The Immigrant Who Transformed American Football

When Knute Rockne immigrated to America as a child from Norway, he did not speak English or understand American football. When he died, he was the country’s most famous college football coach, and the president, religious leaders and Notre Dame football fans mourned his passing.

Knute Rockne was born in Norway in 1888. His father first immigrated to America alone, a common practice. In 1893, his father sent for Knute and Knute’s mother and two sisters. The family settled in Chicago. “Like many immigrant fathers, Lars Rockne didn’t know quite what to make of his son’s athletic ambitions,” writes Jerry Brondfield, author of Rockne: The Coach, the Man, the Legend. “Besides, at age 13, Knute was the smallest boy in his class.”

Because of his size, Rockne only played in one varsity football game during his high school career. His father encouraged him to take the civil service exam and Knute dropped out of high school and started working in the post office. But his desire to play sports never faded.

Knute saved up close to $1,000. Two close friends convinced him if he planned to attend college to give Notre Dame a try. He passed a high school equivalency exam and enrolled at Notre Dame. His parents were Lutheran and weren’t sure how Knute would adjust to life at a Catholic university.

During his sophomore year at Notre Dame, Knute Rockne earned a spot on the football team. He was only 5’8” and weighed 160 pounds, but was fast enough to run track. By his junior year he became an All-America candidate.

In the summer before his senior year, Knute Rockne and his good friend Gus Dorais practiced an innovation destined to change football—the forward pass. Notre Dame kept their passing attack under wraps until their big game against Army. “The speedy Rockne . . . took Dorais’ 25-yard pitch perfectly over his shoulder and whipped over the goal line,” writes Brondfield. “The Army fans were in a state of shock. It was the first time in history that anyone had ever scored on Army with a forward pass.” Notre Dame won the game 35-13. Gus Dorais, Notre Dame’s quarterback, completed 14 passes in 17 attempts for 243 yards.

After he graduated, Rockne was hired as an assistant coach by Notre Dame’s head coach Jesse Harper. On the field, Rockne was a disciplinarian. “But off the field the player found that Rock was still his friend, amiable and relaxed,” writes Brondfield. “Rock’s attitude quickly built great relationships between him and the players, and he found . . . that they were starting to come to him rather than [Head Coach] Harper.”

In 1918, when Jim Harper left the university, Knute Rockne became Notre Dame’s head football coach and athletic director. (He also taught chemistry.) He compiled an unprecedented record. “Rockne was head coach of Notre Dame for 13 years. During that time his team won 105 games and lost only 12… No coach, past or present, has ever matched that record in major competition,” writes Brondfield. “Rockne had five undefeated seasons, three national championships. . . . Six teams lost only one game each year… In those 13 years of single platoon football, Rockne developed 15 All-America players, the second-best percentage ever. . . . In the 1920s . . . Knute Rockne became the archetype of the winner, a monumental hero for an age that is obsessed with heroes.”

Until Rockne became a coach, Notre Dame did not have a reputation as a national football powerhouse. By the 1930s, Notre Dame football games were selling out stadiums in Chicago and New York.

During this time, Catholics were often vilified and the Ku Klux Klan actively agitated against Catholics in Indiana and elsewhere. Still, Knute Rockne converted to Catholicism. “Born into the Lutheran Church, where his ancestors worshiped for generations, Rockne was touched by the sight of his players rising early to attend mass, even on the road,” according to writer Jay Atkinson. “When Notre Dame traveled to New York to play Army, the Irish and Italian fans appeared in droves. In that sense, Notre Dame was ‘America’s team.’”

The most famous player Rockne developed was George Gipp, who Ronald Reagan portrayed in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American. George Gipp was an outstanding Notre Dame running back and one of the most well-known athletes in the country. Gipp developed infections in his throat and lungs, as well as pneumonia. According to Rockne, during a visit to Gipp’s bedside, George Gipp told Rockne, “Sometimes when things are going wrong, when the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out and win one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” George Gipp died on December 14, 1920.

In 1928, Notre Dame faced an undefeated Army team before a crowd of 78,000 at Yankee Stadium. According to Jack Cavanaugh, author of The Gipper, before the game, Rockne delivered the most famous locker room pep talk in sports history: “You’ve all heard of George Gipp, I presume, he said softly. . . . You may not have heard what he told me that night, which I’m going to tell you now.’ What none of them knew was that, according to Rockne, the day before he died Gipp had asked a final favor Rockne: that he ask ‘the boys’ on a day when things aren’t going right for the team to ‘win one for the Gipper. I’ve never told any team of that request before, but I’ve told you now.’. . . Rockne then turned and, without another word, walked out of the locker room.”

“You can imagine the effect of that talk on me, a sophomore, going out to look at Army for the first time,” said Lawrence Mullins, a player on that Notre Dame team who later became a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II. “As we rushed out for the field, I passed [NYC mayor Jimmy] Walker, [assistant coach Ed] Healy and [boxer Gunboat] Smith, and I saw tears in the eyes of each one. Three men from three totally different spheres of life, all affected the same as we Notre Dame kids.”

Notre Dame defeated Army 12 to 6, and the legend of Knute Rockne and George Gipp became American sports history.

Less than three years later, on March 31, 1931, Knute Rockne was a passenger on a small plane that crashed in a wheat field in Kansas. There were no survivors. Rockne, who came to America as a child, was only 43 years old.

The famous actor and humorist Will Rogers said, “We thought it would take a president or a great public man’s death to make a whole nation, regardless of age, race, or creed, shake their heads in real sincere sorrow. Well, that’s what this country did today, Knute, for you. You died a national hero.”

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