President Ronald Reagan is tagged fondly as “The Gipper” as the result of his movie portrayal of Notre Dames’ legendary football player. The nickname is so firmly attached to the president that the real Gipper is nearly forgotten.
The true story is clouded by the mist of time. His hometown of Laurium, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, maintains a website devoted to their local hero. This much is certain: he was born Feb. 18, 1895 to Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Gipp.
He attended the Calumet public schools, but he never played high school football. However, he was an all-around athlete. He participated in track, hockey, sandlot football and organized baseball. The Laurium baseball team was the champion of the Upper Peninsula in 19l5, with George playing center field.
Gipp had not given any thought of going to college. He was, however, proficient in baseball, table pool, poker and dice. His greatest achievement was winning a gold watch for ballroom dancing.
The husky six-foot, 180-pound Gipp at age 21 was persuaded by a Notre Dame grad that he could have a baseball scholarship for the asking.
Beyond these statistics, we must rely on sports historians.
A colorful account of Gipp’s spectacular career is rendered by James A. Cox. It begins one autumn afternoon in 1916 with two freshmen playing baseball catch on the playing field of a Midwestern university.
Without warning, a football sails over the fence from a nearby gridiron where the school’s varsity was practicing. It hits one of the young men. He picks up the errant football and kicks it back over the fence 70 yards away.
On the other side of the field, a coach whistles in awe and races over. “Hey, You! You with the baseball. What’s your name?”
“Gipp,” comes the laconic answer.
“Where you from?
“Play high school football?”
“Well, I think you’ll make a football player,” says the coach. “Come out tomorrow. We’ll suit you up and see what you can do.”
The young man shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says vaguely. “Don’t particularly care for football.”
Thus was the meeting of Gorge Gipp and Knute Rockne. A few days later Gipp shows up for a tryout.
* * *
There was no difficulty in switching scholarships when it was learned he could run 100 yards in ten seconds, throw pin-point passes half the length of the field and kick 60-yard punts with ease. He became an All-American halfback.
Gipp established a reputation in his first out-of-town game with the freshman team against Western Michigan State Normal. Wrote Cox:
“Playing halfback, Gipp piles up yardage. But the score is 7-7 as the fourth quarter grinds down with only a couple of minutes to go.
“The Irish have the ball. The quarterback calls punt formation – kick away and play for a tie.
“Gipp demurs. He wants to try a field goal. The quarterback looks at him as he would at a crazy man. From where the kicker will stand, to the opposing goalpost — which at that time was on the goal line — was more than 60 yards. Nevertheless, the quarterback orders, ‘Punt.’
“The ball is snapped, Gipp drops it end-first to the ground – as was the custom then — gets a perfect rebound and booms the ball through the uprights. It was a 62-yard-field-goal that earned an enduring place in the record book.”
* * *
In the spring of his freshman year, Gipp tried out for the baseball team and made it as an outfielder. He played only one game.
Ignoring a signal to bunt, he blasted the ball over the fence for a home run.
“Why?” the manager demanded. “Don’t you remember the signals?”
“Sure,” replied Gipp, “but it’s too hot to be running around the bases after a bunt.” The next day he turned in his baseball uniform and concentrated on football.
He earned his way by waiting tables in the university dining room for board and lodging. He picked up cash by playing in nearby semi-pro and industrial baseball leagues.
He also frequented the pool halls and other low joints of South Bend.
A hangout called Hullie & Mikes became his second home. He once said, “I’m the finest free-lance gambler ever to attend Notre Dame.”
His room mate, Arthur (Dutch) Bergman, explained:
“Nobody around South Bend could beat him at faro, shooting pool, billiards, poker or bridge. He studied the percentages in dice rolling and could fade those bones in a way that made professionals dizzy. At three-pocket pool, he was the terror of the parlors.
“He never gambled with other students, though his crap-shooting skills helped pay the way through Notre Dame for more than a few of his friends. I’ve seen him win $500 in a crap game then spend his winnings buying meals for destitute families in South Bend.”
Gipp cut so many classes in 1919 he was kicked out of school. He took a job as a house player at Hullie & Mikes gambling emporium.
