The Story of the Gipper
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The Notre Dame football team has lost three straight games to Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford. Normally, nobody would care about a 1-3 team that’s finished in the top ten just three times in the past two decades. But this is Notre Dame, the nation’s first football team with a national following.
It all started with coach Knute Rockne and his best player, George Gipp -- more commonly known as "The Gipper." Thanks to the famous phrase "Win one for the Gipper," and a 1940 movie starring Ronald Reagan, who played the Gipper, George Gipp remains famous 90 years after his death. He’s also woefully misunderstood.
Gipp was born in 1895, on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P. He was Laurium’s best athlete in five sports. He even won a gold watch for ballroom dancing.
But he was no one’s idea of a Boy Scout. He grew up during the U.P.’s copper mining boom,and like the miners, he enjoyed smoking and drinking, playing cards and shooting pool. When he enrolled at Notre Dame in 1916, he was not corrupted by South Bend. South Bend was corrupted by him. When the best poker and pool sharks came in from Chicago,Gipp beat them soundly.
He once said, "I'm the finest free-lance gambler ever to attend Notre Dame” – and he was probably right.
Because this was long before TV, Gipp was not widely recognized, so he could go to the bars unrecognized, bet on himself to score in the next day’s game, then go out the next night and collect.
And he collected often. His junior year, he led the Irish to an undefeated season.
But he only cared about one thing: Iris Tripeer, the governor’s secretary. She cared about him, too – but her parents didn’t, because back then, football players had no way to make an honest living.
Gipp’s letters to Iris display two sides he rarely showed anywhere else: commitment, and passion. “Iris honey I'm mighty lonesome tonight,” he wrote in the summer of 1920, when he worked at the Buick plant in Flint. “Just think of you all the time dear. I want your life to be always happy but if you refuse to believe in me I don't see how it can be.”
When Gipp’s attempts to impress Iris and her parents fell short by the fall of 1920, his senior season,he became downright self-destructive, doubling his gambling, his smoking and his drinking, even while leading his team to another undefeated season.
But it caught it up with him. He coughed so much at the team’s banquet, they took him straight to the hospital, where they discovered he had strep throat. Today antibiotics can cure it in a week, but they would not be invented for12 more years.
Rockne telegrammed Iris to come quickly – and she did. Even as Gipp's body was failing,he was named Notre Dame’s first All-American; Walter Camp tapped him as the nation’s finest back; and the Chicago Cubs offered him a pro contract.
But no accolades could save him. On the evening of December 14, 1920, the editor of the Calumet paper solemnly placed a card in the window that announced George Gipphad died. His death was front page news across the country.
Eight years later, when Notre Dame faced a heavily favored Army team in Yankee Stadium, Rockne passed on to his players Gipp’s final words.
"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid.
"Sometime, Rock, when the team's 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."
Gipp’s posthumous speech inspired the Irish to pull off a tremendous upset, 12-6.
Of course, only two people know if Gipp really said all that – and they’re both long gone --but Gipp’s love letters do suggest that he had it in him.
Perhaps his greatest honor came decades later. Before Iris Tripeer died in 1975, she showed her granddaughter his letters. She said, "George Gipp was the only man I ever loved."
No myth can top that.
Copyright© 2010, Michigan Radio Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon
Copyright© 2010, Michigan Radio
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon