The legend comes to life

Author: Ken Rappoport

“We’re going inside of them, we’re going outside of them; inside of them, outside of them – and when we get them on the run once, we’re going to keep them on the run – and we’re not going to pass unless their secondary comes up too close. But don’t forget, men, we’re going to get them on the run; and we’re going to go, go, go, go; and we aren’t going to stop until we go over that goal line – and don’t forget, men, today is the day we’re going to win. They can’t lick us, and that’s how it goes. The first-platoon men go in there and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! What do you say, men?”—Knute Rockne


One spring day Harold Lyle went back to the spot where it happened. He climbed through some barbed wire and walked across the hills. It was warm, and Lyle took off his jacket and wiped his brow.


“It was over there,” he said. “That’s where the plane crashed. That’s where Knute Rockne died. It was pretty bad. The bodies were in bad shape. It was rainy and muddy and cold. It was pretty bad.”


Lyle scanned the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas where a plane crash tool the lives of Rockne and seven others on March 31, 1931. The crash site was marked by a simple limestone and granite monument, carrying the names of the victims.


The tragedy of the event was still seared in Lyle’s mind. He was a witness, in the role of a newspaper photographer. Lyle photographed the wreckage and took away a bizarre picture that stayed forever in memory.


Lyle had come to work early that day at the Wichita Eagle. He read a story on the teletype about Rockne leaving Kansas City on a Transcontinental & Western plane for Wichita. From there the passengers were to take a train to Albuquerque and board another flight to Los Angeles. Rockne had business there.


“Then the bulletin bell on the machine started ringing and there was a story about a plane going down in Chase County, Kansas,” Lyle recalled. “And, of course, we all thought….”


Lyle and the Eagle’s sports editor, Bill Cunningham, went to the airport and chartered a plane to search for the downed aircraft.


“We couldn’t find the wreck once we got up in Chase County.  But finally we saw the ground, and there was a cowboy on a horse waving a red bandanna toward the southeast, and we followed this sign. In a couple of minutes, we saw the plane. It was the Transcontinental & Western. I knew Rockne was dead. I took the aerial photographs then. I hated to, but it was my job.”


The plane that Lyle and Cunningham were in almost crashed itself, and after a wobbly landing, the photographer jumped out and continued taking pictures. By midafternoon hundreds of others arrived at the scene through muddy fields. Lyle recalled that some of those who came stripped the plane’s wreckage.


The trimotor Fokker plane, made leaden by heavy ice on the wings and facing a sky “full of dust and smoke with an awful wind,” had cartwheeled out of the air and crashed into a pasture near Bazaar, Kans. Federal investigators said the crash was caused by icing on the monoplane’s wings that made its controls inoperative.


“Every time I come back to the hills,” Lyle said, “I just think back to that miserable day.”


Knute Rockne belonged to all types and all ages. To the world he was a football legend. He was a national hero in his own lifetime. To millions who never met Rockne but read every word about him, his image loomed larger than life.


Football players called him their confessor. When they were in trouble, they went to Rockne. When they needed money, they got it from Rockne. They always sought him out first.


To athletes of other sports at Notre Dame, Rockne was a champion of their causes, an energetic director of athletics. To other students at Notre Dame, he was a champion. He set campus feeling afire with his words. On the field he was familiar, directing the Notre Dame attack from the sidelines like Napoleon. His quips at football luncheons or on the practice fields were retold in campus dormitories. He reached the students’ hearts and minds.


One writer who knew him recalled: “Leader that he was, he had a way of looking pathetic at times that made every man in the school want to go out and fight for him, even though there was nothing to fight for. Any attack on him in the papers brought a storm of indignation.”


Athletic romanticism flourished at Notre Dame largely because of Rockne. “Sneer at rah-rahism if you please; such primitive emotionalism is the kind of soil on which football success flowers,” noted George Trevor in the New York Sun at the height of Rockne’s glory. Football carries an appeal similar to that which the jousting lists used to hold for King Arthur’s knights.”


Rockne thrilled the nation during his reign at Notre Dame (1918-1931). Coming home from conquests, his triumphal processions made South Bend go berserk. Hundreds turned out at the train station and lined the curbs of Michigan Street as Rockne’s forces marched to the tune of band music.


Rockne had a profound sense of fairness. When a wealthy alumnus demanded that his son be placed on the varsity eleven, the coach replied: “I care only about the team. We play no favorites. My eleven best men will make up my first eleven, regardless of financial status or social prominence. Whatever man of whatever birth comes to this university and can play football – he is my man, a part of my team. We are just Notre Dame men here.”


His personality and innovations made the Rockne legend glow. Francis Wallace, a Notre Dame historian and one of the men closest to Rockne, remembers: “Rockne was associated in the public mind with offense, but his defense was always sound. Because in the upset of Army in 1913, he was the prime receiver in the first spectacular demonstration of the forward pass, he was considered an exponent of the pass. But as a coach he used it only as an effective complement to a strong basic running game. He was an innovator rather than an inventor, and adapter who might pick up a new wrinkle from an opponent and use it to defeat that opponent the following year.  He adapted his system to his personnel.”

Many Rockne stories concern his famous halftime speeches. Wrote Grantland Rice: “I was sitting one night with the Army coaching staff before an Army-Notre Dame game. Novack, the smart Army scout, offered this tip: ‘Starting the second half, take the kickoff if you can. Don’t give the ball to Notre Dame. Rock will have them steamed up by that time. Don’t give Notre Dame the ball.’ But Army kicked off to Notre Dame. On the next play Chris Flanagan ran 70 yards to a touchdown. Every Army man was flat on his back. Notre Dame won 7-0.”

Rockne’s most famous halftime speech, of course, was the one in 1928 in which he urged his charges to “win one for the Gipper.” And Notre Dame did go out and beat Army that day in memory of George Gipp. But there were other Rockne classics. One of the coach’s tricks was to ignore his team completely during halftime. He would sit sullenly in a corner, then finally get up and say disgustedly, “All right, girls, let’s go.” On another occasion, when Notre Dame played a poor first half, Rockne merely opened the door to the dressing room, peeked in, and said: “I beg your pardon. I thought this was the Notre Dame team.” Jim Crowley, one of the “Four Horsemen,” remembers:

“We were playing Georgia Tech in 1922, and they had been undefeated on their home field for years. Rockne came into the dressing room carrying a telegram. ‘I have a wire here, boys, and it probably doesn’t mean much to you but it means a great deal to me,’ said the Rock. ‘It’s from my poor, sick, little boy Billy who’s critically ill in the hospital in South Bend.’ And then he read the wire, with teary eyes, a lump in his throat and quivering lips. ‘I want Daddy’s team to win.’ So, God, we knocked him down, went through a pole at the door, and got on the field about 10 minutes before game time. We took a hell of a pounding from this great Georgia Tech team because they had been out to beat us for years, but we won the game for little Billy 13-3.

“Well, when we got back to South Bend, there must have been about 20,000 people to greet us. And as we stepped down off the train racked in pain, the first face we saw was Rockne’s kid. He was in the front line. There was ‘poor, sick, little Billy’ looking like an ad for Pet Milk, and we were all basket cases.”