George Gipp (1895-1920) was one of the greatest collegiate football players in American history. He played with serious injuries and illness, and he could almost always be counted upon to give his beloved alma mater, Notre Dame University, a victory.
Since Gipp was never one to fall in line, his collegiate years were full of tumult. Initially, Gipp was admitted to Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship. He quit the team after just one game, returning to the university later on a football scholarship. Despite the fact that the university had already expelled him once, they wound up re-admitting him again. During his third round at the university, Gipp, suffering from injury and debilitating illness, died at the tender age of 25.
George Gipp was born in Laurium, Michigan, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, on February 19, 1895. He was the seventh of eight children born to Mathew Gipp, a hard-edged, hard-working Baptist preacher, and his wife Isabella. Although young George was considered very bright, his grades in school were so bad that he never earned a diploma or a letter in any sport. He loved to sleep and to play ball. Otherwise, he liked to drink, play cards, and shoot pool.
A phenomenal athlete from the beginning, Gipp was six feet tall and weighed a solid 180 pounds when he entered college. He could run; he could throw one of the old oblong footballs 50 yards and hit a target; he could drop kick the ball 60 yards directly through the goalposts; and he was excellent at basketball and hockey too. Gipp was also a skilled ballroom dancer, and once won a gold watch in a dance contest. His best game, though, was baseball.
"I remember my dad telling me there wasn't anything Uncle George couldn't do, and do better than any other guy," said Lillian Gipp Pritty, daughter of Gipp's oldest brother Alexander, in the book The Gipper by John U. Bacon. "Uncle George could throw a ball from his knees at home plate with just his wrist all the way to second base, and the second baseman would say, 'Hey, Gipp, not so hard!"'
The Start of a Baseball Career
In the early part of the 20th century, a student didn't need good grades, or even to have graduated from high school, to be accepted at major colleges. Gipp applied for a baseball scholarship at Notre Dame University, and was accepted in 1916. But it wasn't Notre Dame that caused Gipp's well-known "high life style" of drinking and gambling. He had established that before he left for college and he was, after all, not "moving to the big city." In those days, Gipp left a booming copper mining area of 90,000 people for South Bend, Indiana -- a much smaller town.
Gipp had been working at construction in the winter after dropping out of Laurium's Calumet High School in 1913. He drove a taxi in the summer while playing semi-pro baseball. When three of his pals enrolled at Notre Dame, he followed. His college baseball career, however, lasted only one game. According to a 1985 Smithsonian magazine article, Gipp disregarded his manager's signals to bunt and instead hit a towering home run. He said it was "too hot" to be running around the bases after a bunt. His manager ranted and raved and Gipp, always an individualist and somewhat hard-headed, quit the team. But that was certainly not the end of his marvelous athletic career.
Rockne Meets "The Gipper"
Famous Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne saw Gipp for the first time on the school's football field in 1916, practicing drop kicks. The kicks were so long and so accurate that an amazed Rockne asked Gipp to join the freshman football team. With a "why not?" attitude, Gipp agreed. Soon after, in a game against Western Michigan University, the freshmen were losing. The quarterback ordered Gipp to punt, but he decided to drop kick instead. He kicked the ball 62 yards and perfectly through the goal posts. Notre Dame won again because of Gipp.
By 1917, Gipp was playing for Rockne on the varsity team. During the day, he would play football, at night he would play pool, or cards, or gamble in some other way. He tended to ignore the curfews of the team. Rockne, an ordinarily strict coach, allowed his star player some leeway. Gipp was earning a good living as a pool player. He would take on the pool sharks from Chicago who would come to town to fleece the college kids. The high-stakes games kept Gipp in plenty of pocket money. In fact, he once said, "I'm the finest freelance gambler ever to attend Notre Dame."
Gipp also regularly gambled on the very games in which he played, a practice now forbidden in most sports. He would meet with players from the opposing team and bet as much as they had. He would always bet on Notre Dame, and always to win. Then he would go on the field and win. Since there was no television then, he was often not recognized. He would, therefore, make bets with others in the bar or pool hall that "that Gipp fellow" would outscore the entire opposition single-handedly.
A National Hero
Although he considered himself invincible, and was known to play while very ill, or with a bad sprain or even dislocation, Gipp was very well liked by fellow students and coaches. Almost idolized by his teammates, he rarely read of his own exploits in the newspapers and he avoided reporters. He was even known to leave a game when Notre Dame was far ahead just so he could cheer on the second-stringers from the bench. He never sought publicity, and a writer once said that although he often ignored team rules, it was never out of contempt but rather out of indifference.
