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In a mere twelve years, Rockne's "Fighting Irish" won 105 games, including five astonishing undefeated seasons. But Rockne was more than the sum of his victories—he was an icon who, more than anyone, made football an American obsession.
The book gives us colorful descriptions of such Rockne teams as the undefeated 1924 eleven led by the illustrious Four Horsemen, and the 1930 squad, Rockne's last and greatest. A renowned motivator whose "Win one for the Gipper" is the most famous locker-room speech ever, Rockne was also football's most brilliant innovator, a pioneer of the forward pass, a master of the psychological ploy, and an early advocate of conditioning. In this balanced account, Rockne emerges as an exemplary and complex figure: a fierce competitor who was generous in victory and defeat; an inspiring father figure to his players; and a man so revered nationwide that when he died in a plane crash in 1931, at the height of his career, he was mourned by the entire country.
"A solid portrait of one of football's most solid figures."—The New York Times Book Review
In the Land of Fjords
In 1888 Norway was a country of some two million people. The hamlet of Voss, forty-three miles east-northeast of Norway's western coast port of Bergen, and always frosty until June, boasted fewer than ten thousand of those people. One of these was Knute Rockne, born on March 4 of that year.
On the Lutheran church ledger in Voss it is noted that "Knut Rokne" was baptized there the following month. Later an "e" was added to Knute and a "c" was injected into the last name, for there is no "ck" conjunction in Norwegian. A middle name of Kenneth was also added in time, thus filling out a signature that would become the most celebrated name ever to emerge from Voss.
In the heart of the scenic fjord country, Voss is a tranquil agricultural region of glaciers, ice-tipped mountains, lakes, hills, orchards, and waterfalls. At the turn of the century Voss was a rapidly expanding village, due to a recently opened railway connection with Bergen. A Norwegian guide book of the time characterized the people of Voss as "powerful, bold, very intelligent, and obstinate." At the beginning of World War II Nazi bombers practically obliterated thearea, leaving only the thirteenth-century Lutheran church standing. During the raids, which took place over three frightening days, twenty-six people were killed and many others were forced to flee to the hills. Because the Nazis suspected that Voss housed a contingent of Resistance fighters, they had sought to reduce the town to rubble.
Voss remains to this day a popular tourist station and is considered a healthy place to grow up. But after 1888, Knute Rockne and his family did not remain there very long, for that was a time in which close to one-fourth of the population of Norway immigrated to other parts of the world.
In his autobiography, Rockne says he was descended from Enidride Erlandson, a landowner of consequence in Losna, Norway. The Erlandsons presumably refused to have anything to do with Queen Margaret's merger of the three kingdoms of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, returning instead to the mountains of Voss.
Earlier generations of the Roknes were farmers, though work always remained scarce. So it is no surprise that Rockne's great-grandfather, demonstrating the enterprise later so typical of Knute himself, began to construct farm vehicles with wheels. His son, in turn, built wagons and buggies with seats. On the side he was also a hardware merchant. Life was never easy for these men, but they persevered.
Knute's father, Lars Knutson Rokne, aspired to be a carriage builder, using his woodworking abilities to advantage. He manufactured two-wheeled vehicles called carryalls (karjol in Norwegian) and found himself with at least one excellent customer, the kaiser of Germany, who often visited Voss's hills while on his annual vacation. Lars exhibited his handiwork at England's Liverpool Fair one year, winning a prize. This bit of good fortune encouraged him to look outside of the limited boundaries of Voss for a future life for him and his brood.
In 1893 Lars set off for America alone to show one of his carriages at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition, where Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was a headliner. The exposition was commemorating four hundred years of progress since Columbus discovered America.
Although Lars's carriage attracted only minor attention at the exposition, he was much taken with the bustling, energetic city of Chicago. To this venturesome Norseman Chicago seemed to be a place where one might obtain decent employment, unlike Voss, where jobs were limited. And, after all, one wouldn't get too homesick living in Chicago, for when the winds came whistling off Lake Michigan, it was easy to be reminded of Voss. At this time, too, the stockyards and the railroads for which Chicago had become famous gave the city its roaring vitality, and the nefarious Al Capone hadn't yet been born in Naples, Italy. The Chicago politicians may have been wretchedly corrupt and street gangs caroused nightly, but to a wide-eyed Norwegian immigrant these were mostly invisible phenomena.
