George Gipp, perhaps the greatest all-round player in college football history, would have become a legend even if he had overcome the streptococcic throat infection that led to his untimely death at the age of 25.
But ironically, his death on December 14, 1920 -- coming just two weeks after he was selected by Walter Camp as Notre Dame's first All-American-assured Gipp's place in Notre Dame's history books.
While on his deathbed, Gipp, who had contracted the strep throat while helping the Irish defeat Northwestern late in his senior season, made this often-repeated plea to his coach, Knute Rockne.
''I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, 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 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.''
Rockne waited eight years to relay Gipp's parting request. On November 10, 1928, after losing two of its first six games, an injury-riddled Notre Dame team traveled to Yankee Stadium to face unbeaten Army. According to Francis Wallace of the New York News, Rockne made this pregame speech to his underdog Irish.
''The day before he died, George Gipp asked me to wait until the situation seemed hopeless -- then ask a Notre Dame team to go out and beat Army for him. This is the day, and you are the team.''
Notre Dame won the game 12-6 on a pair of second-half touchdowns. Jack Chevigny scored the first on a one-yard run and, after reaching the end zone, said, ''That's one for the Gipper.'' Football experts who witnessed it said the game was the greatest demonstration of inspired football ever played anywhere.
Even now, nearly 70 years later, every aspiring football player, or anyone facing insurmountable odds, hears the tale of the Gipper.
But George Gipp should be remembered for much more than his tragic death and dying wish.
Gipp left his home in Laurium, Mich., in 1916 and headed to Notre Dame with ambitions of playing baseball. But one fall afternoon Rockne spotted Gipp, who had never played football in high school, drop kicking the football 60 and 70 yards just for the fun of it. The persuasive coach, sensing Gipp's natural athletic ability, eventually convinced Gipp to go out for the team. Gipp experienced nothing but success on the gridiron.
A four-year member of the varsity, Gipp proved to be the most versatile player Rockne ever had. He could run, he could pass and he could punt. Still holder of a handful of Notre Dame records in a variety of categories, Gipp led the Irish in rushing and passing each of his last three seasons (1918, 1919 and 1920). His career mark of 2,341 rushing yards lasted more than 50 years until Jerome Heavens broke it in 1978. Gipp did not allow a pass completion in his territory. Walter Camp named him the outstanding college player in America in 1920. Gipp was voted into the National Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
During Gipp's career, Notre Dame compiled a 27-2-3 record, including a 19-0-1 mark in his last 20 games. With Gipp's help the Irish outscored their opponents 506 to 97 in those contests. Notre Dame was undefeated in 1919 and 1920 and the Irish were declared Champions of the West.
Despite his football achievements, Gipp's first love remained baseball. He played centerfield for the Irish and had planned to join the Chicago Cubs after graduation.
*Did not play two games against Kalamazoo and Wisconsin.
@Sustained broken ankle on first play from scrimmage after gaining 35 yards and missed final two games against Michigan State and Washington & Jefferson.
+Includes one field goal. oDue to shoulder injury incurred against Indiana, Gipp was withheld from action until the fourth quarter and then inserted only after Evanston fans chanted ''We want Gipp, we want Gipp.'' He remained in Chicago to give punting instructions to a high school team coached by a former teammate, contracted a strep throat and died from complications (pneumonia) of the disease on December 14 at the age of 25.