This IS a shaggy dog story. You have been warned. The university of Notre Dame has one of the countries most famous football programs, partially due to the legendary Knute Rockne who attended Notre Dame in 1910. He was one of the inventors of the forward pass. After graduating, Rockne coached the Fighting Irish for 1918-1930 years and amassed a winning percentage (88.2%) that is a record to this day. One of his most famous players was a rakish character named George Gipp who came to college several years later than most of his classmates. He was an extraordinary athlete, a rebel, and a bit on the shady side. He was widely suspected of having bet considerable amounts of money on football games, though no one ever accused George Gipp of ever giving less than his best on the football field. Gipp’s life ended on an epic note, and he played a key role in a Notre Dame victory in mid-November (as someone who has spent a number of winters in South Bend, I can say that that is not a healthy environment). Although seriously ill, Gipp managed to come off the sideline the next week to kick a winning field goal to ensure their undefeated season. Modern day antibiotics were unknown in 1919, and so his illness worsened and the Gipp went into the hospital, eventually dying of double pneumonia. Shortly before he died, Rockne visited him and what Gip said at that time spawned a Notre Dame legend.
Several years later, in 1928, a Notre Dame team was down at half time against an undefeated Army team when Rockne told them that on his death bed, Gipp had said to him, “I’ve gotta go now Rock, its ok. I’m not afraid. But some day, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, I want you to tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.” Whether the Gipp actually said that to Rockne we do not know. But what we do know is that the Notre Dame squad played their hearts out in the second half and won a hard fought game, 12-6. Even today, 70 years after Rockne’s death, to give an inspiring speech is known as doing a Knute Rockne.
Another major factor in the Knute Rockne legend was the 1940 Hollywood film: Knute Rockne, All American in which Edmond O’Brien portrayed Rockne and Ronald Reagan played the Gipper. That legend about “wining one for the Gipper” has proved so persistent that 40 years later, in the climax of the mad-cap comedy Airplane, Leslie Nielson inspires Robert Hayes to land the plane by telling him that years before, the fictitious dying Lieutenant George Zip told him to “Give it all he’s got and win one for the Zipper.”