Strange But True: One for the Gipper

In his years as a movie actor, President Ronald Reagan made many pictures, but one of his most popular roles was that of George Gipp, the Notre Dame football star of 1919-1920. The part of the movie that caused many viewers to cry was the deathbed scene. Gipp lay dying on a hospital bed while his coach, Knute Rockne (played by Pat O’Brien), listened to his last words.

George Gipp was truly an outstanding athlete. He could run swiftly and was a great receiver. In one game against Army he gained 124 yards from scrimmage, ran back kicks for 112 yards, and caught passes for 96 yards. In that game he had a total of 332 yards gained. Gipp could also boot the ball. In one game against Western State Normal, he dropkicked a 62-yard field goal, which was only one yard short of the record.

The Gipper was also a fine baseball player. He was offered a contract by the Chicago Cubs of the National League.

In November 1920, after playing against Northwestern, Gipp complained of dizziness and fever. He had pneumonia and was taken to the hospital. There was no way the doctors could save his life, since miracle drugs like penicillin had not yet been invented.

On December 14 Gipp was visited by coach Rockne. The words he spoke might well be considered corny, perhaps invented by a Hollywood screenwriter. But Gipp did speak them.

“I’ve got to go, Rock…it’s alright, I’m not afraid… Sometime, Rock, when he 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 one for the Gipper… I don’t know where I’ll be, Rock…but I’ll know about it…and I’ll be happy.”

On November 10, 1928, Notre Dame played Army, which was undefeated. Notre Dame, on the other hand, had won four games and lost two. More than 85,000 fans jammed Yankee Stadium in New York to watch these traditional rivals go at it. At halftime the score was deadlocked at 0-0. However, Notre Dame seemed worn out.

As a rule, Knute Rockne gave his team a pep talk between halves. This time he didn’t. Speaking softly, he told of George Gipp’s final moments of life. The locker room was still as Rockne came to Gipp’s dying words: “When the breaks are beating the boys…tell them to win one for the Gipper.”

The second half proved to be an exciting 30 minutes of football. Army took a 7-0 lead, but Notre Dame came back to score two touchdowns. Both extra points were missed, and the Fighting Irish led by 12-7. Army fought hard. Led by All-American halfback Chris Cagle, nicknamed the Gray Ghost, Army brought the ball all the way to Notre Dame’s one-yard line when time ran out.

Notre Dame had scored a great upset. The team was looking forward to the following Saturday when they played at home, in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame had not lost a home game since 1908. Their opponent was a mediocre Carnegie Tech team.

Carnegie Tech upset Notre Dame, 27-7.

From The Giant Book of More Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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