Aghast, Notre Dame alumni sports fans deluged the college with complaints. The university gave him a special exam — which he passed – and reinstated him. Thereafter, Gipp came to practice when he chose, doing what he felt like doing. No one complained. Coaches and players knew he was fiercely devoted to winning. The team revolved around him.
The 1920 season established Gipp as “immortal.”
One Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame found itself down 17-14 to Army.
In the locker room, Rockne unleashed one of his famous half-time fight speeches. Gipp seemed bored. Rockne turned to Gipp and challenged him, “I don’t suppose you have any interest in this game.” Gipp responded, “Don’t worry, I have $500 on it, and I don’t intend to blow my money.”
At game’s end, Gipp had piled up 385 yards rushing – more than the entire Army team. He scored one touchdown by running back a kick-off, threw two pin-point passes setting up a touchdown. He almost single handedly led Notre Dame to a 27-17 comeback victory.
Gip paid a price for that day’s performance. He was weary, pale and a little bloody. His distress was so obvious, the West Point crowd stood and watched in awe as he left the field.
There were four games left in the season. A clean sweep would give Notre Dame a shot at the national championship.
Purdue went down 28-0. At Indiana the next week, Gipp suffered a dislocated shoulder that sent him to the bench with bandages. The Hoosiers shot to a 10-0 lead, which they held into the fourth quarter.
The Irish pushed to the 2-yard line but stalled. Gipp jumped from the bench and shouted to Rockne, “I’m going in!”
“Come back!’ roared Rockne.
Gipp ignored the command. On the second play, he crashed through for a touchdown. Then he kicked the extra point, and returned to his bench.
On the next Notre Dame possession, as time was running out, the Irish worked the ball to the 15-yard line. Again, Gipp rushed from the bench to take charge.
He dropped back for a game-tying dropkick to tie the game. The Hoosiers stormed to block him. Calmly Gipp tossed the ball to a receiver on the 1-yard line. On the next play, with the whole Indiana team converging on Gipp, he smashed off tackle with his injured arm tucked close. It was a ruse. The Notre Dame quarterback danced into the end zone with the ball for the winning touchdown.
While the team returned to South Bend, Gipp went to Chicago to teach a prep-school team how to drop kick. Icy wind brought on aches, fever and sore throat. Back at South Bend, Gipp took to his sick bed.
The next Friday, against Northwestern, Rockne kept feverish Gipp on the bench until the fourth quarter. Then, to chants from the crowd -“We want Gipp!” — he allowed his star to participate in a few plays – topped off by a 55-yard touchdown pass to pile up a 33-7 rout. .
* * *
On Thanksgiving Day, Notre Dame trounced Michigan State 25-0 to complete its second successive all-win season, but Gipp wasn’t there. He was in the hospital with pneumonia and strep throat – serious illness before antibiotics.
It was clear that Gipp was doomed. On Dec. 14, 1920, he converted to Catholicism and was given the Last Rites. His mother, brother, sister and Coach Rockne kept vigil by his bedside — while the entire student body knelt in the snow on campus praying for him.
While he was comatose, some one whispered, “It’s tough to go.”
Gipp heard it and roused. “What’s tough about it?” he said scornfully.
Beyond this we have only Rockne’s version.
Gipp turned to Rockne. “I’ve got to go, Rock,” he whispered. “It’s all right. Sometime, when the team is up against it, when things are going 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.”
There is doubt that the usually modest Gipp actually made the dramatic death-bed speech, but Rockne always swore it was true.
It was eight years, however, before Rockne felt it necessary to invoke George Gipp’s last words.
It was at Yankee Stadium, New York City, Nov. 12, 1928. Notre Dame had lost two games. An undefeated Army team held the so-so Fighting Irish to a scoreless tie at halftime. In the locker room, Rockne stood up and addressed his weary players.
“Boys, I want to tell you a story I never thought I’d have to tell.”
Then Rockne related — in serious voice — George Gipp’s final challenge. When he reached the climax – “Go in there and win one for the Gipper” – it is said the players tore the locker room door ajar rushing to the field. The Irish played the second half as if the legend of Notre Dame led the way.
At game’s end the score was Notre Dame 12, Army 6.
The Gipper had scored one last time – from the grave.