March 31: The Day the Football Died

80 years ago today, a symbolic father died. He was the father of something I love dearly, which is why today means more to me than any other Thursday. Knute Rockne is a legend. Few people who are familiar with college football have gone without hearing his name. This post is a research paper I wrote about Knute Rockne and his contribution to football. I figured it quite appropriate that I publish it today.

Knute Rockne: The Father of Notre Dame Football

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is one of preeminence among the football teams in the United States. It is one of the oldest programs and one known for its coaches. Even those who do not follow or care for Notre Dame Football probably have heard the names Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, and Dan Devine; however, the most prominent of the Fighting Irish football coaches was Knute Rockne. His avant-garde innovations of the game, his campaign to build Notre Dame Stadium, and his addition to game-day traditions helped to make college football one of the most popular sports in the United States.

The legendary football coach was born Knute Kenneth Rockne on March 4, 1888 in Voss, Norway. When he was five years old, he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois where he became fascinated with football. In 1910, he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. He tried out for the football team, but his small stature prevented him from earning a spot on the roster. During his sophomore year, Notre Dame hired a new football coach, Jesse Harper, under whom Rockne made the team and played for three years (Gustainis).

Jesse Harper noticed Rockne’s intelligence and love of the game, so when Rockne graduated in 1914, he was immediately hired as an assistant coach to the football team. Harper gave him this job for selfless reasons as well—Rockne wanted to pursue the medical field, and his coaching job was to pay his tuition, but the college where he would study medicine would not take him if he was working as a coach. He went back to Notre Dame and was hired by the University to teach undergraduate chemistry (Brondfield 71-72).

In 1918, Rockne took over Harper’s position as head coach and athletic director for a $5,000 annual salary (Brondfield 81). During his four years as assistant coach and thirteen years as head coach, Rockne made countless contributions to the strategy and technique of football. His most important contributions that are still used in football today include the forward pass, offensive and defensive line shifts, the correct way to catch the ball, trick plays, and usage of media (Cavanaugh 255-261).

The forward pass is the technique used when, instead of handing off the ball to a running-back, the quarterback waits until a receiver is downfield to catch the pass. He then throws the ball multiple yards to gain maximum play increase. This play, invented in 1905, was not commonly used until Rockne figured out how to utilize it. He first used it against Army in a game that Notre Dame won 35-13. Rockne claimed that the play was not used to achieve victory; rather, it was used to “scatter the opposing line and backfield opposition” which made rushing an easier play (Cavanaugh 256). The forward pass is now very often seen in football games at high school, college, and professional levels.

The shift, used by both the offense and defense, is when players move around to adapt to the opposing team’s line before the ball is snapped. It helps to gain maximum advantage and deception over the opposition. Just as the forward pass, Rockne did not invent the play; in fact, Rockne credits the play creation to Coach Stagg of the Chicago Bears (Cavanaugh 257). In 1921, Rockne had his team use the shift against Army (a game they won 28-0). Charley Daly, the West Point coach complained to the referee, but since there were neither rules for nor against the shift, the play was not penalized. However, Rockne promised Daly that he would not use the move again for the duration of that game (Brondfield 113-114).

Rockne’s greatest contribution, however, may have been changing football from a game of size to a game of skill and agility. His personal experience with rejection because of size made him want to help smaller men play the game they loved. He needed smaller men to run fast and to be able to catch the ball. One of Rockne’s linemen for the South Bend Silver Edge Team stated, “Rockne looked for speed, quickness, and guts in his players. Most coaches in those days were impressed with size and went for big men” (Sperber 58). Without quick-footed and quick-thinking players, his forward pass would be useless making the shift a pointless move as well.

Rockne also had to teach his receivers to catch the ball the right way—with stiff, cradling arms rather than letting the ball bounce off the chest—and he used them for trick plays (Cavanaugh 255). These trick plays are still used and can fool the opposition, fans, and commentators. A fake hand-off to an alternate rusher could allow the running-back with the ball to run it all the way down the field for a touchdown. A fake punt could allow for a rush. The trick plays allowed for the deception Rockne was looking for and helped to make football a game of deep thought and knowledge in addition to size and power (Cavanaugh 258).

