San Antonio Express-News - The name doesn't always ring a bell anymore, let alone the face. Still, it's a bit of a surprise when the man wearing a Hawaiian-style Notre Dame shirt strolls into the crowded sports bar at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, and no one seems to notice. But Nils Rockne, now a San Antonio resident, doesn't mind in the least. "I'm happy just being one of the guys," he said. That's not always possible, however. Not when you're the grandson of the greatest college football coach of all time. Not when you bear a striking resemblance to one of the most iconic figures in all of sports. Knute Rockne coached 13 seasons at Notre Dame, winning six national championships. Five of his teams went undefeated. His .881 winning percentage (105-12-5) is still the gold standard for college football coaches. In 1931, Rockne died at age 43 in a plane crash in a Kansas wheat field, and since then, his name has been elevated to mythical proportions, popularized by newsreels, books and, of course, Hollywood. Nils Rockne said he has seen the movie, "Knute Rockne: All-American," about 15 times. He keeps it at the ready whenever friends or family stop by his North Side home. The name Knute Rockne, he concedes, sadly is losing its power with each succeeding generation. But not with him. "I've always been very proud of what my grandfather was able to accomplish in a very short lifespan," Nils Rockne said. "I've been able to appreciate it more the older I get."
Learning the legend Nils Rockne, 56, moved to San Antonio two years ago to escape the fast-paced lifestyle of Dallas. A sales rep for a company that manufactures heavy-duty filters for cars and trucks, he wanted to spend less time in airports -- and more time pursuing his passion for Notre Dame football. If he's not attending games in South Bend, Ind., home of the Fighting Irish, he's watching them on television. He grew up in South Bend, where the Rockne name is still larger than life, particularly on the Notre Dame campus. Nils' father, Jack, was only 5 when Knute died. So Jack's knowledge of the famous coach wasn't much greater than that of Nils'. What Jack Rockne knew, he passed on to Nils and his seven siblings. Things such as the proper Norwegian pronunciation of Knute -- it's Kuh-newt, not Newt (Knute Rockne was 5 when his family emigrated from Norway). Nils gleaned the rest from years of studying the remarkable life of his grandfather, who was much more than a football coach. Knute's accomplishments in that arena were vast -- in addition to the records, he revolutionized the use of the forward pass and putting a backfield in motion, now known as the shift. He was the first college coach to build a national schedule and promote intersectional rivalries. Off the field, he was a renaissance man. He graduated from Notre Dame with honors with a degree in chemistry. He boxed, wrote for the campus newspaper, played the flute in the orchestra, acted in student plays, was captain of the football team and set records in track. He had a chance to teach chemistry upon graduation but chose to become an assistant football coach at Notre Dame. "It paid $5 more a month," Nils said. But what always impressed Nils most was his grandfather's business acumen. Knute was a spokesman for the Studebaker automobile brand manufactured in South Bend. He endorsed sporting-goods products, a popular shaving cream and clothing lines. He was in demand as a motivational speaker. He had a car named after him, the Rockne, and a later a town -- Rockne, Texas -- in Bastrop County. Even before his death, Knute Rockne was a national hero. "He probably made less than $10,000 a year as a coach but $100,000 in endorsements," Nils said. "That was a lot of money in those days. He was the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of his time." Accidental fame There's a certain amount of fame that comes with being a Rockne, so Nils does get recognized. In South Bend recently for a game, he was sitting on a bench outside the football stadium next to a statue of Knute -- one of many on the campus created by Boerne sculptor Jerry McKenna -- when a fan stopped and did a double take. "Hey, you look just like him," the man said. "'You mean my grandfather?'" Nils shot back. "It kind of freaked him out." Nils recalls years ago when someone asked for his son's autograph. Mike Rockne was 6 at the time. "He couldn't even write his name yet," Nils said. Over the years, Nils and brother, Knute III, a teacher and high school football coach in Salt Lake City, have acted as spokesmen for the family and helped raise money for the Rockne Heritage Fund benefiting Notre Dame athletics. In March, Nils traveled to rural Kansas for the 80th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed his grandfather's life. To the Notre Dame faithful, the site with its stone monument has become sacred ground. Nils delivered a speech worthy of a Rockne. "It was amazing," he said of the ceremony. "About 300 people came from all over the country, just to be a part of it." Nils enjoys the anonymity in San Antonio, even at the High Velocity sports bar at the JW Marriott, where the local Notre Dame alumni club gathers each week to watch the Irish in action. About 100 members showed up on a recent Saturday to watch the team take on rival Southern Cal. Nils didn't graduate from Notre Dame (Knute was the only Rockne to do so), attending Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Nevertheless, he's royalty to Notre Dame alumni. "He's special to us," former club president Tom Sessi said. "How could he not be? I think people just respect his privacy." "You can almost breathe in the history of Notre Dame football when you're around somebody like that," 1969 graduate Ed Coffey said of Knute Rockne's grandson. Soon, Nils' deep voice could be heard above the noise, cheering as the Irish rallied before losing in stunning fashion. They needed a "win one for the Gipper" speech. Nils Rockne took the loss in stride, just as he does his accidental fame. "When people come up and ask for an autograph, I'm thinking, 'I didn't do anything. I'm just related to a famous man,'" he said. "But it sure makes you feel good." - John Whisler