Before sending for his family to join him in Chicago, Lars obtained a job as a machinist and went to night school to get a better grip on the English language. As he prepared to become an American citizen, he learned that a portly fellow named Grover Cleveland was the president of the United States.
When, at last, the three Rockne daughters and Knut joined Lars in America, they came through Castle Gardens. Little more than five years old, Knut's only equipment for his new life was, in his own words, "a Norwegian vocabulary, a fervent memory of home cooking and pleasant recollections of skiing and skating among the Voss mountains." (Curiously, when Rockne became a famous adult he journeyed to Europe twice but never again set foot in Voss. Despite this oversight, in 1959 some of the natives in Voss decided to honor Rockne's memory with a small brass plaque that sits, appropriately, on a granite rock near the railroad station. The plaque was dedicated by the American ambassador, Clifford R. Wharton, and states in English that Rockne was born in Voss.)
"How my mother ever managed that tedious voyage, which I still recall with qualms, how she guided us through the intricacies of entry, knowing nothing of English, and took us into the heart of a new, strangely bewildering country without mishap," Rockne wrote later, "is one of the millions of minor miracles that are the stuff and fabric of America." Martha Rockne's strength—pulling up her roots and going to a strange land—emanated from a strong religious faith, going back to the clergymen in her lineage. She had, from the start, always made a point of praying with her family, usually before meals, and, in addition, shared musical moments with them. Knute learned to play the flute under her guidance.
The family put down its first roots in a two-storied red-brick home, in Chicago's Logan Square District, where the Irish and the Swedes lived side by side in an atmosphere of acceptance and sullenness. As the youngsters played endless hours of corner lot baseball and football, games that were unheard of in Norway, the police treated them kindly.
There were, of course, occasional incidents of fisticuffs. But a paternal cop named O'Goole acted as an arbiter, exercising only a minimum of bias in favor of the Irish. If the Irish lads pummeled the Swedes (all Scandinavians, including Knute, were known generically as "Swedes"), O'Goole would beam broadly and was not inclined to intervene. However, when the Swedes recruited several Italians to balance things out against the bigger "Irishers," O'Goole was quick to note that "the game is getting too brutal."
In time a large Swedish cop was brought in in an effort to provide a counterbalance to O'Goole. In all of these affairs, Knute was generally able to take good care of himself. Despite his small size, he was shifty with his feet and quite adept with his hands at fighting. Though his father was appalled that in a family of artisans Knute turned out to be "all thumbs," one aspect of his son's personality pleased Lars immensely: Knute was not one who could be bullied or pushed around by anybody.
Life wasn't all street games and fighting for Knute. At school Rockne signed his name as "Kanute Kenneth." He struck the "a" from his first name shortly after to indicate that it was to be pronounced that way but spelled without the "a."
He attended Sunday school regularly and went, with his parents, to the local Luther Immanuel Church. Lars loved music, playing the cornet with some skill, while Martha and the daughters (two more were born in America) played the piano. Knute settled for the flute, which he played with pleasure for the rest of his life.
Football, as it was played by these urchins, was a game without helmets. The football often looked as if it had been chewed up by mountain lions, there were never enough shin guards for players, and one's ears had to be taped down to prevent them from spreading. Knute's parents regarded the game as a form of "modified massacre," banning him from further participation. Such an edict was hard to enforce, for Knute loved the body contact. His folks, of course, thought he was too small for such combat. To them he was too kraftig (stocky in Norwegian).
Whenever his parents weren't around to superintend Knute's behavior, he went out to play. He always did a good deal of fibbing about it, but his physical appearance after a game betrayed him. He played for a dirty-faced group, mostly Irish lads, who called themselves the Barefoot Athletic Club. With Knute's help the Barefooters got into a game for the district championship against the Hamburg Athletic Club. Crowds lined the gridiron, or what passed for it, and a half-dozen gendarmes were called on to keep the spectators at bay. From time to time some of the fans would slip away to recharge their liquid batteries at nearby saloons.
