NCAA Football

The immigrant who changed American football

The immigrant who changed American football

The immigrant who changed American football

When Knute Rockne immigrated to America as a child from Norway, he didn’t speak English or understand American football. When he died, he was the nation’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 emigrated to America alone, which became a common practice. In 1893, his father sent for Knute and his mother and two sisters. The family settled in Chicago. “Like many immigrant parents, Lars Rockn didn’t know what to do with his son’s athletic ambitions,” writes Jerry Brondfield, author of the book Rockne: Coach, Man, Legend. “Also, at 13, Knut 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 at the post office. But the desire to play sports did not fade.

Knuth saved about $1,000. Two close friends convinced him to give Notre Dame a try when he planned to go to college. He passed his high school equivalency exam and enrolled at Notre Dame. His parents were Lutheran and did not know how Knut would adjust to life at a Catholic university.

In his sophomore year at Notre Dame, Knute Rockne earned a spot on the football team. He was only 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, but he was fast enough to run the track. In his junior year, he became an All-American candidate.

The summer before his senior year, Knute Rockne and his good friend Gus Doreys practiced an innovation destined to change football – the forward pass. Notre Dame kept its passing attack under wraps until the big game against Army. “Quick Rockne. . . brilliantly took Doreys 25-yard pass over his shoulder and flew over the goal line,” Brondfield wrote. “The soldiers were in a state of shock. It was the first time in history that anyone had ever scored an Army forward pass.” Notre Dame won the game 35-13. Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dore completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards.

After graduation, Rockne was hired as an assistant coach by Notre Dame head coach Jesse Harper. On the field, Rockne was a disciplinarian. “But off the field, the player found that Rock was still his friend, polite and easy-going,” Brondfield wrote. “Rock’s attitude quickly built a great relationship between him and the players, and he found . . . that they began to come to him, and not [Head Coach] Harper”.

In 1918, when Jim Harper left the university, Knut Rockn became Notre Dame’s head football coach and athletic director. (He also taught chemistry.) He made an unprecedented record. “Rockne was the head coach at Notre Dame for 13 years. During that time, his team won 105 games and lost only 12 … No coach, past or present, has ever achieved that record in the majors,” Brondfield wrote. “Rockn had five undefeated seasons, three national championships. . . . Six teams lost just one game each year… In those 13 years of singles football, Rockne produced 15 All-America players, the second-best percentage in history. . . . In the 1920s . . Knute Rockne became the epitome of a winner, a monumental hero of an era obsessed with heroes.”

Notre Dame didn’t have a reputation as a national football powerhouse until Rockne took over as coach. 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 campaigned against Catholics in Indiana and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Knut Rockne converted to Catholicism. “Born in the Lutheran church where his ancestors had worshiped for generations, Rockn was moved by the sight of his players getting up early to attend Mass, even on the road,” said writer Jay Atkinson. “When Notre Dame came to New York to play Army, Irish and Italian fans showed up in droves. In that sense, Notre Dame was “America’s Team.”

The most famous player designed by Rockn was George Gipp, who was played by Ronald Reagan in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American. George Gipp was a great Notre Dame running back and one of the most famous athletes in the country. Hip developed infections in his throat and lungs, as well as pneumonia. According to Rockn, during a visit to Hipper’s bedside, George Gipp told Rock, “Sometimes when things go wrong, when the breaks hit the guys, tell them to go out and win one for Hipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll find out and I’ll be happy. George Gipp died on December 14, 1920.

In 1928, Notre Dame faced an undefeated Army team in front of a crowd of 78,000 at Yankee Stadium. According to Jack Kavanagh, author Hyper, before the game, Rockne gave the most famous pep talk in the locker room in sports history: “I guess you’ve all heard of George Gipp,” he said quietly. . . . Perhaps you did not hear what he said to me that night, which I am now going to tell you.’ Neither of them knew that, according to Rockn, the day before he died, Hipp asked Rockn one last favor: to ask the “guys” on a day when things weren’t going their way as a team, to “win one for Hipper. I never told the team about this request before, but now I have told you.’ . . Then Rockne turned and walked out of the locker room without saying a word.

“You can imagine the impact that conversation had on me, a sophomore who went to see Army for the first time,” said Lawrence Mullins, a Notre Dame player who later became a World War II Navy lieutenant commander. II. “When we rushed onto the field, I passed [NYC mayor Jimmy] walker, [assistant coach Ed] Healy and [boxer Gunboat] Smith, and I saw tears in each of their eyes. Three men from three very different walks of life, all affected just like us children of Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame beat Army 12-6, and the legend of Knut Rockn and George Gipp went down in American sports history.

Less than three years later, on March 31, 1931, Knut Rockn was a passenger in 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.

Famed actor and humorist Will Rogers said: “We thought it would take the death of a president or a great public figure to make an entire nation, regardless of age, race or creed, shake their heads in true, heartfelt sorrow. That’s what this country did for you today, Knut. You died a national hero.”



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