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Notre Dame-Army recalls "Gipper" speech at Stadium

This is a 1925 photo of Notre Dame

This is a 1925 photo of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. Credit: AP

It wasn't only his Notre Dame players that burst out of the Yankee Stadium locker room on Nov. 10, 1928, nearly tearing the doors off the hinges. Knute Rockne's words also charged out of there, flooding through the decades, flowing into history, bouncing even into the White House. They have echoed in just about every American's ear: "Win one for the Gipper."

"It's part of the language," said Ray Robinson, the 90-year-old author, editor and Rockne biographer. Robinson also has another way to describe what might be the most famous pep talk in sports history: "a fake."

He said it is unlikely that Rockne had a one-on-one with George Gipp near the young former football star's death bed in 1920, a scene that the coach recreated (quoting Gipp) to inspire his team for the second half of a game against undefeated Army. Robinson added that nobody, especially the player himself, ever had referred to Gipp as "the Gipper."

"I'm always amused by that one," said Robinson, author of "Rockne of Notre Dame" and many other books. He added that Ronald Reagan, who played Gipp in the 1940 movie about Rockne's life, later sheepishly called the halftime oratory "a permissible invention."

The fact is, though, that the facts didn't matter back then. Notre Dame's impassioned team emerged from a scoreless tie and beat Army, 12-6. And the facts don't matter now. Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" speech helped create a fabled comeback for a fabled program against a fabled opponent in a fabled setting.

All of it helped make major college football what it is today. So when Notre Dame and Army meet Saturday night in the first college football game in the new Yankee Stadium, it will be more than a nice little class reunion. It will be homage to the beginnings of their entire sport.

It does not matter that neither Army nor Notre Dame is now a college football titan. They set the foundation for all other titans. Saturday night will be every team's class reunion.

"Notre Dame-Army in the 1920s, '30s and '40s was the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl was invented," said Jim Dent, the former newspaper reporter whose best-selling books include "Resurrection: The Miracle Season that Saved Notre Dame."

"College football was just not that big until Notre Dame got it rolling," he said. "It was a little like professional wrestling."

The Gipper speech, especially as portrayed by Pat O'Brien in "Knute Rockne All American," with the "Notre Dame Victory March" playing in the background, was a touchstone. "I think that quote is probably the most well-known in all of sports," Dent said. "Even casual fans instantly recognize what it means."

That befit a lustrous rivalry.

"It was a major event, like a Jack Dempsey title fight or Babe Ruth playing in the World Series," Robinson said, attributing the luster to Rockne: "He made college football a national obsession."

Stadium the right spot

Yankee Stadium was the perfect venue for a series that had outgrown West Point and then Ebbets Field. It was too glamorous for the Polo Grounds, another temporary home.

"It meant everything. The place was just built. It was the House that Ruth Built," Dent said. "It was America's answer to the Roman Colosseum."

College football was part of the fabric of the original Yankee Stadium, like the frieze and the pillars. The first game, a 3-0 win for Syracuse over Pittsburgh, occurred soon after the Yankees' first season there. Army, under coach Red Blaik, excelled with its Heisman Trophy backfield, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, throttling Notre Dame, 59-0 and 48-0, during World War II.

When the teams met again in 1946, it was billed as the Game of the Century, but ended in a scoreless tie. Dent said a rumored $15 million was bet on that contest, which helped convince the teams to stop their annual visit in 1947. They returned in 1969 for a Joe Theismann-led 45-0 Notre Dame rout.

All kinds of history

Other bookmarks in the annals of college ball at the Stadium:

The disastrous and final Gotham Bowl during a 1962 newspaper strike when 90 percent of the seats were empty. (Nebraska refused to get on the plane for New York until the bowl committee's check cleared.)

A somber Thanksgiving game between Syracuse and Notre Dame six days after John F. Kennedy's assassination. (Dent said the loss convinced Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame's president, to restructure the program and hire Ara Parseghian).

Vince Lombardi played there as one of Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite.

Also, the country got to know more about Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson when he frequently brought Grambling to the Stadium for the Whitney M. Young Urban League Classic.

All of that history helped win over a sporting public that was focused almost solely on baseball before the 1920s. That, ultimately, was what they won for the Gipper.

New York Sports