All human beings yearn for a hero, someone who can lift them up and show them the possibilities of a well-lived life. This is especially true of Americans. Throughout their history, they have sought and found inspiration and encouragement from ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Knute Rockne (1888-1931) was a young Norwegian boy when he touched the shores of America. His father, a carriage maker, was convinced that a better life was waiting for his family in America, and like many others, he took a great risk in coming to this unknown land.
Knute grew up to be a strong young man. After graduating high school, he took a job in the post office to save up enough money for college. He entered the hallowed halls of the University of Notre Dame when he was 22 years old and immediately proved to be an excellent student, especially in chemistry.
One professor, Father Julius Nieuwland, took notice of Knute and had great plans for his career in chemistry. Although Knute excelled in academics, he couldn’t shake off the thing that remained a constant in his life: football.
Disappointed with Knute’s decision to choose football over chemistry, Father John Cavanaugh, the then-president of the University of Notre Dame, also knew he could not interfere with God’s plans for Knute. Knute remained loyal to Notre Dame not as a chemistry professor but as a football coach, leading the team to many victories. His winning streak and new methods, which changed and revolutionized the game (such as the use of forward pass, which became a standard in football), not to mention his patriotism, made him a hero in the eyes of many Americans.
Tragically, he died in 1931 in a plane crash, while headed to California. The grief of most Americans was palpable. A hero had passed away.
But there is more to Knute’s story, one which wouldn’t be complete without the contributions of a young football player, George Gipp.
Knute’s Story Goes to Hollywood
By the time Warner Bros. decided to honor Knute Rockne on the silver screen, Ronald Reagan was an established actor. Since 1937, Reagan had appeared in more than two dozen films. He was not only familiar with Knute Rockne’s story, but had been trying to see it realized on film. In his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, penned with Richard G. Hubler, Reagan writes: “People come to Hollywood from many different places, and certainly are varied in their background and training, but all of them either bring one thing with them or acquire it upon arrival: the desire to see a certain story become a picture. I wanted to tell the story of Knute Rockne.”
Reagan had no interest in playing Knute. “I had always seen Pat O’Brien as the logical star in the title role,” writes Reagan. “I had something else in mind for myself—a fellow named George Gipp. No one could do the story of Rockne without devoting a portion of it to the great ‘Gipper.’”
Reagan fought hard for the role and the fight paid off. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, “Knute Rockne: All American,” was released in 1940, with Pat O’Brien as Rockne and Reagan as Gipp. It’s what we would today call a “biopic,” following Knute’s story in a fairly straightforward manner. But as Reagan himself notes in his autobiography, when it came to George Gipp, “It’s hard to tell where legend ends and reality begins, but even the plainest, documented, factual story about Gipp still leaves him an extremely colorful character.”
Initially set to play baseball, Gipp was noticed (in the film at least) by Rockne while kicking a football, which he did out of sheer boredom. He was lackadaisical and harmlessly irreverent. Rockne was impressed by the kick and amused, even if he was somewhat annoyed at the time by Gipp’s character and disposition.
The combination of Rockne’s coaching techniques and Gipp’s incredible athleticism led Notre Dame to many victories. But similar to Rockne’s life and premature end, Gipp died only two weeks after his last game. (It is assumed he died from pneumonia.) Reagan executed the role wonderfully and respectfully, especially with the death scene, during which Reagan utters the famous words, directed at Rockne: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s alright. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, 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.”
This would be the speech that Knute gave to his team years later in order to inspire them and win the game.
Reagan’s role in the film was fairly short but Reagan didn’t care. “The entire picture was a sentimental journey and a thrilling experience,” wrote Reagan in Where’s the Rest of Me? He was determined to bring Rockne and Gipp’s story to life. Reagan was always interested in giving attention to ordinary Americans engaged in extraordinary things. Such was the case with both Knute Rockne and the often neglected baseball player, Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1952’s “The Winning Team.”
Bringing America Into American Sport
American sports are inextricably connected to the spirit of America. We look back now on the great baseball and football players of our history and revere those who brought forth that spirit into the lives of all Americans who watched because those athletes fed into American optimism and inspired trust in at least one American institution, namely sports. Americans love sports because it is the one field of endeavor where excellence seems always to be rewarded, regardless of birth or privilege. It is, in this regard, truly American—a microcosm of what should be.
Without a doubt such stories are often filled with sentimentalism, but this mild romanticization is founded upon the firm bedrock of American moral character. The reason why baseball and football brought people together was not necessarily because of the game itself but because the players themselves embodied a spirit that is distinctly American. Their stories and their overcoming of obstacles were a source of inspiration. It was a unifying force, available to the People.
As Knute Rockne, Pat O’Brien gives an extraordinary performance. In one scene, he gives a lengthy speech about why football should remain at Notre Dame. It is a speech that’s not simply about sports but about America herself.
Rockne speaks from solid conviction without a shred of inauthenticity:
We believe that the finest work of man is building the character of man . . . Now, our boys at Notre Dame have played all over the country. And they’ve gotten to learn that Southerners aren’t lazy, Northerners aren’t cold, and Middle-Westerners aren’t hicks and Californians aren’t big and dumb. They’ve learned from all sorts of Americans what America is. And in that process, they’ve found themselves.
In one throw, Rockne destroys biases and stereotypes, and affirms that real education is not just that of the mind and body but also of the soul. The players’ characters have grown precisely because they have not wallowed in prejudicial provincialism but have embraced open-mindedness and encounter with other Americans, just as real as they are. It is a great speech not only for the future of football but also for the future of America. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is certainly at the heart of Rockne’s speech.
It is not surprising that Reagan loved this film and felt great pride in being part of it. Being an optimistic person himself, he would be naturally drawn to the story of both Knute Rockne and George Gipp. Reagan truly loved America and he made no apologies for that. He loved to tell stories, especially about the great Americans. Whether they were on paper, in his many radio addresses and speeches, or on film, Reagan’s desire for America is most illuminated through the stories he told of America. In one form or another, Reagan wrote an American travelogue for all.