George Gipp, did not spend a lot of time in the classroom at Notre Dame. After all, his pursuits that involved poker games and billiards in downtown South Bend and in other venues around northern Indiana kept him plenty busy. On March 8, 1920, Gipp was found to be guilty of missing numerous classes, and was expelled from Notre Dame by University President Father James Burns.
Almost immediately other schools across the college football world came calling looking to enlist Gipp’s services, among them were Michigan, Pitt, and the University of Detroit. General Douglas McCarthur even offered Gipp a commission to West Point.
Gipp, characteristically, played it cool, and Rockne went to work to find a way to get his star reinstated. Understanding the importance to Father Burns of expanding Notre Dame’s academic mission, and capitalizing on his trait of hyperbole, Rockne operated behind the scenes to rally the South Bend business community, including Gipp’s downtown pals, to bring pressure on Father Burns.
At the time Notre Dame was looking to add dormitories and academic buildings on campus and to expand Cartier Field, the predecessor to present-day Notre Dame Stadium. The University needed the financial support of the South Bend community for these purposes.
In short order, a petition signed by many prominent businessmen was presented to then University President Burns.
In part the petition read:
“Increasingly, South Bend is taking pride in the splendid accomplishments of Notre Dame. The most spectacular of these are of course your victories upon the athletic field. Here George Gipp has been truly worthy of the University.”
Indeed Gipp had ingratiated himself to the South Bend business establishment over the years by spending more time in town, then on campus, and Rockne knew how to “work a room”. In short order, Father Burns grasped the economic reality of the situation.
Gipp was reinstated to the University on April 29, 1920.
That Spring Gipp decided to resume his on again off again baseball career at Notre Dame. During an intrasquad game with scouts from the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox in attendance, he once again demonstrated his free-spirited ways. Gipp made a deal with the catcher, who was also one of his football teammates, to tip him off as to what pitches were coming. Armed with this info, Gipp proceeded to knock out multiple home runs.
He was offered contracts by both pro teams on the spot.
During the summer before his Senior year, Gipp had suffered symptoms of tonsillitis. Against medical advice he choose not to have his tonsils removed. This was in the days before antibiotics. The decision, may have proven to be fateful.
Now a nationally known celebrity, and already a legend in the pool halls and poker rooms of South Bend, Notre Dame fans, and football fans across the nation looked forward to Gipp’s senior year.
The season opened against Kalamazoo with a 39-0 win. He rushed for 183 yards, the biggest single game total of his career. The next week brought another win, this time against Western Michigan and Gipp tallied 123 yards and 2 TDs. The next week in a tough match up at Nebraska, Gipp managed 218 yards of total offense in a 16-7 win. Valparaiso was disposed of next 28-3.
A match-up against 5-0 rival Army was up.
On October 30th while reportedly showing signs of illness, Gipp was tremendous in what may have been his greatest game. Brilliant, magical and dominant, he totaled 480 yards of offense, 150 rushing, 207 on kick returns and 123 passing. The final victorious score was ND 27 Army 17.
Some Army Cadets reported that Gipp had looked emaciated in the locker room afterwards.
The next week, In a 28-0 win over Purdue, Rockne felt the need to rest his ailing star. In limited action Gipp still had a big day, a 35-yard touchdown run, 128 yards passing and he kicked 3 conversions.
Indiana came up the week after. The game was played in Indianapolis. The Irish fell behind 10-0 and Gipp suffered a separated shoulder early on. He was forced to leave the game. At the start of the 4th quarter, the score still 10-0, things looked bleak for the Irish. Gipp insisted that he go back in the game. Rockne relented and Gipp rallied the Irish to two scores including his own short run to the end zone. ND pulled out a 13-10 victory and moved their record to 7-0.
George Gipp’s reputation grew and only Northwestern and Michigan State stood in the way of a second straight perfect season.
The game at Northwestern was played before the largest crowd of the season, 20,000. On a bitterly cold day, Rockne was determined not to play his star who was showing more and more signs of illness, not to mention the shoulder injury.
Through the game the crowd chanted , “Gipp, Gipp, Gipp…!” The Irish had built a 4th quarter lead, but Gipp insisted he be put in. Rockne gave in to the chants and Gipp entered the game. In short order he responded with 157 yards through the air and 2 touchdown passes. But his weakened condition was so apparent that it is reported that on one late kick return, he was brought down by the Northwestern tacklers, ”as gently as possible”. The Irish won 33-7.
George Gipp had played his last game.
For the season Gipp averaged 8.1 yards rushing, a school record that stands to this day. With him on the field Notre Dame had won 27 and lost just 2.
Gipp stayed in Chicago after the Northwestern game and assisted a friend with a punting clinic the next day, It was another day out in the bitter cold. By midweek after the Northwestern game his deteriorating condition now obvious, he had checked into St. Joseph’s Hospital in South Bend.
The following weekend, as Gipp lay in a hospital bed, ND completed their second straight undefeated season with a win over Michigan State, 25-0. A few days after that, Gipp was named to the Walter Camp All-America team, then the highest honor in the college football world.
Shortly after that, the Chicago Cubs came calling again with another contract offer.
And that is where Gipp’s life took a turn for the tragic. In Knute Rockne’s words, “Gipp was nature’s pet and, as with many of her pets, nature also punished him…. because nature that had given to him so generously, denied him at the very peak of his career.”
By the evening of December 14, 1920 Gipp, had been in St. Joseph Hospital in South Bend for 3 weeks, and he lay close to death from an infection in his throat. At 7 PM that night the entire Notre Dame student body joined in prayer. Some gathered in the chapels on campus, others knelt on the snow-covered grounds outside the hospital entrance, and recited the rosary.
About a mile away, Gipp’s downtown pals, those who perhaps had known him best and had loved his free spirited ways, were gathered in an atmosphere of gloom at the Oliver Hotel.
Inside St. Joseph Hospital, Father John O’Hara administered Gipp the last rights of the Catholic Church. Shortly thereafter, and in the presence of his mother, brother and sister, George Gipp died. He was 25.
Much lore has developed regarding the events attendant to his deathbed, some of those stories originate from Rockne himself. The famous “win one for the Gipper” story immortalized in the film “Knute Rockne- All-American” spins a version that is unlikely to have occurred. Perhaps Rockne wished to protect, by employing his appetite for hyperbole, the reputation of his star player, his free-spirited, enigmatic star, who was as interesting off the field as he was amazing on.
One thing is certain about Gipp’s legacy. He will always be recognized as one of the greatest players from the early years of college football.
In Rockne’s own words, “Gipp had everything to make a man great, splendid physique, balanced temperament, a brilliant mind. He became great at the art he loved most—football.”
And that statement, is not hyperbole.
For the rest of the story see my Epilogue In Search of George Gipp: How Good Was George Gipp?