Throughout history there have been figures known for their greatness. People who possess that rare combination of talent and leadership, humor and charm, grace and ease. George Gipp was such a person.
From a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Gipp became one of college football’s greatest all-around players. A runner, passer, defensive back, punter, kicker and kick returner, he amassed over 4,100 total yards in rushing and passing and another 4,100 plus yards in kickoffs and punts. He scored more than 150 points including touchdowns, point after attempts and field goals, never allowing a completed pass while playing defensive back.
Famed coach of the Irish, Knute Rockne recognized in Gipp a natural athletic talent and though he was at Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship, Gipp’s talent carried over from the baseball diamond to the gridiron and into the Notre Dame record books. Despite his football achievements, Gipp's first love remained baseball. He played centerfield for the Irish and had planned to join the Chicago Cubs after graduation.
Named Notre Dame’s All-American in 1920, he did not survive to celebrate the honor. His death on December 14, 1920 resulted from pneumonia that had begun as a streptococci throat infection (strep throat), contracted following a game against Northwestern on November 20.
Gipp was on the bench for most of that game with a shoulder injury, from the prior week’s game against Indiana, but he couldn’t be kept out. Relenting to the crowd demand and perhaps to Gipp himself, Coach Rockne put him in late in the fourth quarter. Numerous tales report the 55-yard pass from Gipp to halfback Norman Barry which resulted in a touchdown. Notre Dame won the game. It was Gipp’s last.
Recognized for his contributions on the football field, Gipp’s legacy also includes acts of jollity and good humor. During halftime of the 1920 Army game, as Coach Rockne’s discourse on poor defense drew to a close, it is said that Gipp casually took a drag from a teammate’s cigarette, and blowing smoke turned to an irate Rockne who asked, “What about you… don’t suppose you have any interest in the game?”
Gipp responded to the contrary. “Look Rock, I’ve got $400 bet on this game and I’m not about to blow it.” Any other player might have been read the riot act, but not Gipp. Non-chalant and glib was just Gipp’s character and as the team’s senior member, age 25, he often was given latitude that if permitted others, could have ruined team morale. Team practice, for example, was attended by Gipp maybe only three times a week, but, clearly more wasn’t necessary.
Lesser known are the acts of kindness which were also part of Gipp’s character. He often gave money to the poorer families in South Bend for food or helped a friend pay tuition expenses, he was seen as “the soul of generosity.” No matter that the money likely came from his winnings in a card came or at the pool table.
Acclaimed for his football prowess and natural athletic talent, it is undoubtedly the parting words to his coach that fuels his legend. As lore has it these words were spoken from his deathbed:
"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. 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 -- tell 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."
As Gipp requested, these words were used to inspire “the boys” in the November 1928 game against Army, and they did “Win one for the Gipper.”