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Reflections from the Dome

Army kicks off to Notre Dame.

Army kicks off to Notre Dame.

 

This month's edition of Reflections From The Dome features an excerpt from Murray Sperper’s Shake Down The Thunder on the Army game and Gipper speech, and a lively account of the game from the famous writer Damon Runyon.

Shake Down The Thunder

Chapter 26

“Al Smith and “Win One for the Gipper”: 1928

Whether Rockne conceived his plan to use the Gipp deathbed story the day before the game or on the spur of the moment in the locker room is unknown. Grantland Rice, the other featured columnist in the Herald- Tribune, claimed in his memoirs that the N.D. coach telephoned him on "Friday night before the game," suggesting, "Grant, the boys are tucked in for the night. How about coming down and sitting around with Hunk [Anderson] and me here at the hotel?" Instead, Rice persuaded Rockne to come to his apartment-Hunk presumably remaining with the "boys" -and during their long chat the N.D. coach revealed, for the first time, Gipp's dying words. Rockne then added, "Grant, I've never asked the boys to pull one out for Gipp. Tomorrow I might have to."

This conversation is cited by sports historians as the best proof of the authenticity of George Gipp's request-no one heard him speak the words to Rockne but, eight years later, the coach did not invent them in the locker room because, the night before, he related them to Grantland Rice. Moreover, Rockne would not have lied to the most important sports journalist in America. Unfortunately for this argument, the originator of "Gee-Whiz" sportswriting was as great a fantasist as the N.D. coach.

Grantland Rice, dean of sportswriters in the Golden Age of Sports, the 1920s.

 

Grantland Rice was not in New York that Friday night! The following Sunday's Herald-Tribune featured his eyewitness account of the Saturday game between high-flying Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt in Atlanta, and newspapers in that city noted his presence in the pressbox. For the writer to cover that event, he had to be in Georgia on Friday night or on a train moving through the South. But a few thousand miles of railroad track never kept Grantland Rice from inventing an imaginary meeting, particularly one that gave him an exclusive preview of the most famous locker room speech in sports history. He compounded his lie by placing Hunk Anderson in New York on that Friday night; in fact, the head coach of the University of Saint Louis football team was in the Missouri city, awaiting his Billikens' Saturday afternoon home game against Loyola of Chicago.

 

In the end, only Rockne knew the truth about the authenticity of Gipp's dying wish. However, all the circumstances in 1928-the pressure to alleviate Al Smith's election loss and the humiliation of American Catholics, the necessity of beating Army to salvage the terrible season, the whitewash of Gipp by W.0. McCeehan, and, finally, Rockne's extraordinary talent and long history as a storyteller-indicate that George Gipp's legendary request was first made on Saturday, November 10, 1928.

Many controversies surround Rockne's speech to the Fighting Irish at Yankee Stadium on that day in 1928, not the least of which concerns his actual words. The most famous version is:

"He [Gipp] turned to me [on his deathbed].

'I've got to go, Rock,' he said. 'It's all right. I'm not afraid.' His eyes brightened in a frame of pallor. 'Some time, Rock: he said, '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 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 in Collier's November 22, 1930; reprinted in his posthumous Autobiography, 1931

This was the N.D. coach's only printed rendition of the speech and many later accounts of the event, including the Hollywood biopic, follow this autobiographical passage. It is doubtful, however, that Rockne actually said these words. Not only did they first appear two years after the event but, in all probability, Rockne's ghostwriter at Collier's, John B. Kennedy, wrote them. Rockne's correspondence reveals his use of Kennedy's services, and the Collier's narrative of this event both fits the professional writer's style-"brightened in a frame of pallor," and so on -and contains howling errors that the coach-as-author would not have made. In describing the immediate consequences of the speech, the writer says, "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!'  End of story.

In fact, after the halftime interval Army broke the 0-0 count with a TD, and later, Jack Chevigny scored the tying touchdown. Then, in the fourth quarter, the Notre Dame coach made a brilliant strategic move to win the game. He substituted an obscure end for one play-the winning touchdown pass-and the player gained Notre Dame fame as Johnny "One Play" O'Brien. Surely if Rockne had written these passages about the 1928 Army game, he would have remembered the scoring sequence and his masterstroke.

