Campus Life

 Rockne on the beach in Florida with Knute Rockne Jr.

Rockne on the beach in Florida with Knute Rockne Jr.

Campus Life this month features a story entitled “The Day the Rock was Baptised” from the March 29, 1957 Scholastic.

By John McMahon


John McMahon is a junior journalism major. The following is the story of Knute Rockne's Baptism, written especially for this memorial to "the Rock."

He would follow the team into the little Catholic Church across from Grand Central Station when they went to New York to play the Army. He would see his boys get up early on the morning of a game, steal from the hotel lobby and head for a church. His wife, who was converted before their marriage, was understanding in her Catholic example around their children. He was in constant contact with priests and clean Catholic boys at Notre Dame. It is probably a combination of all these that prompted Knute Rockne to become a Catholic.

It was 1925, the year after the Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules. Boys named Christie Flanagan, Joe Boland, Captain Clem Crowe and Arthur Boeringer perspired under his tutoring. Rock was being instructed by Father Vince Mooney, a close friend, and a priest at Notre Dame. Father Mooney tells how Rock was quick and eager to learn. How on many occasions, the Norwegian would stop him cold with questions on the Catholic Faith. He once asked Father Vince, whom he called "Scotty," just what the story was on the Modernists and Fundamentalists, two groups that had crept silently into the Church causing some trouble during the twenties. Father Vince was floored. Even he knew very little about it.

"I caught you off-sides, Scotty. If I were refereeing the game," the Rock said, "I'd penalize them both half the distance to the goal and then start the game over."

Father Mooney said Rock learned his religion by knowing football. He had the Seven Sacraments for a line and a backfield consisting of Faith, Hope, Charity and the All-American quarterback Justice.

The Baptism was set for November 20, the day before the Northwestern game. Northwestern, an unusually powerful eleven that year, hoped to be the first team ever to beat Notre Dame inside the confines of the green-fenced Cartier Field.

No one knew that Rockne was under instruction except his wife Bonnie and Father Mooney. Somehow several of the players got the rumor and came to ask Father Vince if they could be present for the ceremony. He relayed their message to Bonnie and she approached Rock.

"So they want to be at my Baptism," he said. "What do they think this is, a three-ring circus? Tell them to go say their prayers."

On a bright fall afternoon, Rock, Bonnie, Father Vince and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hickey, neighbors of the Rocknes, who were to be Rock's sponsors, entered the Log Chapel on the campus. The afternoon sun seemed to be setting in the old building, illuminating it entirely.

Father Vince began arranging the oils, cotton and the Baptismal font for the ceremony. He asked Rock if he would light the single blessed candle on the table before the font. Obediently the coach reached for the matches and marched toward the table. He looked to the rustic altar where several Benediction candelabrae stood guarding the tabernacle. "How 'bout those, Scotty. Do you want me to light those?"

"If you were a priest or a bishop," Father Vince answered, "we would light all the candles in the church, but you're just an ordinary football coach." 'Rock turned and looked at the priest. "It looks to me, Scotty, like you're pretty damn tight with the wax." Stooping before the solitary candle, he ignited it with a satisfied grin.

Rock stood before the font and the ceremony began. The sun drove through the window, reflecting on his bald head. "OK, Scotty, go ahead. You won't have to use much water."

After the baptism, Father Vince took Rock by the arm. "Why don't we step into the sacristy where we'll have a little privacy, and I'll hear your confession."

Rock grinned again. "Why don't you hear it out here? Everybody knows my business anyhow."

Rock's First Communion was to follow the next morning in St. Edward's Hall. At that time, St. Ed's was a grade school and the chapel pews were designed in miniature for boys up to the eighth grade. It was also First Communion day for about 100 of Sister Aloysius's six to ten-year-old boys. Knute Rockne, Jr., was a member of this group. He did not know that his father had been baptized. Sister Aloysius arranged the boys so that when they stepped out into the aisle to go up to receive, Knute Sr. and Knute Jr. would be side by side.

As Father Vince bowed low for the "Domine, non sum dignus ...," the choir began singing "Oh Lord I Am Not Worthy." Rock stepped in beside his young son, and slowly walked in procession to the Communion rail. A look came over Junior's face. "Daddy, you go back," he said. "You can't come up here. This is only for Catholics." But Rock marched solemnly on. At the rail he knelt beside his son. "Daddy, go back," said Junior again. "You're not a Catholic. Go back."

By this time, Father Vince was near them with the ciborium. He leaned down to the small boy. "I baptized your father yesterday afternoon," he whispered. “Now he is going to receive his First Communion with you." Admiration, surprise and pride swept over the boy's face. He turned to his father smiling. "I'll offer my Communion for you, Daddy," he said.

That afternoon was also a great one for Rockne. The team knew that he was now a Catholic. Northwestern was playing as well as it had all season, and at the end of the half, were leading 10-0. In the dressing room between the halves, Rock's boys slumped to the floor to wait for an eruption from their coach.

"Good afternoon, ladies," said Rock coming through the door. "So this is the Fighting Irish I've heard so much about. Well, when you go out there in the second half and get the beating you deserve, I won't share the disgrace with you. I will no longer be your coach." Turning to his assistant coach, Hunk Anderson, he said: "You take 'em, Hunk."

Rockne left the dressing room and went up into the stands. He remained there for eight minutes. But that was long enough for the Fighting Irish to score two touchdowns. His boys won 13-10 on Cartier Field.

Maybe Rockne chuckled to himself. Anyway, he could never have lived out his threat if Notre Dame had lost that day. After all it was only the day before that he had become a real member of the team.


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