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Legacy of Gipp lives on in sports today

1921 Dome, George Gipp, Player of the Year 1920, All American 1920

LAURIUM — He died nearly a century ago, but the legacy of football immortal George Gipp endures to this day.

The Laurium native — and Notre Dame football legend — has been the subject of at least two books over the past decade.

And the ESPN television network planned a segment on him in its popular E:30 program a few years ago. It was postponed because of legal difficulties.

“He (Gipp) was such a large athletic figure during his era,” said Calumet sports historian Bob Erkkila. “I think it was only natural that his name would still be relevant today.”

The 1920s was a time that produced legends like baseball’s Babe Ruth, heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey, Finnish Olympic runner Paavo Nurmi and others.

It may seem curious to some observers that a kid from a mining town in northern Michigan would attract such attention.

The late Pete Baudino of Calumet said that Gipp had a presence about him.

“The first time you saw him‚ you knew he was something special,” said Baudino, who lived to the age of 96. “He was a natural at whatever sport he chose to play.”

The greatest irony in the Gipp legend was that he never played football at Calumet High.

Former classmate Jack Mishica remembers Gipp walking past football practice — on his way to the billiards hall.

“Oh, he could have certainly played (in high school),” the late Mishica said in a 1988 interview. “He just wasn’t interested.”

Mishica, who played football at Kalamazoo College, recalled a day when Gipp picked up a football at Aggasiz Field and drop-kicked it some 90 yards.

“That dropped a few jaws at practice,” he said. “Including the coaches.”

Still, he was recruited to play baseball at Notre Dame after starring in that sport for the town team (he hit .494 for the 1917 Upper Peninsula champions.)

But Irish football coach Knute Rockne spotted him throwing the football around on campus and quickly recruited him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Famed Chicago sportswriter Grantland Rice once described Gipp’s running style as “a combination of a deer and a freight train.”

Surprisingly, his passing ability was nearly equal to his running skills.

As a senior, he rushed for 827 yards and eight touchdowns and passed for another 709 yards and seven touchdowns. Those were lofty stats in those days and earned him a spot on Walter Camp’s All-American team.

His 2,341 career rushing yards stood as a school record for 50 years.

Like most stellar athletes, Gipp, who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 185 pounds, had his best games in big games.

In a comeback 27-17 win over favored Army, he rushed for 150 yards and passed for another 127.

But when he came off his sick bed to rally Notre Dame to an important late season win over Indiana, the consequences were dire.

He was hospitalized with strep threat afterward and died on Dec. 20, 1920.

Businesses in Calumet and Laurium closed the following day and a military funeral was held for Gipp at the Calumet Armory.

Legend has it that Rockne was called to his star’s deathbed and the immortal words of “Win one for the Gipper” were uttered.

Ronald Reagan, who portrayed Gipp in the movie, “Knute Rockne, All-American,” often said his later rise to President was inspired by the term.

The Gipp Memorial in Laurium was dedicated in 1938 with several Notre Dame teammates and officials showing up.

The memorial remains one of the most visited in the area.

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