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Day by day: Finding Knute Rockne, the man

Kevin Noonan | Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Day 1

Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Owens and I shipped out of Notre Dame’s campus Friday morning with a handful of phone numbers to call, some barely Google-able sights to see and a vague idea about “Finding Rockne.”

At 8 a.m. Friday morning, we weren’t exactly sure what we were doing. I wasn’t much sure about anything, truth be told, beyond the fact that, thanks to a week full of completing final projects and papers for a handful of classes, as soon as a I plopped down in the front seat I was going into hibernation for a few hours.

I woke up later and opened my eyes to that wonderfully nondescript “somewhere in the Central time zone” geography Notre Dame students from the Great Plains know so well from driving home for breaks.

Andrew and I were simultaneously awake for about 19 minutes of the entire 10-hour drive to my parents’ house in Kansas on Friday, giving us each some quality alone time to scroll through the varied yet equally frustrating radio stations as well as reflect on what exactly we’re doing, outside of taking a three-day trip to the middle of nowhere the weekend before finals.

First of all, the early pick for the song most likely to be stuck in our head until Christmas/drive us into an insane asylum by the end of this trip: “Die Young” by Ke$ha. There’s a morbid irony to the fact that that’s the song we’re hearing every hour or so as we’re on our way to the site of the untimely death of the most iconic figure in Notre Dame’s athletic history.

More to the point, though, I tried to wrap my head around our purpose.

In a strictly literal sense, we’re traveling to see the site of Knute Rockne’s fatal plane crash in Bazaar, Kan. That’s our mission. That’s where we’re headed. That’s why I got two of my finals rescheduled.

But it’s impossible to look at this from a strictly literal view; after all, we’re talking about Knute Rockne. I don’t know where or when it was, but at some point, Rockne stopped being a man and turned into an impenetrable and immortal myth. He stood seven feet tall, invented the craft of bricklaying and frequently corrected Mark Twain on his spelling and grammar.

Dealing with a vague and grand legend, it’s necessary to look at the story from a bit of a vague and grand perspective. I still don’t know that I can entirely fully explain the purpose of our trip, but I started to get it somewhere around Springfield, Ill.

Looking back, it’s impossible to think Rockne didn’t struggle once or twice. It’s irrational to think there wasn’t a bad loss or a personnel mistake. It’s silly to think he was at all times the legend of a man who crafted Notre Dame football from a few spare Studebaker parts, some elbow grease and a little spit shine.

And so we’re traveling back to the last known moment of Rockne, the man. It may not be possible to define exactly the point at which the legend overtook the man, but the plane crash seems the best place to start. Working back from there, we might be able to get an idea of the real, human Rockne.

We rolled into the Noonan household in Overland Park, Kan. around 5 p.m. Big props to my parents for letting Andrew and me use their house (my house too, I guess) as our home base. My parents are fantastic.

We’re heading out to Bazaar, Kan., Saturday to see the crash site. We’ll be traveling through what could described as some of the most beautiful scenery Kansas has to offer, or could just as easily be described as some of the most boring scenery in America. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, and I love my home state.

I’ll try to end each of these blog entries with a quote, because I’m deep like that sometimes. Today’s quote has been on the tip of my tongue since I first heard the general concept for this story, and if I don’t let it out I just might burst.

“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” – The Babe to Benny the Jet in “The Sandlot”

Day 2

Saturday morning, and I’m up unreasonably early again for what feels like the ninth time this week. Woof.

A curious feeling is creeping around in the back of my mind during this trip. I can’t help but experiencing a rejuvenation of my love and devotion for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame is a marathon at sprint speed, with project after project, paper after paper and test after test. You finish something for one class or one club or one job and before you can even think the words “deep breath” you remember the 15 things you put off in order to finish that last thing.

We have fun, no doubt. It’s not all work and no play. But the pace never slows, and it’s easy to get carried away with the tide of it all.

But this trip is a step back from it all. Last night, Andrew and I ate dinner with my parents (who, I would like to stress again, are spectacular) and one of my older brothers (who is okay, I guess).

My mom, after we told her the idea for the story, began explaining to Andrew my family’s connection to Notre Dame. It was a shot of Irish love in my arm.

Really, we don’t have a connection. I’m the first member of my closely related extended family to attend, but almost all of us are life-long Irish fans all the same. I drew some flack for this in grade school; why like the school if it’s so far away and you don’t even know anybody who went there?