Another technique Rockne used to develop college football’s fame was not actually used on the field. Rockne understood how he could use the media to his advantage. At that point in time, many coaches were reluctant to give interviews or allow photographers on their fields—not Rockne. He welcomed interviews, photos, and film all onto his football field. With the increasing coverage of his football games, Notre Dame’s fame skyrocketed—fans were gained nation-wide and more people began watching football (Krause and Singular 24-25).

With football’s rising popularity, attendance at the games subsequently rose. To accommodate more fans, a larger stadium was needed. This made Rockne begin his campaign to build Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish had been using Cartier Field (which is still used as the outdoor practice field to this day) and Soldier Field in Chicago for their games with larger attendance, but this caused many scheduling problems. Rockne’s solution was simple. He suggested that Notre Dame begin charging $5 a ticket and they would soon have money to build a stadium (Sperber 88-89).

The 1927 football season gained a $331,454 profit lifting them to their $800,000 goal—enough to begin the construction of the new stadium. Notre Dame Stadium would be the biggest stadium at that time, seating over 50,000 people. Most football stadiums at that time used school financing, which was quite problematic during the Great Depression; however, Rockne’s original idea of self-financing proved to be successful during this time because it took no extra money from the University (Sperber 268-271). A nickname for Notre Dame Stadium often heard today is “The House That Rockne Built.”

Many game-day traditions, legends, and myths were established under Rockne’s reign as Athletic Director at Notre Dame. Many of these are still very much a part of the Notre Dame community. The “Win One for the Gipper” speech, the Four Horsemen, and Notre Dame’s biggest rivalries were all established under Knute’s watch at the school.

On November 23, 1920 George Gipp, Rockne’s star player whom Rockne had recruited himself, entered the hospital because of a high fever and sore throat. After three weeks in the hospital, he died of pneumonia (Chelland 184, 192). Before his death, he whispered to Rockne these famous last words:
I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Sometime, Rock, when the team’s 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. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy. (qtd. in Rockne 236)

Rockne proceeded to give the speech to his 1928 team when they were playing against Army. “These lads on that 1928 team had never met Gipp—had never seen him. But Gipp is a legend in Notre Dame. Every football writer at that half time said that Notre Dame would be beaten badly….But the boys came out for the second half exalted, inspired, overpowering. They won. As Chevigny slashed through for the winning touchdown he said, ‘That’s one for the Gipper!’” (Rockne 236)

In 1924, George Strickler, a Notre Dame student publicist, wanted a simple picture of Rockne’s successful backfield line-up. These four men, Harry Struhldreher, Don Miller, Jimmy Crowley, and Elmer Layden, were asked to each sport their uniforms and a football while mounted on a horse. Rockne had originally been reluctant to let his backfield pose on horses for fear of them being injured, but he allowed the photo. The photo of the Four Horsemen became very famous, still remains famous, and gave the 1924 team a reputation of being powerful and undefeatable (Brondfield 121-123).

The Notre Dame rivalries are some of the most attended games in college football. One of its oldest rivalries is against the West Point Cadets, more commonly called simply “Army.” In fact, the games against Army hosted some of the most memorable events in Notre Dame History. However, its most played (and often considered contentious) rivalry is with the University of Southern California.

The idea of a Midwestern school playing a West Coast school in the 1920s was pretty far-fetched. No one had done it before, and it would require hours of travel by one or both teams and it would cost a lot of money. In 1923, Notre Dame Alumni living on the West Coast urged Coach Rockne to bring the Fighting Irish to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to play the USC Trojans. Rockne was not opposed to this idea; on the other hand, the faculty at the University was because they did not want to lose money for their own programs (Sperber 139).

