- The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football
Given that Jack Cavanaugh has been a reporter, sportswriter, professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and was nominated for a Pulitzer prize for his biography of boxer Gene Tunney, this work is a disappointment. Aimed at a popular audience, quotations are uncited and often lack attribution. Several factual errors mar the text and opinions or speculations lack convincing support. For example, Cavanaugh asserts that Gipp overshadowed both Jim Thorpe and Red Grange (p. 2). The opinion of Knute Rockne in that matter is hardly an unbiased one. He claims that Gipp played cornerback on defense (p. 45), a position that did not exist in that era. The famous White House meeting between President Teddy Roosevelt and influential coaches in 1905 is characterized as a threat to abolish football (p. 83), when it was actually an attempt to save the game. Elmer Layden, fullback of the famed Four Horsemen, is listed as a tackle (p. 249). Cavanaugh claims that the government of Spanish dicatator Francisco Franco was overthrown, despite the fact that Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975 (p. 272). Despite the subtitle, Knute Rockne figures prominently only in the last three of the book’s twenty chapters.
The vast majority of the book revolves around Gipp, his perplexing personality, lifestyle, a failed love affair, and his incredible athletic ability that brought national attention to the Notre Dame football program. His career rushing yardage record stood for fifty-eight years, and rushing average per carry of 8.1 and total yards per game remain on the Notre Dame record books. His sixty-two-yard field goal may never be surpassed. Such talent, and the intercessions of Rockne, allowed Gipp to continue to perform despite academic deficiencies, a practice that continues in wholesale fashion throughout the college football ranks today.
Although a recent work, there is nothing new in Cavanaugh’s research. Much of the book is seemingly gleaned from earlier biographies, such as Patrick Chelland’s One for the Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and Notre Dame in 1973, and Emil Klosinski’s Gipp at Notre Dame: The Untold Story from 2003. The books differ in that Cavanaugh does not delve as deeply into the enigmatic Gipp and his speculations are more guarded. Like Chelland, he presents a more balanced view of the subject, whereas Klosinski refutes the allegations and characterizations of Gipp’s character in a more charitable light than other biographers. Klosinski is closer to his sources—his father and uncle having been Gipp’s acquaintances, and Klosinski maintained a lifelong friendship with Heartley “Hunk” Anderson, Gipp’s best friend. Klosinski comes closer to explaining the working class habitus of Gipp that may account for his fatalism and his uneasy existence in the aspiring bourgeois climate of Notre Dame. Cavanaugh had the advantage of unraveling a more recent myth regarding Gipp but makes no mention of the 2007 exhumation of his body for the purpose of DNA testing to determine his alleged paternity of a child conceived by a former girlfriend. The test exonerated Gipp but resulted in family turmoil and a legal suit against one family member, as well as author Mike Bynum who was at work on a Gipp biography [End Page 168] and who arranged the exhumation and ESPN, which filmed the ordeal. Nearly a century after his demise much about George Gipp remains a mystery.