"They were underdogs and that helped. They had Rockne and he helped. Football people knew that Rockne would fire the boys up in his speech before the game. This is what he told them-and then perhaps you can understand the cold forgetfulness of self of those Irish kids.

 

'On his deathbed George Gipp told me that some day, when the time came, he wanted me to ask a Notre Dame team to beat the Army for him'"

 

Im.

-Francis Wallace in the New York Daily News, November 12, 1928

 

Wallace broke the story of Rockne's speech two days after the game. He had not been in the locker room but Joe Byrne, Jr., an eyewitness, told him about the talk and, on Monday, he published the story in his paper under the headline "GIPP'S GHOST BEAT ARMY," with the subhead "Irish Hero's Deathbed Request Inspired Notre Dame.

When the Daily News's Monday article appeared, the N.D. coach was angry at his protege for going public with the story. Wallace attributed Rockne's displeasure to the writer having "violated a [locker room] confidence," but possibly the coach did not want the tale known because he worried that it would not withstand press and public scrutiny. Certainly Gipp's request was at odds with his character in life--one wit later noted that "it would have been much more like him to ask Rock to put down a bet for him some day when the Irish were a sure thing." In addition, according to Gipp's teammates, he "never referred to himself as 'the Gipper,' " and that nickname only caught on after the 1928 incident.

 

No wire service or New York newspaper picked up Wallace's "death-bed request" story-probably because of their low opinion of the New York Daily News-and it remained in semi-obscurity until the Collier's piece two years later and the subsequent reprinting in the posthumous Autobiography. Only when Hollywood featured it in Knute Rockne-All American did it enter the mainstream of American culture.

Other controversies surround the famous speech. Did it occur before the game, as Wallace implied, or at halftime, as most of the players later claimed? Ted Twomey, the starting right tackle, recalled that before the game, Rockne brought Jack Dempsey into the locker room and the great fighter spoke at length to the team, ending with "Go out there and beat Army!" In all probability, the N.D. coach would not have attempted to top Dempsey's appeal and would have saved his Gipp speech for half- time. Twomey also described the emotional sea in which the team swam: "As we approached Yankee Stadium there were Irish cops on every corner hollering, 'Beat Army! Beat Army!' It was terrific, and really got us keyed up for the game."

The game itself was very different from the later depictions of it, particularly the movie version. The first half was tough, mean football, and although Notre Dame had the best scoring drive, the Fighting Irish stalled when their fullback fumbled on the Army two-yard line and the Kaydets recovered in the end zone for a touchback. The half ended 0-0. In the locker room, according to Joe Byrne, Jr., the N.D. coach launched his Gipp talk with a description of the player's career, his illness, and his hospital room; finally, Rockne announced the dying wish.

One of the N.D. assistant coaches, Ed Healy, later said, "There was no one in the room that wasn't crying, including Rockne and me. There was a moment of silence, and then all of a sudden those players ran out of the dressing room and almost tore the hinges off the door. They were all ready to kill someone." Unfortunately for N.D, it was not yet Army-the Kaydets took the second half kickoff and slowly moved down the field, with "Red" Cagle leading the attack, and scored a touchdown.

Christian “Red” Cagle, Army’s famous left halfback.

 

But Notre Dame hung in the game and, near the end of the third quarter, Jack Chevigny plunged over from the two. Even the cynical Westbrook Pegler in the pressbox noticed that the Fighting Irish were playing with special intensity; he wrote the next day-before the Gipp story was known-that the N.D. comeback "must have been one of those strange mind-over-matter affairs that the coaches...talk about with such simple faith."

Butch Niemic’s famous pass to Johnny O’Brien.

 

At 6-6, the teams battled through the fourth quarter until Rockne sent in Johnny O'Brien with a pass play. He ran his pattern to the goal line and Niemic, on the forty-three-yard line, hit him perfectly for the touchdown. Notre Dame missed the PAT but was ahead, 12-6. Army did not give up; Cagle returned the kickoff to the N.D. thirty-one-yard line, then battered his way to the ten, were, according to a journalist, he "has to be dragged out of the game because he is groggy from the sustained pummeling he has undergone since the opening scrimmage."

