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Sports Then and Now

The Legend of George Gipp

Posted on February 03, 2014 by Martin Banks

Many American sports fans are aware of the legend of George Gipp, as it has risen to almost mythological heights. Gipp was one of the best college football players of all time, but is best known because of the phrase “win one for the Gipper,” which was popularized in a film about Coach Knute Rockne’s life.


Gipp died shortly after playing his final football game, but Rockne used this death to motivate his team before a game seven years later. Because this speech became so famous, Gipp’s legacy has lived on. Today, Gipp is a legendary figure, although we might never know the exact truth behind his life since he died so long ago and lived a very secretive life.

About George Gipp

Although he originally attended Notre Dame to play baseball, legendary coach Rockne convinced George Gipp to join the school’s football team. Gipp went on to lead the Fighting Irish in rushing and passing in 1918, 1919 and 1920, earning All-American honors in the process. Gipp is recognized as one of the best athletes in the history of college football and still holds numerous school records.

Gipp’s Death

In November of 1920, Gipp ended up with a throat infection that eventually turned into pneumonia. He died on December 14 at the age of 25. The exact manner in which Gipp got sick remains in question. One story is that Gipp missed his curfew one night and, therefore, could not get back into his residence. He then attempted to sleep in Washington Hall, where he was a steward, but the door was locked. He was forced to spend the night outside, which is how he got sick. The more likely cause, however, was Gipp’s lifestyle, as he kept very late hours, making it very difficult for him to recover once he got sick.

Common Myths

Much of what we think we know about George Gipp is fiction. Some of this came from the 1940 film Knute Rockne – All American, in which Ronald Reagan portrayed Gipp. Other myths have arisen because Gipp was such a secretive person who rarely opened up to his friends and teammates.

The truth is that Gipp probably did not tell Rockne to “win one for the Gipper.” Many of his former teammates have stated that saying something like that would not be in his character. It is believed that Rockne made up the entire scenario because, frankly, he would do anything to win a football game. It is very likely that Rockne was not even present when Gipp died, since it occurred in the middle of the night. In fact, the “Gipper” was not even Gipp’s nickname, as that was entirely invented by Rockne.

In addition, Gipp was not the standup guy that the legend has made him out to be. He was a gambler and a pool hustler who liked to drink and consistently missed his curfew. He was also expelled from Notre Dame in 1920 for missing too many classes, only to be reinstated because of pressure from the school’s donors. In today’s world, he would have had better luck with online college resources like StateCE, but of course those didn’t exist back then.

George Gipp’s story has persisted for generations because it is so unique. Very few athletes die during their primes and then go on to inspire new generations of athletes. Unfortunately, in this case, this inspiration is mostly fiction, but that does not make the legend of George Gipp any less entertaining.

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