In 1926, football history was made. Notre Dame was finally granted permission to travel to the West Coast to play would-be future rival USC. Notre Dame won the first game played in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a score of 13-12. It was also the most profitable game to that date for Notre Dame bringing in $75,619. This would lead the University to have the Irish play the Trojans the next year and every year for 80 years after that, only with the exception of 1943, 1944, and 1945 due to World War II (Sperber 221-222).

After such a productive and too-short career at Notre Dame, tragedy struck on March 31, 1931. While Rockne was on a on a promotion tour, his flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles crashed in Bazaar, Kansas. Thousands of calls were made to the University and Chicago newspapers trying to confirm his death. The news was shocking. His funeral was held in South Bend, to which thousands attended—a testament to the great number of lives Rockne touched (Cavanaugh 239-241).

From building a nearly nonexistent football program to one of the greatest in the United States to inspiring fans, athletes, and coaches, Knute Rockne definitely carved his name in gridiron history with an iron pen. His innovations, construction campaigns, and addition to tradition were just leaves on the tree of his contribution to football. Even though neither Rockne nor his players or associates are still with us, the program he raised from the ground up lives on with the game it plays.

Works Cited
Brondfield, Jerry. Rockne: The Coach, The Man, the Legend. First ed. New York: Random House, 1976. Print.
Cavanaugh C.S.C., John, and Knute K. Rockne. The Autobiography of Knute K. Rockne. First ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1931. Print.
Chelland, Patrick. One For the Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and Notre Dame. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1973. Print.
Gustainis, Justin. "Rockne, Knute (1888-1931)." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 4. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 243-
Krause, Moose, and Stephen Singular. Notre Dame’s Greatest Coaches. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. Print.
Sperber, Murray. Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football. First ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993. Print.

**Note: I do personally recommend "Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football" by Murray Sperber. It was a very interesting book. It's worth the purchase.


Why Not?

There are songs about them, movies that revolve around them, lives that are changed by them, and everyone has them. Without them, there's no drive or determination. With them comes desire and passion. These are dreams.

When I hear the word dream, two definitions come to mind.
1) The mental pictures we get when we're asleep
2) Ambitions, goals, desires, passions, and aspirations we have for the future

Both are good kinds, but dreams are most powerful in their second form. These dreams have power that is surpassed by few other things: they make us worry; they make us cry; they infuse hope in us; they influence any decisions we may make; they can send us around the world or keep us close to home; failing them can kill us; and succeeding in them can be the most wonderful feeling in the world.

Our dreams come in many variations, and we get them as soon as we can think and understand for ourselves. Having been one myself, I know that every little girl goes through phases of what she dreams to be when she grows up: A princess, a veterinarian, a cowgirl, a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a model, a singer, an actress, a teacher, a housewife, a career woman....the list goes on and on. The dreams are born, they die, and new ones replace them...but some never die. I can't personally say I've had a dream that I've been zealous about back past times before I can remember. Granted, I've always had a little part of me that wanted to sing and play guitar at the Grand Ole Opry and possibly sing the National Anthem at a major sporting event, but it's not a dream I've wanted to chase down to its death. My dreams are constantly changing, and right now, I'm set on the fact that I don't know what my dreams are and I'm waiting to figure them out.

Less than a year ago and for 10 years before that, I had a dream. It came true, too. It's quite a story to tell, so I'll keep this brief. When I was 6, I was diagnosed with Trichotillomania (TTM). In a nutshell, TTM is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that had me pulling my eyelashes out for 10 years, and, for a period, the hair on my head as well. For 10 years, I wondered what it was like to have eyelashes. It seems ridiculous because everyone else had them and didn't give them a second thought at all. As I got older, I started wondering if my lack of eyelashes would prevent me from ever being told I was pretty. If and when I got married and had kids, what would I tell my little girl when she asked why mommy didn't have eyelashes? It killed me to wonder these things and have no answers for them, so I made myself quit. August 31, 2010 was the day I put my foot down. I have lashes now and putting mascara on every day is a tiny gift to myself that says, "It took 10 years, but you did it. Your dream came true."