On a pass-and-run, Army then moved the ball to the one-foot line, but before the Kaydets could attempt another play, the referee blew the final whistle-starting a huge controversy about whether he had ended the game too soon and robbed Army. A telegram from the New York World demanded that Rockne state "WHAT THE SITUATION WAS WHEN WHISTLE ENDED ARMY GAME....WHOSE BALL WAS IT?" According to the rules, if the Kaydets had made a first down, they were entitled to another play. However, in a telegram to Francis Wallace, the N.D. coach replied: "PERSONALLY THINK THE MATTER OF NO IMPORTANCE." He elaborated: "THEY [OUR PLAYERS] CLAIM ARMY DID NOT MAKE FIRST DOWN BY OVER A YARD. BUT BEFORE ANYTHING COULD BE DONE WHISTLE SOUNDED AND GAME WAS OVER. ...MATTER IN MY OPINION IS OF NO IMPORTANCE."

The referee who blew the whistle was Walter Eckersall. The Chicago Tribune writer later felt badly about his call, and Wallace wired Rockne: "ECKERSALL AND [WEST POINT COACH] BIFF JONES CLAIM ARMY BALL WHEN GAME ENDED. I AM HOLDING THE BAG [IN DEFENDING NOTRE DAME]." But a day later, Eckersall blurred his story, telling Wallace and the Daily News, "As time was up when an Army man made a plunge, I did not pay any attention to the ball reverting back to Notre Dame or remaining in possession of the Army." Rockne shunned the controversy and he wired Wallace, "IT WAS A GREAT GAME AND THE SCORE IS TWELVE TO SIX."

The subsequent accounts of the 1928 game always portray the Notre Dame win as inevitable-once the Fighting Irish heard the 'Win One for the Gipper" speech nothing could stand between them and victory. In reality, if Kaydet star "Red" Cagle had been able to remain and function or if Eckersall had not blown the final whistle when he did, Army might well have scored the tying touchdown. One New York columnist believed that if the game had continued "ten seconds more...the Army almost certainly would have scored, as its desperate attack had Rockne's team backing up in bewilderment." With the TD and conversion, the 1928 result would have been Army 13-Notre Dame 12; without the PAT, a 12-12 tie. With either score, Knute Rockne's invocation to the memory of George Gipp would have gone to the same unmarked grave as all the other locker room speeches that failed to bring victory.

One can also speculate on what the absence from history of the "Gipper" speech would have meant for the Hollywood film on Rockne and especially the political career of the actor who portrayed George Gipp.

Would Ronald Reagan have been as successful, particularly in appealing to the crucial voting bloc of "Reagan Democrats"-many of them Catholic-without his appealing campaign slogan, "Win One for the Gipper"? But football games and elections cannot be replayed; Notre Dame won the famous game and Ronald Reagan triumphed.

 

Famous New York writer Damon Runyon wrote the following account of the game for the November 11, 1928 edition of the New York American.

 

Notre Dame Beats Army, 12-6

By Damon Runyon

A MYSTERIOUS YOUNG MAN named O'Brien was quietly insinuated into the Notre Dame football lineup by Mr. Knute Rockne at the Yankee Stadium along toward the shank of the evening yesterday. The score then stood 6 for Notre Dame and 6 for the Army.

Johnny O’Brien

 

The advent of this young O'Brien person was almost surreptitious, so quietly did he appear with orders from Mr. Rockne to take the place of Colrick at end.

Few among the 80,000 slightly incoherent souls packing the stands noticed him, and he didn't look important enough to the Army for any of the Soldiers to request an introduction. There are always so many strangers with names that sound like O'Brien drifting in and out of the Notre Dame line-up that a cadet really hasn't time to get acquainted with them all.

This O'Brien person remained a vague and shadowy presence for the moment. Then it suddenly developed that he is a professional football catcher and had been sneaked into the pastime by Mr. Rockne, maybe with glue on his hands, to catch a 35-yard forward pass from John Niemic that produced a touchdown and the astounding defeat of the great Army team by a score of 12 to 6.

