College football is in the air and the Fighting Irish are back in the polls. Arguably, the University of Notre Dame’s greatest player was George Gipp, who came from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Nicknamed the Gipper, George Gipp was born on February 18, 1895, in Laurium on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Gipp was a great athlete, although not a particularly good student. He played many sports, but baseball was his favorite. As a teenager, Gipp played baseball for a team in nearby Calumet. Gipp’s friend William Foster remembered that, “me and my buddies used to look through the knotholes in the fence of the ballpark to watch Gipp play. He was terrific.”
In 1916, the University of Notre Dame recruited Gipp to play baseball. Gipp wasn’t with the team long. After getting into a fight with the coach, he quit. Shortly afterward, Knute Rockne, Notre Dame’s football coach, saw Gipp punting a football and asked him to join the freshman football team. Gipp said yes.
In 1917, the 22-year-old Gipp made the varsity football team. Unlike many players who only played one position, Gipp kicked, passed and ran the football. He helped the team go undefeated in 1918, leaving it the “Champions of the West.” Teammate Fred Larson remembered that Gipp was “the greatest football player I ever saw.”
In 1920, Gipp became ill with strep throat and a bad cough. Gipp kept playing football even though he was sick and getting sicker. Penicillin would have cured Gipp, but it had not been invented. When Gipp was in the hospital newspapers carried stories about his condition. The editor of the Calumet paper kept worried people informed by putting hourly updates about Gipp’s health in his store window.
On December 14, 1920, George Gipp died. He was 25 years old.
As Gipp lay dying, Coach Rockne was at his side. Gipp whispered to Rockne, “Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong‚Äîtell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.” Eight years later, before a tough game, Rockne told his players to “win one for the Gipper.” Notre Dame won the game and a legend was born.
Photo ¬© University of Notre Dame Archives
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