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"One For the Gipper" – The Original Story
President Ronald Reagan is affectionately tagged as “The Gipper” as a result of the film’s portrayal of the legendary Notre Dame football player. The nickname is so strongly associated with the president that the real Gipper is almost forgotten.
The true story is shrouded in the mists of time. His hometown of Laurium, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, maintains a website dedicated to their local hero. This much is certain: He was born on February 18, 1895, to Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Gipp.
He attended Calumet Public School, but never played high school football. However, he was an all-rounder. 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 no plans to go to college. However, he was proficient in baseball, table pool, poker and dice. His greatest achievement was winning a gold watch for ballroom dancing.
At age 21, the husky six-foot, 180-pound Gipp convinced the Notre Dame grad that he could get a baseball scholarship for asking.
Beyond these statistics, we must rely on sports historians.
A colorful account of Gipp’s spectacular career by James A. Cox has given. One fall afternoon in 1916 begins with two freshmen playing catch baseball on the field of a Midwestern university.
Without warning, a football went over the fence from a nearby gridiron where the school’s varsity was practicing. She fell for a young man. 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 nervously whistles and runs. “Hey, you! You with the baseball. What’s your name?”
“Gipp,” comes the laconic reply.
“Where are 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 worry too much about football.”
This is how George Gipp and Knut Rockne met. A few days later Gip shows up for a tryout.
* * *
There was no problem switching scholarships after learning he could run 100 yards in ten seconds, throw a pin-point pass half the length of the field and kick a 60-yard punt 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. Cox wrote:
“Playing halfback, Gipp gained yardage. But the score was 7-7 with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“The Irish have the ball. The quarterback called the punt formation – kick away and play for a tie.
“Gip is frustrated. He wants to try for a field goal. The quarterback looks at him like a madman. From where the kicker is standing to the opposing goalpost — which was on the goal line at the time — is more than 60 yards. Nevertheless, the quarterback orders, ‘Punt. ‘
“The ball is snapped, Gipp finally throws it to the ground — as was the custom at the time — gets a perfect rebound and booms the ball over the top. It was a 62-yard field-goal that earned a lasting place in the record books.”
* * *
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 the signal to bunt, he blasted the ball over the fence for a home run.
“Why?” demanded the manager. “Don’t you remember the signals?”
“Sure,” Gipp replied, “but it’s too hot to run around the bases after a bunt.” The next day he changed into a baseball uniform and focused on football.
He earned his way by waiting tables for food and lodging in the university dining hall. He raised cash by playing in nearby semi-pro and industrial baseball leagues.
He also frequented Pool Hall and other low joints in South Bend.
A hangout called Hooli and Mike’s became his second home. He once said, “I’m the best free-lance gambler ever to attend Notre Dame.”
His roommate, Arthur (Dutch) Bergman explained:
“No one around South Bend could beat him at farrow, shooting pool, billiards, poker or bridge. He studied the percentages in dice rolling and could turn the bones pale with the vertigo of a professional. He was a terror in three-pocket pool. Parlor’s.
“He never gambled with other students, although his crap-shooting skills helped pay for more than a few of his friends through Notre Dame. I’ve seen him win $500 at a craps game and then use his winnings to buy meals for needy families. South in the bend.”
Gipp skipped several classes in 1919, and was expelled from school. He was employed as a house player at Hooley & Mike’s Gambling Emporium.
In August, Notre Dame’s alumni sports fans flooded with complaints. The university gave him a special exam — which he passed — and rehired him. Gipp then came to practice when he chose to do what he wanted to do. No one complained. Coaches and players knew he was very dedicated to winning. The team revolved around him.
The 1920 season established Gipps as “Immortal”.
One Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame found itself down 17-14 to Army.
In the locker room, Rock gave one of his famous halftime battle speeches. Gipp was bored. Rock turned to Gip and challenged him, “I don’t think you have any interest in this game.” Gip replied, “Don’t worry, I have $500 and I don’t intend to blow my money.”
By the end of the game, Gipp had 385 yards rushing – more than the entire Army team. He scored a touchdown on a kickoff return, threw two pin-point passes, setting up a touchdown. He almost single-handedly led Notre Dame to a 27-17 comeback win.
Gip paid for the day’s performance. He was tired, pale and slightly bloodied. His distress was so evident that the West Point crowd stood and watched in amazement as he walked off the field.
There were four games left in the season. A clean sweep would give Notre Dame a shot at the national tournament.
Purdue lost 28-0. The following week at Indiana, Gipp suffered a dislocated shoulder that sent him to the bench with a bandage. The Hoosiers jumped out to a 10-0 lead, which they held in the fourth quarter.
The Irish pushed to the 2-yard line but were stopped. Gipp jumped off the bench and shouted to Rockne, “I’m going in!”
“Come back!’ rockne roared.
Gipp ignored the order. He crashed for a touchdown on the second play. Then he kicked the extra point and returned to his bench.
On the next Notre Dame possession, as time expired, the Irish drove the ball to the 15-yard line. Again Gipp rushed from the bench to take over.
He rebounded for the game-tying dropkick to tie the game. The Hoosiers rushed in to stop him. Gipp calmly threw the ball to a receiver at the 1-yard line. On the next play, the entire Indiana team converged on Gipp, breaking a tackle with his injured arm. It was a prank. 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 the pre-school team how to kick. Aching with icy wind, fever and sore throat. Back in South Bend, Gipp took to his sick bed.
The following Friday, against Northwestern, Rock kept a feverish Gipp on the bench until the fourth quarter. Then, to a chant from the crowd – “We want Gipp!” — He allowed his star to get in on a few plays — a 55-yard touchdown pass for a 33-7 lead. .
* * *
On Thanksgiving Day, Notre Dame beat Michigan State 25-0 to complete its second straight 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 Gip was doomed. He converted to Catholicism on 14 December 1920 and was given the last rites. His mother, brother, sister and coach Rock kept a vigil at his bedside — while the entire student body knelt in the snow on campus as they prayed for him.
As he lay comatose, someone whispered, “The going is tough.”
Gipps heard it and got excited. “What’s so hard about that?” he said scornfully.
Beyond this we only have Rockne’s version.
Gipp turned to Rockne. “I gotta go, Rock,” he whispered. “It’s all right. At some point, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are hitting the guys — tell them to go out there with everything they’ve got and just win one for the Gipper.”
It’s doubtful that the normally polite Gipp actually made the dramatic death-bed speech, but Rock always swore it was true.
However, it was eight years before Rockney felt it necessary to speak George Gipp’s last words.
November 12, 1928 at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Notre Dame had lost two games. The undefeated Army team held the Fighting Irish scoreless at halftime. In the locker room, Rock stood and addressed his tired players.
“Guys, I have something to tell you that I never thought I’d have to.”
Then Rock related — in grave tones — George Gipp’s final challenge. When he reached the climax – “Go out there and win one for the Gipper” – it is said that the players tore down the locker room door and ran onto the field. The Irish played the second half as if the Notre Dame legend had led the way.
The score at the end of the game was Notre Dame 12, Army 6.
The Gipper scored one last time – from the grave.
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