The Soldiers went looking for the O'Brien fellow a minute later, but he had quickly retired to the sidelines and hid himself under a warm blanket. The Army intelligence department could only develop the information that he comes from the Los Angeles High School and that his first name is John. The last is no clue. Everybody on the Notre Dame team is named John, including Niemic who made the astonishing pass.

It came at a moment when it looked as if the very best the boys could do would be a tie. Even that would have been deemed a moral victory for the South Bend young men over the unbeaten Army outfit. It was the big upset of the season. All our most astute experts figured Army two touchdowns over Notre Dame. But of course they didn't know Mr. Rockne had a guy with glue on his fingers under cover.

Something detained the mighty "Onward Christian" Cagle until the game was well into the evening dusk. He had one outburst when he chipped in on Army's only touchdown with a brief gallop and a long pass. Then he subsided to some extent, what with Miller and Law and some of those other Notre Dame boys stepping on him even when he was just standing still.

But after the sudden appearance and the equally sudden disappearance of the mysterious kid from Los Angeles, Cagle seemed to get indignant. Perhaps he thought a dirty trick had been perpetrated on the Army. He broke out with a fifty-five yard whizz. He tore off another blast of speed for about twenty yards. He chucked forward passes around like a man possessed.

He got the old ball down within about fifteen yards of the Notre Dame goal, one way and another; then General "Biff" Jones, the Army coach, installed one Hutchinson in Cagle's stead to do a little passing. Perhaps he thought Cagle was losing control. Anyway, with Hutch doing the pitching, the Army had the ball within a couple of feet of the South Benders' goal when the game ended.

 

A handful of serious looking gentlemen came out on the field after the game and made heavy work of tearing down a pair of goal posts and lugging them around by way of jubilating on behalf of Notre Dame. The soldiers went away very sad. The crowd was all limp from the hysteria of the last few minutes of the business.

 

Jake Ruppert has so arranged his ball yard in the Bronx that it holds around 75,000 men, women and small children. The footballers expanded that capacity to some extent by putting in extra shelves here and there, and I would say that 80,000 is a very fair estimate of the size of the assemblage, most of the members there of being New Yorkers.

 

The noble specs were using crying towels outside the green and gray walls of the colonel's baseball edifice because they couldn't get $50 apiece for the coveted paste boards, as we speak of them at the club. It is feared that the sucker crop is really decreasing hereabouts. The West Point cadets marched into the stadium behind their band and paraded the field with an expertness and precision born of long practice this season. The boys are getting plenty of hiking going through the 1928 schedule. The stands were only about half filled at this time. There was a terrific jam on the bridges across the Harlem and even at the subway terminal.

 

After all these years they are still unable to handle a football crowd in New York as well as they do in New Haven or even Princeton. A milk wagon can tie up the traffic in New York in a hard snarl.

The Cadets took up a position in the left field stand. There didn't seem to be enough Notre Dame rooters on hand to make a representation in anyone section. The wandering tribe covers too much territory to carry a cheering section with it.

Mr. Walter Eckersall, of Chicago, one of the greatest football players of the pre-historic era, and now an able football writer and official, came on the field in short white pants and looked things over. He was the referee.

With him was The Evening Journal's candidate for all-American eating honors, Mr. Tom Thorpe. He also wore a pair of balloon panties. He was the umpire. Mr. Thorpe is growing a bit stout and, in fact, he can cover more ground sitting down than the Notre Dame team running the ball. F. W. Murphy, of Brown, and N. E. Kearns, of DePaul, Chicago, were the other officials.

Sprague kicked off for Army at 1:45 and Brady-ran the ball back fifteen yards. Many seats were still empty. The clients were outside fighting bravely.

The folks were eagerly watching Christian Cagle and after Notre Dame had kicked, following a couple of futile charges, the ball was turned over to the great back of the Army with No.12 on his jersey. He promptly proceeded to fumble, and then skid on his nose as Miller and F. Collins hit him. It was an inauspicious start. The Army presently had to kick.