But Notre Dame, since the time of Knute Rockne, has been so much more than just a school. My mother’s mother, as well as her father’s parents (and most of the rest of my family) were immigrants from Ireland in the early 1900s. Like many Irish immigrants, they eventually landed in Chicago, looking for work and a piece of the American dream.

Work was hard to come by. My mother’s paternal grandfather was a blacksmith in Ireland, but Henry Ford had more or less put an end to that profession in the States.

He eventually found work as a janitor in a church, and on Saturdays in the fall, he would sneak down to the boiler room in the church with a radio for a few hours, tuning in to hear the Irish game in the only place where he could find some peace and quiet.

Both my mother’s parents shared this love of Notre Dame, and my memories of them are rooted in hearing stories about Notre Dame football as a young child. My grandmother knew every key player’s name for decades of Irish teams.

My dad loves to tell the story of a time when, while dating my mother and visiting her at her parents’ house, he asked my grandfather to check the Alabama game on the other channel (this was the Bear Bryant days at Alabama, don’t hold it against him). The response was chilly, to say the least.

It sounds a lot like the scene from “Rudy,” (“There’s only one team we watch in this house, right?”) except that my grandfather taught hand-to-hand combat in World War II and was a gym teacher at a juvenile detention center in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago, and I imagine “intimidating” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

The point is: Coming home for this trip reminded me of my roots. I come from a family of immigrants. They loved Notre Dame because it gave them an identity. The football team was the Fighting Irish, and, in their eyes, so were they. And the best part of it all, the legendary figure at the head of this football giant was an immigrant himself. He might not be Irish, but who’s perfect, right?

We’re on a trip to find a legend, and in the process, it has occurred to me that I am a product of this very myth. It’s a curious feeling indeed, and it reminds me why this school means so much to me and to so many others like me.

Well, that little aside out of the way, we actually did do some real, actual things on Saturday beyond pondering the philosophical nature of our journey.

We headed out to Bazaar, Kan., to the crash site in the early afternoon. I was basically Pocahontas at this point, leading our crew through the wilderness of the parts of Kansas where even the cows get lost.

About 45 minutes into the trip we needed to make a quick pit stop for gas outside Ottawa. Now, Ottawa isn’t quite to the “middle of nowhere” territory, but unless you’ve lived here your whole life it’s unlikely you could tell the difference. So for the purposes of the story, we were basically in middle-of-nowhere Kansas.

To my surprise, however, this was no ordinary gas station. Instead of the usual fly-infested, intriguingly grimy interior seen in most middle-of-nowhere gas stations, this one was, believe it or not, Hawaiian-themed.

I’m not kidding; farms in any direction for miles, and here’s a Hawaiian gas station. A Hawaiian version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was playing over the speakers, the employees wore tropical shirts and the bathroom (which was about 1,000 times cleaner than your average DeBartolo facility) was designed to look like the inside of a ship. It was a surreal experience.

We continued on our way, past Emporia and into the Flint Hills. After a brief standoff with a tricky tollbooth machine (I might be the worst person on earth at inserting dollar bills into those little slots at tollbooths and vending machines), we eventually met up with Tom Heathman, our tour guide for the crash site.

Heathman’s father Easter was one of the first people to arrive at the crash when Rockne’s plane went down in 1931. Easter was only 13 years old at the time, and the event had such a profound effect on the boy that part of his life mission became to maintain the site. He led tourists to the site for decades until his death in 2008.

Tom isn’t quite the Rockne fanatic his father was, but he still exhibits a distinct reverence for the site and continues to lead tourists there by request.

The crash site itself is a ways into the pasture off the paved road, and our rental car wouldn’t have been able to handle the rough terrain. Tom drove us in his pickup a ways, through two gates to keep the cattle and horses from straying away and up a hill to the memorial itself.

Physically, it isn’t remarkable. The site, which is fairly far removed from a main road or railroad line, is in complete silence except for an occasional nudge of wind. A tall stone slab marks the site as the place where Rockne and seven others died in a tragic plane crash. A flower arrangement with the Notre Dame monogram decorates the bottom of the slab, reminding any visitors of the site’s intimate connection to the University. A few feet past the monument is a pile of rocks that mark the spot where Rockne lay when he was found. Other than that, there’s nothing but hills and pasture for as far as can be seen.

But much like the man himself, it isn’t the physical reality that matters in this place. It isn’t about what you can see or touch. There is a sense of something greater that permeates the air.

The words don’t come to me at the time. It isn’t a feeling that translates into words immediately. But, reflecting on the moment, and though it might seem obvious, the site’s gravity comes from its mythological importance ¾ it sits at the intersection of man and immortal, the tangent of history and legend. It’s an eerie feeling, one that can only be experienced to be understood.