When they returned they became rowdy and partisan, even scrambling onto the field to prevent Knute from running for a touchdown. "Not a Hamburg player was in front of me. But Hamburg rooters came to the rescue. They threw me down and swiped the ball," Rockne recalled. Needless to say, when Knute, in his patched moleskin pants, returned home, his face was bloodied. His spirit, however, was unbowed, until the moment that Lars, for perhaps the tenth time, reminded him that he didn't want him playing this terrible game.
In the summer youngsters in the district switched to baseball. Gloves that barely covered the hand were trotted out, and mushy old horsehides were substituted for pigskins. Now, this was more to the liking of Lars and Knute's mother, who regarded baseball as a game where the objective was not to maim an opponent. This was a more sensible, less physical game, they believed, and for that reason the family heartily approved of it—and Knute's participation in it.
Ironically, in an extra-inning game one afternoon against the Maplewoods, another local team, a hot argument developed, with Knute in the middle of it. Never one to dodge a good, old-fashioned donnybrook, Knute ended up getting his nose mashed by a bat flung by an unidentified miscreant. Would Knute Rockne ever have been as renowned without that famous smashed beak? "I got this from baseball," Knute proudly announced to his bewildered parents when he marched home from the scene of battle. Thereafter Lars pronounced baseball as verboten, while in the winter Knute, this time with the unlikely permission of his parents, was allowed to play football.
Excerpted from Rockne of Notre Dame by Ray Robinson Copyright ©2002 by Ray Robinson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 26, 2013
Posted October 8, 2007
Rockne of Notre Dame: The Making of a Football Legend begins by giving some background on the legendary coach. Knute Rockne was born in Norway and then his family moved to America for his father¿s business. Eventually Rockne became a football player for his school, University of Notre Dame. After leaving the first team that used the forward pass as a weapon, Rockne became a chemistry teacher at Notre Dame while working as the assistant coach for the football team. Soon Rockne became the head coach of Notre Dame and he still holds the highest winning percentage of any head coach in NCAA Division 1 football to date. After winning his third national championship Rockne took a plane back to South Bend which tragically crash landed and killed him. Ray Robinson presents the themes of determination, hard work, and loyalty. Rockne gave everything he had to help his team win as many games as possible. Even when the Notre Dame team lost, they always came home to encouraging crowds. Robinson writes as if he lived in the 1920¿s and knew Rockne personally. His technique helps paint a clear picture of what football was like in the beginning and how Rockne helped advance the game of football. Robinson does give a lot of lists though. He will compare Rockne to other athletes quite a bit. The names Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and Lou Gehrig appear numerous times. Robinson also tends to go off on tangents occasionally, but they are kept on a short leash. Overall this book is very informative and presents the various legends about Rockne and their likelihood of being factual. Anyone who is a Notre Dame fan or just a sports fan in general will enjoy hearing about how Knute Rockne battled to become the greatest football coach in history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 4, 2000
Mr. Robinson has succeeded in bringing Knute Rockne to life in his narrative describing his life and times at Notre Dame, as well as the U.S. of the early twentieth century. His historical perspectives on the evolution of college football, as well as other sports, are insightful and interestingly written. He does not get caught in the prosey trap of so many biographers enamored with their subjects and documents Rockne for what he was; a great football mind, a great performer, a great salesman, a great motivator of young men, and most importantly, a great man. The current new wave of 'media sports' reporters should read this book to better understand the sports and the psyche of the the sports fan in America. How would a man like Rockne fare today? One wonders after reading this excellent book, in the age of NCAA investigations, media created issues, sports-pollsters, the BCS......one thing is certain, his genius, as brought to life by Mr. Robinson, would I think, still shine bright in the relatively dismal (by comparison) present day sports world. As a life long Notre Dame fan I was shocked to read of some of the practices of ALL college football teams, players and coaches in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, but it is an education, I think, all sports fans need in the twenty-first century. Mr. Robinson has written a marvelous book that is difficult to put down and a pleasure to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.