I believe that our dreams, and only our dreams, are what change the world, but we have to be willing to follow through on them for any impact. Another example using yours truly:

As I'm sure most of you know, I want to go to Notre Dame quite badly. I am pushing myself to the edge to be able to go there, too. I get a B on a test and when everyone tells me that I did a good job, I tell myself that I should have and could have gotten an A. I've gotten little sleep recently and I've even forgotten to eat on many occasions due to my grave in homework--all this just to go to the school I want.

But, like I said, my dreams change all the time. Yes, I do still want to go to Notre Dame, but over the past few years, I've been pushed by family and friends to look into the University of San Diego....so I finally did. It's a good school and I can definitely (note: not "definatly") see myself going there. Nothing is set in stone and I have a year to figure out what I'm going to do, but my announcement that I was even thinking about another school beside Notre Dame shocked quite a few people who have been pushing me toward my goals. It even shocked me.

Do I have a point to this post? I'm not sure. I suppose that if I do, it would be to keep dreaming and to chase your dreams. It's clich├ęd, but it's true. Everyone we look up to once started out with a dream. They each chased their dreams until they got where they are today. Chasing your dream will get you a lot closer to making it reality than just sitting around thinking about it. Is it risky? Sometimes. Are your dreams worth the effort to chase? Only if you believe they are. If they ask you why, just answer with, "why not?".


No More Complaining

I love to rant, and ranting, in its own way, is complaining. I know I shouldn't complain because it's selfish and rude, but it's a human tendency I have. But I realized something...

You've heard about the goings-on in Japan, I'm sure. (If you haven't, you need to go look it up because it isn't something you should be oblivious about.) After hearing reports about the earthquake and tsunami, I thought to myself, "I can't even imagine what that is like. I live in Kansas. True, a tornado could blow away all I have right now, but to have your world rocked, torn down, and then, on top of all that, washed away? That's inconceivable."

This is when I realized that complaining is a privilege. Let me reiterate: COMPLAINING IS A PRIVILEGE! It is not a right, and the only people who hold that privilege are those in harm's way. It is not limited to those in Japan and the other areas hard-hit in the Pacific. It also includes third-world countries, poverty-stricken areas, families who are struggling with income because of the economy, victims of aggression, citizens of Libya, Egypt, and other countries being run in a way that is not in the best interests of the citizens....anyone who is less fortunate than I has the privilege to complain, and I have none.

I do, however, obtain the right to pray. I do not believe that it is merely a right, either. It is my duty to pray for those who need prayers. And here's what gets me--despite their hardships, the people in Japan are helping others. They aren't putting themselves first. I saw on Good Morning America Diane Sawyer being offered part of a meal from a man whose house had been completely destroyed. I had to ask, "How could he do that? How could he be so hungry and devastated and still offer up some of his meal to an American reporter? That is love and grace. That is selflessness and compassion."

I try to tell myself, "Someone has it worse and God will work everything out. Sure, life sucks now, but it's going to get better. Offer this up for the person who has to wait longer for things to get better." If I can do that, I know I'll end up much happier. I may not be able to go to Japan and help with clean-up and recovery, but I can still help make a change. Prayer is powerful. I believe that strongly. It's also the season of Lent right now. I'm keeping in mind that not everyone reading this is necessarily Catholic or even Christian, but that doesn't mean you can't pray. There's nothing to lose in prayer, so there's no reason not to try. Lent is a season of sacrifice--of offering "it" up for God and for those who have greater needs than we. You can still offer it up even if you aren't religious, and if that's the case, you can think of it as a simple act of humanitarianism from home.

My goal is to stop complaining. I challenge you to stop complaining, too. Every time you start to whine about how awful your life is, think about who has it worse and offer it up. I can't force you to do this with me, but I ask you to try. Are you up for the challenge?