, whether it happened or not.
INTERVIEWER: You take it as truth?
SULLIVAN: No, I don't take it as truth. I say I think it matters whether
it's the truth or not. I'd like to know myself whether it's true or not.
INTERVIEWER: I'll tell you if I ever find out.
SULLIVAN: But I think, Mike, honestly, that I find it quite compatible with
my own image of Rockne that he would make it up. Though I don't mean for a
moment that it isn't quite possible that Gipp did say that to Rockne on his
death bed. It could be. Or Gipp could have said something close to that and
Rockne could have elaborated a little.
INTERVIEWER: Sure, and of course, in the throes of death as Gipp was for two
or three days; he was in the hospital for fourteen days or more. Of course,
if it were a mere fabrication, Rockne would not have been aware of any moral
SULLIVAN: Not a bit, no.
INTERVIEWER: Taking a death-bed. ..
SULLIVAN: I think he used it, I'm sure he used it, in terms of the standard
pep talk, you know. Lord, we've all had pep talks in one way or another ,
and they don't always adhere strictly to the very literal truth. So I don't
think Rockne was thinking of this as a lie. Indeed, he might not have
thought about it two minutes before he said it.
The Chet Grant interview:
INTERVIEWER: We know what Rock said to the players in the 1928 Army
game. And we know that the halfback said, "That's one for the Gipper!"
GRANT: That was Chevigny.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, now do you think that Gipp made the request? You knew Gipp
and you knew Rock.
GRANT: I think it's credible, highly credible. Not only that, but I have a
friend, Ed Healy, a Dartmouth man, who donated his services to Rock on the
field. He was there in the dressing room and so testified a couple of times
in my presence when this sequence occurred. He said that's the way it was.
And, anyhow, no matter whether he had or not, I would have to answer I don't
see why not. At the time I rejected it. I never heard Gipp referred to as
Gipper before. I thought it was an affectation of some kind. In retrospect,
considering all that could be involved, I see no reason why it shouldn't be
accepted or to try to explain it. What's the difference?
INTERVIEWER: That's one of the things that I'm working with. So many things
have become facts, are taken to be facts, by people in later generations.
GRANT: Well, it's the essence of it that counts. So, that's not contrary to
INTERVIEWER: Since I came here, I've learned that there was a [C.S.C.]
Brother in the room [with Gipp and Rockne]. I don't have his name, but
somebody remembers him.
GRANT: Well, I don't know about it. I'd have to question it myself.
Sometimes fables become facts in time. Sometimes witnesses have heard the
fable so often that they've translated it.
[Editors note: As a footnote to the
"Win One For The Gipper" speech discussion, I'd like to offer this
excerpt from Frances Wallace's book Knute Rockne.
He didn't approve of my first novel Huddle, a fictional
account of Notre Dame with a character modeled after Rockne, even though -
or perhaps because - in the words of the publisher, the book apotheosized
I'm hoping that he would feel about this effort as he seemed, finally, to
feel about my newspaper story of his dressing-room speech about Gipp. The
first time he saw me after that he gave me a quizzical look and said calmly:
"Frank, you did something you never did before - you broke a
"It didn't come to me as a confidence," I said. "Though
ordinarily I would have considered it as such. But I thought this was
something that belonged to the tradition."
He looked at me, thought a little, half-nodded as if saying, Perhaps, I
hadn't thought of it that way.
ockne could not have been happy with either the general condition of the
team or of its prospects in the forthcoming season. Since Gipp, the elected
team captain, had been expelled, the first order of business was for
monogram members of last year's team to choose a new team captain. Frank
Coughlin, the starting left tackle during the previous season, was elected.
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