Tom took us next to meet his sister, who lives nearby. They explained to us the kindnesses Notre Dame had shown them over the years. Notre Dame does not ignore those who love it. We asked Tom why he continues to lead city slicker tourists like us to this remote crash site.

He responded in true Midwestern form, with a shrug, a smile and a simple statement.

“I get to meet a lot of nice people.”

They pointed us next to a museum in a nearby town that had a section devoted to Rockne. We headed to the museum, and, in addition to seeing some fascinating pictures of the crash, got an up-close look at Rockne’s own car from the 1930s. The car is on loan to the museum for a few years from the Rockne family, and according to the woman working at the museum, it drives just fine.

I found it truly amazing that out in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas there is this devotion to Rockne, all because of his plane’s failure over 80 years ago. Easter Heathman was forever changed, as well as the futures of his family to be, all by this random tragedy that occurred before Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected to his first term as President.

We headed back to my parents’ house in Overland Park for the evening, enjoyed some of Kansas City’s finest barbecue (again, my parents ¾ spectacular) and suffered through the drawn out self-adoration ceremony that is the Heisman presentation (nope, definitely not bitter at all). May as well just make it an offensive award at this point, but there’s another time for that argument.

Tomorrow we head to Louisville, Ky., for an interview with a nun who happens to be a life-long Notre Dame fan and just wants Brian Kelly to run the darn ball more, and then hopefully South Bend for the night.

I’m not sure I want to head back yet. I don’t want to start thinking about my Managerial Economics final, which my wonderfully gracious and generally stellar professor allowed me to reschedule in order to make this trip.

Oh well, I really can’t complain. No matter what else we get from this trip, I head back to the Golden Dome with a renewed appreciation for why I am where I am, and I love Notre Dame all the more for it.

Quote for the day: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” ¾ Winston Churchill.

Day 3

It’s day three, third straight day of getting up inhumanly early. We’re on a tight schedule today, though. We have a meeting at 9 a.m. Central Time in Overland Park, Kan., and then another one at 7 p.m. EST in Louisville. No time for dilly-dallying today. I’ll have to keep Owens in check. That kid’s a born lollygagger. Kidding.

Our first interview is with Kay Sizelove and her husband Phil, both gray at the temples and both longtime Irish fans. Kay, whom I had never met or even heard of before we embarked on this trip, lives literally down the street and around the corner from the house I’ve lived in my whole life. In a six-block radius where I live, there’s me, a junior in Dillon, a junior and freshman in Farley who happen to be Fr. Jenkins’ nieces and Kay. It’s a regular Notre Dame neighborhood. There’s even a junior in Keough who lived in the neighborhood until we were freshmen in high school, but moved away to a house with a pool. Can’t blame him.

It’s obvious from the first few seconds in Kay’s house that she’s not your average Notre Dame fan.  She’s sporting a well-worn bright green 1988 national championship sweatshirt. On her dining table is a series of black and white pictures, mos
featuring a handsome young man in track outfits.

One picture in particular stands out. It’s an athletic team from the 1930s. The handsome young man from the other photos is in this one as well, but he’s not what draws the eye. Standing in the center of the second row is the familiar face of one Knute Kenneth Rockne.

Kay explains that her father was a track star, a blazing fast mile runner, for Notre Dame under the tutelage of Rockne in the 1930s. Rockne, apparently, not only coached football but also track, swimming and others in addition to serving as Notre Dame’s athletic director for a time. True Notre Dame historians will probably be like, “Duh, everybody knows that.” And to those people I say, I did not know that, so shut up.

It takes a few moments to get over my initial shock that this house I’ve walked past a thousand times as a child houses such incredible Notre Dame history. We left Notre Dame to find Rockne, and we’re getting another look at him everywhere we turn.

Kay tells stories of her father’s experiences with Rockne, her history of Notre Dame fandom and of her father’s time after Notre Dame. Apparently as an older man, once her father got a few “sodas in him, which were called beers” as Kaye put it, he’d challenge the local boys to a mile race if they were tough enough. And, without fail, he’d make fools of them.

Kay clearly has a devotion to her father, and her love of Notre Dame is born from it. This is another example of the Notre Dame legacy. People talk about the “Notre Dame family” sometimes, referring to the students and alumni and those associated with the University. But it’s so much more than that, and Kay’s intense love for the University is a brightly illustrative example. Notre Dame runs deep in families, unlike any other college I’ve ever attended. Ha. Ha. Ha. But seriously, it’s amazing.

