6th Oct, 2007

“Win One for The Gipper” from Knute Rockne:All American–Saturday Night at the Movies

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It seems strange for a liberal site to feature a movie that starred Ronald Reagan, but you cannot understand the man, without understanding his movie roles. In the next week or so, I will be posting some longer pieces about Reagan’s legacy, but for now we will start with the movie role most associated with Ronald Reagan–the Notre Dame football player, George Gipp. Even though Reagan is not on screen all that long, it is the immortal Knute Rockne halftime speech “win one for the Gipper” that brought fame to both Gipp and Reagan.

The real George Gipp more than lives up to the legend. He was Notre Dame’s first All-American and is still considered one of college football’s greatest all-around players–the Notre Dame team web site says he “was perhaps the greatest all-round player in college football history.” The same year he was named All-American he was also named college football’s greatest player. The Notre Dame web site mentions some of his records last half a century including his career rushing mark of 2,341 yards which was broken by Jerome Heavens in 1978.

According to the official George Gipp website he amassed over 4,100 total yards in rushing and passing plus another 4,100 plus yards in kickoffs and punts and scored more than 150 points. After a game against Northwestern in 1920, Gipp died of strep throat–today a minor disease, but in the days before antibiotics a potential killer. The website paints Gipp as quite a character. He attended practice sometimes only three days a week and is reported to have smoked a cigarette through a Rockne halftime speech, causing the Rock to turn to him and say “What about you… don’t suppose you have any interest in the game?”

The legend of Gipp’s deathbed words to Rockne is perhaps the most enduring in all sports. Since Rockne was the only one there, the veracity of the story depends on whether Gipp really gave the immortal speech or Rockne just made it up to motivate his players. One fact we know, Rockne did not use the speech until eight years after Gipp died. Since this one will never be settled, for me it falls into the category of “print the legend.”

One of the main contributors to the legend was the man who played George Gipp, Ronald Reagan. The former sportscaster knew of the Gipp story and had used it, so when he got to Holly wood he began circulating a script for the movie, but had no takers. One day Reagan found out that Warner Brothers was going to do a film of the Rockne story.

Reagan wanted the Gipp part badly, but at the time was a largely unknown “B” actor. As Reagan told the story in a newspaper article posted at the Reagan Library, to convince the studio to give him a tryout he dug up some old pictures of himself in a football uniform. Reagan got his tryout and the part and as he put it:

That part opened a door for me. A few people on the lot knew me by name. The fans started to write in.

Reagan was on the screen for only ten minutes, but even his critics have to admit he played the part perfectly. Ever after he would be known as the Gipper. Here is the Rockne speech as Pat O’Brien delivered it in the 1940 film:

Now I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp. He was long before your time, but you all know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. And the last thing he said to me, “Rock,” he said, “sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,” he said, “but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy. “

As for Ronald Reagan’s football career, he was an undersized guard who lettered three years at Eureka College. A note at the college website quotes he coach:

Reagan was one of the best offensive guards on the squad. Big things are expected of Dutch next year. –Coach McKinzie in 1932 yearbook.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the story as how Reagan instinctively grasped the different reality of Hollywood. He brought them a picture of himself in a football uniform, not a resume about his football experiences, because the picture WAS reality to the movie makers. It didn’t matter if Ronald Reagan knew a football from a watermelon, what mattered was how he looked in a football uniform. What the camera saw was real; everything else was irrelevant.

It would be a lesson Reagan would not forget. Stay tuned next week for an article about that reality.

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