With a minute and 30 seconds to go and trailing by one point, Dulac University faces fourth-and-10 at the 40-yard line of State University.
Quarterback Elmer Higgins switches out of the punt call and instead shoots a “bullet-like pass” to his wide receiver, who evades the oncoming tackler and darts over the goal line. Dulac has beaten the odds again, and Elmer has proven to his detractors that smarts can transform 135 pounds of heart into an athletic weapon.
So ends The Four Winners—the Head—the Hands—the Foot—the Ball, the first and, as far as anyone knows, only novel written by Knute Rockne.
According to Ralph McInerny, Grace Professor of Philosophy and prolific author of philosophical texts and the Father Dowling mysteries, Rockne’s novel remained little known even within the Notre Dame community until 1955, when he and a colleague discovered a copy of the book hidden inside the Main Building.
Recalling the day, the professor lifts a worn, turf-colored book off the front of his desk—a second edition of the book, brought in by a visitor; the copy he and his colleague discovered now resides in the University Archives. They found it, he says, when a mixture of boredom and curiosity led them to wander from their offices in the Main Building in the direction of an enigmatic and unlocked door down the hall. The room was rumored to be Rockne’s old office.
Inside the “gloomy, chalky” room, he says, they found an old safe built into a foundational column, which has since been walled over. They steel door was not bolted. Inside the safe they found several packages swathed in brown paper, one of which was found to contain The Four Winners.
McInerny describes the novel as the “pinnacle of non-adult fiction” contemporary with the 1920s’ prep-school-boy book trend. The story is populated with one-dimensional characters fond of words like “shucks” and “gee” and reads more like a pep talk or newspaper game report than a novel. Practice and game sequences consume more than half the pages.
McInerny is uncertain about Rockne’s motivations for writing the novel—the immortal coach also published three books on coaching—but he smiles and notes that Rockne was “not above using Notre Dame to create sales.”
This wry cynicism may explain why rumors of ghostwriting trail the book. Blatant Notre Dame parallels certainly suggest easy commercialism. Either that or a complete lack of imagination on the part of Rockne.
Like Notre Dame, Dulac University is an all-boys school seeping with tradition and proud alumni. Its “Victory March” captures the hearts of all who hear it, and the citizens of Dulac’s rural hometown are mesmerized by the university’s “blue-jerseyed men,” who invariably march the road to glory.
The plot also includes a marbles tournament (Rockne reached the finals of ND’s while a student) and a boxing match (Rockne boxed semi-professionally). Elmer Higgins works as a janitor in the science building, just as Rockne did in college. Elmer studies law but dreams of becoming Dulac’s football coach. Rockne taught chemistry at Notre Dame before becoming head coach.
Dulac’s coach also appears to be a Rockne composite. Coach Brown has an unequaled career record yet is still a man of humor and heart. He guarantees players no chance on his team if they are “suffering from a charley horse between the ears.” Rockne used to start games with all second-stringers, who served as “shock troops,” and he introduced complicated pre-snap shifts to keep “mentally sluggish opponents” from spying weaknesses. Dulac’s Coach Brown does likewise and schedules a secret practice so one of Dulac’s heated rivals won’t expect to face Elmer at quarterback.
In addition to the volume McInerny donated to the archives, Hesburgh Library has several copies of The Four Winners available in general circulation. For those interested in purchasing a copy, used-book dealers have been known to market them through such online outlets as Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. A search last fall found prices ranging from $75 to more than $300.