October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated To millions of Notre Dame fans, George Gipp, who played football at South Bend from 1917 to 1920, was the greatest gridiron performer of all time. But, pardon me, isn’t his alleged farewell spoken to his coach, Knute Rockne, as he lay dying in December 1920, really why we remember the guy?
“I’ve got to go, Rock. I’m not afraid,” Gipp, only 25 years old, supposedly whispered. “Sometimes when things are going wrong, when the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out 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.”
The romantic words have become far better known than Gipp’s playing. In fact, Gipp may never have said them. Rockne may not even have been present when Gipp died, and to top it off, Gipp was never known as the Gipper. He was just plain George. In truth, Gipp was the quintessential “tramp athlete” of his time, which means that he drank heavily, gambled constantly, and perhaps even bet for and against his own team.
None of these biographical facts about Gipp deterred Ronald Reagan from exploiting the Gipp “story” as a politician. Yes, Gipp was the first Notre Damer ever picked on a Walter Camp All-America team, but there were any number of Irish players in ensuing years who were better than he was.
Underrated In the early years of the last century, when Princeton, Yale, and Harvard were at the center of the football universe, a handsome young man named Hobart Amory Hare Baker may have been the most talented football player in the world. However, despite his enormous skills on the gridiron, Hobey has been remembered mainly—if at all—as a streak of lightning on the hockey rink. He may have been the greatest amateur hockey player ever developed outside Canada, and, as such, he has been pretty much forgotten as a footballer.
The product of a narrow, elitist culture at St. Paul’s and pre-World War I Princeton, Hobey was only five feet nine inches and 160 pounds. Although he was a marked man on the field, he had no fear. In 1911 he led Princeton to a national championship, mainly because he was able to drop-kick field goals from almost any point on the field.
He played with a politesse and grace that have long since disappeared from football or, for that matter, from most sports. He was the kind of gentleman that his fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about: almost too good to be believed.
Hobey was a combat flier in World War I. In an act that some hint was suicidal, he died after the Armistice in a crash of his orange and black (Princeton colors) Spad.