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Author investigates man behind sports phrase

Katlyn Smith | Friday, October 8, 2010

Pulitzer Prize nominated sports writer Jack Cavanuagh places the phrase “Win one for the Gipper” as one the most famous expressions in sports history, but he said not many people know about the man who uttered those famous words.

“Everybody’s heard the expression, but hardly anybody knows anything about the man behind it,” Cavanaugh said.

The man, George Gipp, was a Notre Dame football player who died during his senior year in 1920. Notre Dame legend says Gipp said the phrase on his deathbed to coach Knute Rockne as a rallying cry for his teammates.

Cavanaugh researched the two football icons for his new book, “The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football.”

Cavanaugh will be at the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore for signings Friday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Cavanaugh’s interest in the Gipper began as a young Notre Dame football fan.

“Sometimes as a kid, I heard this mystical type of a person,” Cavanaugh said. “I wondered if he even existed, or he was just somebody who was made up because he seemed too good to be true as an athlete.”

After tracking down some of Gipp’s former teammates for a Sports Illustrated story in 1991, Cavanaugh had enough material to write a book on the former Notre Dame football player.

“A couple of them even had roomed with him and gone to high school with him and then followed him to Notre Dame,” Cavanaugh said. “So they knew him very, very well.”

Cavanaugh, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his memorable portrayal of Gipp in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne All American” also inspired the book.

“He loved that role,” Cavanaugh said of the former president. “If he wanted to get a bill through Congress, he’d say, ‘Let’s win one for the Gipper,’ the famous expression.”

For Cavanaugh, the film failed to capture Gipp’s gambling and poor attendance at Notre Dame.

“It was a very saintly portrayal of George Gipp,” he said. “It made George Gipp look like the All-American boy, just real nice, handsome guy, real good person, and he was hardly that.”

In his book, Cavanaugh recounts how Gipp became the best pool player in South Bend.

“He won a lot of money in college gambling,” Cavanaugh said. “He wasn’t your typical scholar athlete.”

On the field, however, teammates recognized Gipp’s leadership.

“Everybody, including his roommates, said he was certainly dead honest when he was a player,” Cavanaugh said. “He went all out for Notre Dame.”

Although Rockne had to convince him to try out for the football team, Gipp still holds University football records almost a century after his death.

“He was so outstanding, and he never played football in high school,” Cavanaugh said. “That was one of the most remarkable parts of it all.”

Researching the phrase that made Gipp iconic, Cavanaugh encountered a mixed reaction from Gipp’s teammates as to whether or not he ever spoke the words.

One of those teammates, Hunk Anderson, went to high school with Gipp and roomed with him at Notre Dame. Anderson became the head coach of the Notre Dame football team after Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931.

“He knew him as well as anybody, and when I talked with him, he doubted that Gipp would have said that,” Cavanaugh said. “He said that he was just not a sentimental guy.”

The book is loaded with debate, but Cavanaugh also spent significant amount of time describing how Rockne and Gipp contributed to Notre Dame’s rise in national popularity.

In a 1913 game against Army, Rockne caught the then-novel forward pass, contributing to Notre Dame’s victory and changing the coverage of Notre Dame football forever.

“They upset Army in one of the biggest upsets in college football history,” Cavanaugh said. “All of a sudden all the New York papers are writing about this little, unknown Catholic school out West.”

By the time Gipp played his last game, he had reached national acclaim.

“Even the Northwestern fans were chanting for him to come out on the field because he was so famous at that point,” Cavanaugh said.

Gipp was sick with what doctors at Saint Joseph’s Hospital later diagnosed as strep throat. Despite the illness, Gipp traveled with the team to Evanston, Illinois, for the Northwestern game because he wanted to play for alumni who had shown up for a “Gipp Day.”

According to Cavanaugh, Rockne let Gipp play in the last quarter.

“He went in the game and threw two passes, and they both were for touchdowns,” Cavanaugh said. “That was typical Gipp, and the crowd went wild.”

After that game, Gipp wouldn’t live much longer. He died on Dec. 14, 1920. Thousands of Notre Dame students attended his funeral.

“One of the biggest funerals at Notre Dame was after he died,” Cavanaugh said. “It was only topped by the Rockne funeral not too many years later.”

Cavanaugh questioned whether the football program would produce a similar figure whose untimely death struck during the height of his popularity.

“I doubt that’s ever going to happen again,” Cavanaugh said.

During his 25 years at the New York Times, Cavanaugh covered Notre Dame football and basketball when the teams played on the East Coast. His research for the book brought him to the Archives Department in the Hesburgh Library last fall when he pored over Scholastics, books and newspaper microfilms.

Cavanaugh will return to campus this weekend and support the Fighting Irish at the Pittsburgh game.

“Deep down, since I won’t be covering the game, in large measure because of the book and because I’ve learned so much about Notre Dame and having been out to the campus and coming back again, I’ll definitely be rooting for Notre Dame.”