- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

It is one of football’s corniest stories - and one of the most poignant. You’ve probably heard it multiple times. More than a half-century later, President Ronald Reagan nicknamed himself after the protagonist and it still has the power to make strong men weep and/or snort.

George Gipp, Notre Dame’s All-American halfback and playboy, was dying of strep throat Dec. 14, 1920, just weeks after his final game. But, before his last breath, he supposedly asked a favor of his coach, the famed Knute Rockne.

“I’ve got to go, Rock,” Gipp whispered. “It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Rock, sometimes when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just 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.”

Then, right on melodramatic schedule, he died at the age of 24.

Rockne never said publicly whether this conversation actually took place, but he didn’t go 105-12-5 in 13 seasons by missing opportunities to motivate his troops. Eight years later, on Nov. 10, 1928, he resurrected the story during halftime of a game in which powerful Army led Rockne’s weakest Notre Dame team 6-0 before a crowd of 85,000 at Yankee Stadium.

Naturally, Notre Dame, a heavy underdog, roared back in the second half to whup the unbeaten Black Knights 12-6. Even by the less sophisticated sports standards of the Roaring Twenties, this bit of hokiness was hard to accept. But let’s turn the tale over to Grantland Rice, the erstwhile dean of American sportswriters and bathos. (“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again” - circa 1924.)

According to Granny in his 1954 autobiography, “The Tumult and the Shouting,” Rockne told him this sad story the night before that 1928 Army game and added: “I’ve never asked the boys to pull one out for Gipp. Tomorrow I might have to.”

So he did. As Rice wrote it: “A sobbing band of Fighting Irish raced out for the third quarter. When Notre Dame lined up for the kickoff, I knew they were playing with a 12th man - George Gipp.”

Apparently the Irish needed some time to wipe the tears from their eyes. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Notre Dame tied the score, Jack Chevigny ramming into the end zone and bawling, according to Rice, “Here’s one of them, Gipper!”

Naturally, the real-life B-movie script ended with a sub scoring the winning touchdown. His name was Johnny O’Brien and he did it by catching a 32-yard pass from Johnny Niemiec - after juggling the ball.

“Somewhere, George Gipp must have been very happy,” Rice wrote in his book 26 years later.

And so a legend was born, true or not. Apparently, Rice, who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, had a scoop. The next day’s New York Times account of the game failed to mention Gipp. However, the writer, Richards Vidmer, perpetrated his own touch of purple prose with this lead: “The referee’s whistle blew taps for the Army today.”

The Golden Age of Sports, it seems, also was the Golden Age of Journalistic Overkill. But, heck, it was all in good, clean fun.

Three years after that game, Rockne died in a plane crash, presumably joining his old star on that great gridiron in the sky. In 1940, Hollywood embellished the saga, with Pat O’Brien playing Rockne and the boyish Reagan portraying Gipp in “Knute Rockne, All American.”

The role gave Reagan his first real break as a movie star. When he entered politics 2 1/2 decades later to run for governor of California, it remained one of his few significant cinematic gigs. (There also was “King’s Row,” in which his legs were amputated unnecessarily by a sadistic doctor and Ronnie wailed in anguish, “Where’s the rest of me?”)

So it’s possible to speculate that, if not for Rockne and Gipp, Reagan might never have become the 40th president.

Admittedly, that’s a reach - but no more so than the Gipp story itself. Why not believe it? Rockne, like so many coaches and politicians through the ages, never let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

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