It took a combination of a possibly fictitious deathbed wish by a charismatic Notre Dame player who’d starred in his final game barely three weeks earlier, the timely recollection of that wish 8 years later in his coach’s halftime speech, a Hollywood rendition of that speech in an iconic movie made 12 years after that, and the ascension to the presidency 40 years after that by the actor who portrayed the dying player in the movie and who shared that player’s nickname—-but by the time Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States 60 years after the player’s death, there was scarcely a person left in America who didn’t know of the player (George Gipp), the coach (Knute Rockne), and the movie (Knute Rockne—All-American) which helped to propel Ronald (The Gipper) Reagan into the national limelight.
The Notre Dame-Army rivalry began at West Point in 1913, when a virtually unknown quarterback named Gus Dorais and a farsighted end named Knute Rockne decided that the only way their team could overcome the Army’s size advantage was to make use of the heretofore little-known weapon of the forward pass. By the time the day was over, neither Gus Dorais nor Knute Rockne nor the Notre Dame eleven were obscure any more, as the Ramblers (as they were then known) dismantled the Cadets by a lopsided score of 35 to 13.. More games followed, and with the growing interest the battleground was moved from West Point to the bigger Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, to the even bigger Polo Grounds in Manhattan, and finally to the mammoth new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, where it was to remain until 1946. Invariably the packed stands were divided between the Army veterans and their families on the one hand, and what was called the Notre Dame “subway alumni” on the other, made up of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe who had settled in the New York area, and whose children usually formed the bulk of the Notre Dame roster. For over 30 years the game was considered the national highlight of the college football season, as no two other schools had such a large rooting base of non-alumni fans.
The program for the game that was the instigator of all this attention was the standard Yankee Stadium issue, with photographs of the two team captains framed in a decorative motif, with the text in Old English type. The 50 cent price was twice as high as the typical program of its day, and can easily fetch a thousand dollars or more at auction today. It’s hard to think of a game that better embodies the spirit of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
Click here to buy a poster of this program cover.