After we finished with Kay, we climbed back in the car and headed towards Louisville. I mentioned it on Friday, but we’re hearing “Die Young” a creepily insane number of times. It’s freaking me out, man. Second place is easily “One More Night” by Maroon 5, but there’s no somber irony involved with that one. Unless me hating Maroon 5 counts as somber irony. Because I can’t stand Maroon 5.

We had an ill-fated stop at Chick-Fil-A in Wentzville, Mo., in which I talked into the drive-thru speaker for a good three minutes before I remembered it was Sunday and they aren’t open on Sundays, which my first instinct says should be a crime but my second instinct says that’s sort of anti-Christian and I’m not about that life right now.

We made it to Louisville in with a little time to spare, and since neither of us had been to Skyline Chili before and people from Cincinnati talk about it like it’s where Jesus and Gandhi gets their fast food, we decided we’d try it out. Only, thanks to Apple’s new Maps application, we were led instead to a Penn Station Subs. Apple Maps app, you and I are not BFFs right now.

We finally made it to the Ursuline community in Louisville where we were meeting our final interview of the day, Sr. Anthony Wargel. Sister Anthony is a 98-year-old Ursuline nun born and raised in Indiana and a life-long Notre Dame fan. But her Notre Dame ties started before she knew anything about football. She speaks repeatedly about how important to her the University’s devotion to the Blessed Mother is, and how as a child she grew to love Notre Dame because of her ties to its strong Catholic faith core. This is a part of Notre Dame that we haven’t really considered before, but it’s a vital part of the university.

She is a die-hard football fan; she paces back and forth with her walker during the games, praying on the same green rosary she’s had for decades and shaking her fists and yelling at the television. Earlier this year, this 5-foot-tall nun wrote Brian Kelly a letter instructing him that he needs to run the ball more. She may be 98, but she’s got a sharp wit that betrays her years.

Kelly, in the middle of this legendary season, took the time to send her a signed photo as well as a few other gifts. She takes great pride in the gifts, but she’s not ready to crown Kelly just yet. I asked her if Kelly was now her favorite coach, or if she was still waiting.

“We’ll just have to wait for the next game, I guess,” she said.

I was inspired by her faith and her religious connection to Notre Dame. I’ve been to Catholic schools my whole life, and still go to Mass on Sundays, but it’s easy to forget the importance of the Catholic foundation at Notre Dame. This nun cut to the core of Notre Dame. It was clear that she loved everything about Notre Dame ¾ she says her response to people saying, “Notre Dame is the best university in the country” is, “Is there any other?” But it’s the stories she shares, like her passionate retelling of Rockne’s conversion to Catholicism, that illustrate the importance of her faith and why Notre Dame’s position as the premier Catholic institution in the country is so important to who we are as a university.

It’s a long drive back to South Bend. There are few things that grate my gears more while driving than state highways whose speed limits change every mile and a half. Looking at you, central Indiana. What’s your deal?

Luckily, hearing “Die Young” 14 more times soothed my nerves. As we pulled into South Bend, Andrew and I frantically searched the radio channels to find our favorite Ke$ha song one more time. For about, eh, 36 seconds, I was worried we wouldn’t find it. We did. There really was no other way to end the trip.

We parked the car by Carroll Hall, so I had a long walk back to Zahm. Our work wasn’t done yet; we have a few more interviews to conduct and we might even go to Chicago tomorrow for a few more Rockne sites. But in terms of this road trip narrative, it ends here for me. As I walk back towards Zahm, I see the log cabin chapel where Kay’s father and mother were married and the statue of Mary on the dome to which Sister Anthony is so devoted.

I felt the need to make one more stop for the trip, perhaps a cheesy and stereotypical Domer stop, but a necessary one nonetheless. I put my backpack and my pillow down on a bench and walked in silence into the Grotto. I lit a candle and joined a handful of other students kneeling in prayer for a few moments. Everyone else there was likely praying to relieve the stress of finals; for better or worse, those still aren’t on my mind.

I spent a few peaceful moments reflecting on the sites I’d seen and the people I’d met. I said a thankful prayer for my parents and my family, for the kindness and generosity of total strangers to spend time talking with us and, above all, I thanked God for letting me attend Notre Dame.

Final quote: “It takes a big calamity to shock a country all at once, but Knute, you did it. You died one of our national heroes. Notre Dame was your address, but every gridiron in America was your home.” -Will Rogers