 

Niemic bucked a neat pass right into Jack Chevigny's pads, but Jack muffed it. He was loose and fell at the time, too. Niemic tried it again, but picked out E. Collins this time. The chuck was too long. Niemic lifted a beaut of a punt to the Cadets' 20-yard line. The field seemed a little soggy. The boys were skidding all over the joint.

 

Niemic hits Fred Collins with a 20 yard pass. (Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives)

 

 

Notre Dame got the ball again and Brady flipped a pip of a pass to Chevigny for a gain of twenty yards before Hall nailed the young man from South Bend. That put the ball in mid-field, where it started, and Notre Dame proceeded to lose some of the yardage gained by bouncing back off the Army wall. So the South Benders went back to chuck ball. Niemiec put a dart in Fred Collins' arms for a twenty-yard gain. Niemic whistled another through the ambient, but it was muffed. Niemic had to punt again.

 

Murrell returned the boot. Brady was dropped by Sprague before he had gone very far and the game developed-or should I say degenerated-into a kicking proposition. Cagle tried to lug the ball a couple of times, but Leppig kept leppiging on him, so to speak, and Christian couldn't get untracked. The boys commenced to get all muddy. The stands were pretty well filled by this time. Never was a crowd more delayed.

Niemic finally lifted a punt that landed on Army's two-yard line and rolled out of bounds. Murrell had to kick from behind his own goal and Brady caught the ball on Army's 30-yard line. On the next play, F. Collins went around Army's left end for the first real run of the game to Army's 16-yard line. Chevigny made five yards through center and F. Collins went on by the same route to put the ball within seven yards of Army's goal.

Jack Chevigny

 

Chevigny went two yards more. With the ball on Army's four-yard line on the second down, F. Collins fumbled the pass and Murrell recovered the ball for the Army. So passed an apparently sure touchdown for Notre Dame.

Murrell tore off a fifty-five yard punt and Messenger, his end, was right on top of Brady as the latter caught the ball deep down in Notre Dame territory. F. Collins and Jack Chevigny wasted a lot of strength pounding at the Army front before Niemic had to punt to Nave. Cagle then carried the ball. He made eight yards through center.

Moynihan, the Notre Dame center, halted Murrell. The latter poked through center for five yards before Law nailed him and Cagle squirmed about two yards through center. Murrell couldn't get past that fellow Moynihan, so Army kicked. It was dull stuff.

Allan relieved O'Keefe in Army's backfield after a long recess during which the Cadets' little tea wagons came out and ministered to the suffering stretched out on the grass. The Soldiers seemed to be getting sniped no little.

Starting from their own forty-yard line, Notre Dame took up a march headed by Chevigny, F. Collins and Hall that carried right through Army's line to Army's thirty-five-yard line before Niemic punted.

The half ended with the boys tussling in Army territory with the ball belonging to the Army for the moment.

Sprague, the Army tackle, who was elected lieutenant of his cadet company only yesterday morning, was laid out in almost the first scrimmage. Sprague had his nose broken in the Harvard game.

It was after a brief delay while the tea wagon was tending Sprague that Cagle cut loose. He first carried the ball from Army's 27-yard line to the 47-yard line. Then he whipped a forty-yard pass to Messinger putting the ball on Notre Dame's fifteen-yard line. It was an amazing toss, perfectly hurled and perfectly handled.

With the Army cheering section all abuzz, the Cadet backs began hammering the Notre Dame line.

Cagle, O'Keefe and Murrell smashed away, moving the ball forward by inches, Cagle finally making first down on Notre Dame's three-yard line. On the next drive, Cagle put the ball on the one-yard line. He was slightly hurt in that smash and the tea wagon came for him.

When he got to his feet again the crowd cheered. With only a foot to go Murrell pushed his noggin through a hole in the center of the line. Sprague failed to kick goal. Score, Army, 6; Notre Dame, 0.

 

Sprague had to remove the nose guard that protects his broken beak as he made the kick. Law, the Notre Dame guard, and F. Collins put up a mighty battle against that last onslaught of the Army.