During his career at Notre Dame, Gipp set records that still stand. He led the Irish in rushing and passing each of his last three seasons (1918, 1919, and 1920). His career mark of 2,341 yards stood for over 50 years, until Jerome Heavens broke it in 1978. Gipp did not allow a pass completion in his territory throughout his entire career. He scored 83 touchdowns from 1917 to 1920.
Gipp never attempted to hide his weaknesses, but he always tried to conceal the good things he did. In secret, he often used the money he made from gambling to buy meals for poor families, or pay the tuition of a student friend who couldn't afford it. By the end of his junior season, Gipp had become a national symbol of the perfect football player. Newspapers from around the country covered his exploits on the field. In spite of his gambling, his casual charm, his reluctance to attend classes, and his frequenting of bars and pool halls, Gipp became a national hero.
In 1919, Gipp met Iris Trippeer and fell desperately in love. Trippeer's parents disapproved, since athletes of the day-even athletes as good and famous as George Gipp-had a very uncertain future. At that time, there were no professional football leagues, where a college player could go on to make millions. Gipp had no idea what he was going to do after college, if he got back into college, and this bothered Trippeer very much. She tried to get Gipp to think about his future, but with little success.
Expulsion from Notre Dame
In his junior year, Gipp was expelled from Notre Dame for continuing rules violations and for failing to obey school policies. He was on a scholarship and the school felt they had to take some action. Gipp went back to semipro baseball (a move that eventually cost the famous Jim Thorpe his Olympic medals).
When Gipp left South Bend, after his expulsion from school, he and Trippeer were separated. Gipp worked in a Buick factory by day, and played for a Flint, Michigan baseball team by night. He desperately missed Trippeer and wrote love letters to her regularly.
The outcry from students and faculty finally brought Gipp back to the Notre Dame campus, although other schools were interested in recruiting him. He was unwilling to change his ways, often stumbling to a game after a wild night on the town. But even then, he would play inspirational football.
The End Nears
Gipp dislocated his shoulder during a 1920 game against Northwestern University, but insisted on leaving the bench to play again. His play helped the team win, but his teammates saw that he was in agony, and with a very pale complexion. After the game, and in spite of his illness and his injury, he insisted on going to Chicago for a previous engagement. The cold wind there didn't help. When he returned to South Bend, he went to bed in his hotel room at the Oliver Hotel. During a banquet for the team at the same hotel, a very ill Gipp's condition was obvious. He had a cough he could not control, and entered a hospital that night. Sadly, there was no such drug as penicillin available in 1920, which would quickly have cured his throat and lung infections and pneumonia.
Rockne telegraphed Trippeer, and she visited the critically ill Gipp. While he was in the hospital, he was elected to the All-American team of 1920, the first time ever for a Notre Dame player. The entire sports world knew that Gipp was on his deathbed. Headlines across the United States read, "George Gipp Fighting a Brave Battle" and "Gipp Gains in Battle for His Life" and finally "Little Hope for Gipp." Sports fans and the general public, familiar with the football heroics of George Gipp, waited for what they knew was coming. Coach Rockne was the last to visit Gipp at the hospital. The 25-year-old athlete died quietly in South Bend, Indiana on December 14, 1920.
Rockne Waited Eight Years
What Coach Rockne did next was indicative of the sorrow he felt as a result of Gipp’s death. Rockne waited eight years to tell his team the story of this final visit with Gipp. It was during a football game with archrival and much superior Army, a team expected to easily beat the battered and injured Notre Dame team. Rockne knew that his team had the talent, but perhaps not the heart, to beat Army. He was also one of the best locker-room speakers in the history of the game.
Rockne spoke softly of George Gipp, a player every man in the room held in the highest possible esteem. With many of the players, it was an esteem bordering on worship. A solemn Rockne related to his team what Gipp had said on his deathbed: "Sometime, 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 one for the Gipper."
The Notre Dame team, many weeping, charged onto the field and, in the major upset of the season, beat Army by a score of 12 to 6. Sports experts who watched the game said it was the most inspired football ever played anywhere.
Further Reading on George Gipp
For more on this famed member of the Fightin’ Irish, check out any of these sources:
- Irish, //www.fas.harvard.edu/jycollin/irish.html
- Knute Rockne Biography, http: //www.cmgww.com/football/gipp/gipp.html
- The Legends, George "The Gipper" Gipp, http: //www.nd.edu/bblackwe/Gipp.html
The Traditions, //www.nd.edu/ndsi/trad/gipp.html
Updates by Kit Kittelstad