 

Humber, of the Army, was stretched out early in the third period as Notre Dame was putting on a drive and Dibb took his place.

Notre Dame shoved the ball by charging to Army's 42-yard line, then Messinger, one of the greatest ends that ever wore cleats, nailed Chevigny running with the ball and pushed him back for a loss. Notre Dame had to kick and Army quickly returned the compliment.

A 15-yard penalty gave Notre Dame the ball on Army's 36-yard line. F. Collins made 4 yards through center and then skipped around Army's right end to Army's 24-yard line, where Hall nabbed him.

Chevigny leaped right over the Army center and traveled to Army's 10-yard line before Cagle could bring him down. Parham relieved the wounded Sprague and F. Collins went around Army's left end for a brief gain, putting the ball on Army's 9-yard line directly in front of the goal posts. Poor Sprague sat on the sidelines all by himself huddled up under a gray blanket while Hall took over the job as captain of the Army team.

Lynch relieved the great Messinger. Niemic crowded the ball to within seven yards of the Army goal where Hammack halted him. Chevigny pounded through center and deposited the old melon three yards from the West Point goal.

Hall stopped Collins' plunge. It was first down and about a foot to go. Chevigny was thrown for a slight loss. F. Collins couldn't gain, Nave stopping him. Collins was halted again. He was hurling himself at center. On the next try Chevigny took the ball and smashed through to a touchdown. Niemic's kick was blocked, leaving the score tied, Army, 6; Notre Dame, 6.

Frank Carideo kicked off to Cagle, who rambled back to Army's 20-yard line with the ball. Leppig stopped Cagle's next lunge as the period ended.

They swapped goals and Murrell kicked after one futile charge. The tea wagon moved to the succor of some of the soldiers during a recess.

F. Collins suddenly rifled through Army's center for 15 yards before Hall got him. Carl Mark stopped him on his next try. Notre Dame tried a pass which failed and Army was penalized for offside. That put the ball on Army's 38-yard line.

Carideo carried the ball for a brief gain and Chevigny failed on a crack at Army's right end. Murrell halted F. Collins. A pass failed. Carideo dropped back to the 45-yard line and with Chevigny holding the ball tried a place kick, a rare attempt these days.

It was a good try, but failed. Cagle made one short gain and Murrell punted, giving Notre Dame the ball on its own 45-yard line. Niemic tried a pass that failed, then Chevigny hit center for eight yards.

 

Notre Dame kicked to Army's 20-yard line. Cagle tried rushing, but his gains were short. Law was always on top of him. Army kicked. Chevigny got away for a ten-yard gain. Carideo made first down on Army's 45-yard line. Now Chevigny circled Army's right end for fifteen yards.

 

The ball was on the soldiers' 30-yard line. F. Collins and Niemic pounded the Army line for 10 yards. Chevigny joined in and the ball was on Army's 15-yard line when Chevigny fumbled a pass and the ball rolled back to Army's 30-yard, where Chevigny fell on it for a recovery.

 

He was so badly hurt as the Army tacklers piled on him that he had to be helped from the field. Dew took his place. Piper relieved Murrell, of the Army. A Notre Dame forward pass went all askew.

 

On the next play Niemic took the ball, ran back to Army's 45-yard line and, pulling back his arm, let fly to a man in a Notre Dame helmet who was drifting down toward the Army goal. It was a coolly calculated pass and covered thirty-five yards. The ball drifted right into the outstretched arms of O'Brien, who merely had to keep trotting onward a couple of yards to the touchdown.

 

O'Brien, who had relieved Colrick in the Notre Dame lineup just before this play, was immediately taken out again. Carideo missed goal while the crowd was still roaring.

 

A moment later it went fairly wild as Cagle began some strange manifestations. He cut loose with a fifty-five yard run. He chucked a pass to the Notre Dame goal that Carideo just barely managed to break up. He ran twenty yards more a moment later, then was relieved by Hutchinson.

 

A forward pass from Hutchinson to Gibner and a last minute charge by Hutchinson put the ball within two yards of the Notre Dame goal as the final whistle sounded.

 

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