An Irish legend and a selfless patriot

Chevigny in middle of ‘Gipper’ lore

Jeff Carroll, Tribune Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: This week, Major League’s All-Star Game comes to Yankee Stadium for the last time. “The House That Ruth Built” is scheduled for demolition after the 2008 season. Home to countless World Series games and title fights, Yankee Stadium was also the site of several classic Notre Dame football games and moments. This week, the Tribune takes a deeper look at three of them.

The invasion had been in the works for many months. Like anything else in this second great war, securing the island of Iwo Jima, about 650 miles south of mainland Japan in the Pacific Ocean, was not going to be easy. There would be tremendous losses.

So in the latter part of 1944, the United States armed forces had gone to work. For 74 days, planes pelted the Japanese strategic stronghold with bombs, attempting to soften the island’s defenses. Previously, spy planes had been able to give the military a good gauge of what it would be dealing with: 21,000 Japanese troops, occupying about 600 gun positions, all of it under the protective banner of vast caves and other underground tunnels and bunkers.

All of that work came to a head on Feb. 19, 1945. In the early morning, two large U.S. Marine divisions stormed the beach. After a relatively quiet beginning, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by an unrelenting assault of enemy fire.

Marines took refuge in bomb craters carved out of the island’s volcanic ash beachfront. And so it was that two college football luminaries, Minnesota All-American Sonny Franck and Notre Dame’s Jack Chevigny, found themselves sharing a tight space several feet underground. Like thousands of other Marines, the pair clung to dear life.

Suddenly, Franck was overcome by a hunch, a bad feeling about the spot where he and Chevigny had hunkered down. Franck waited for an opening, then climbed out of the hole, sprinting to a location closer to where the landing had taken place.

Chevigny, the co-author of Notre Dame’s most famous football legend, opted to stay put.

‘I’ve got to go now, Rock’

In 1928, 17 years before the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima, Notre Dame found itself in the middle of its worst season under legendary coach Knute Rockne. Since taking over the program in 1918, Rockne had been able to successfully navigate graduation losses and keep churning out national title contenders. In 1928, however, even Rockne’s magic touch couldn’t lift a team in major transition. The Irish had suffered two ugly defeats in the early-going, falling 22-6 to Wisconsin and 13-0 to Georgia Tech.

The team’s prospects, therefore, looked more than bleak as it prepared to travel to Yankee Stadium to face undefeated powerhouse Army on Nov. 10.

Regardless, two days before the game, a New York City columnist conjured for fans the memory of the great George Gipp, the Irish star of the 1919 and 1920 games against Army who had died of an illness following the 1920 season. A couple of days later, on the day of the game, a columnist at another paper in the city followed suit, writing a sanitized biography of Gipp, actually quite a mischief maker in his day.

A seed had been planted.

With 78,000 fans crammed into the palace in the Bronx, which had at that time been standing for less than a decade, Notre Dame and Army played to a 0-0 halftime tie.

Historians have long debated exactly what happened next. Regardless of the specific words that Rockne spoke, and the veracity of the source material, the subject matter of his halftime speech clearly roused his players.

As the Irish gathered around him in the Yankee Stadium locker room at intermission, Rockne began to tell them the story of George Gipp. How he had run rampant against Army in two thrilling Notre Dame victories. How he had fallen ill shortly after his college career had ended. And, most importantly, how on his deathbed, the ailing football star had called his old coach close to relate to him his most ardent dying wish.

Though it was almost certainly pumped up considerably for Rockne’s ghostwritten 1931 autobiography, the words long ascribed to the coach have earned as indelible a place in American culture as the lyrics to “Johnny B. Goode.”

“I’ve got to go now, Rock,” Rockne told his players Gipp said as he neared his dying breaths. “It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.”

‘One for the Gipper!’

Even the skeptics in the press box, historians have written, were impressed by the energy Notre Dame showed as the second half moved along.

Army scored first, going up 6-0 on a short run. Soon after, however, Notre Dame’s Chevigny would celebrate his way into college football history.

The Irish offense, which had struggled to move the ball against its other major opponents, suddenly came to life. After a few plays, Notre Dame advanced the ball inside the Army 3-yard line. On fourth down, the carry went to Chevigny. He bulled his way across the goal line and according to the legend, shouted, “That’s one for the Gipper!”

Notre Dame would go on to win the game 12-6, one of the great upsets in school history. Two days later, when New York Daily News columnist Francis Wallace wrote about Rockne’s halftime speech, the game found a permanent place in American sports lore.

On the fast track

After ending his playing career, Chevigny went into coaching, taking a position on the Notre Dame staff after Rockne’s death.

“I think he was on the fast track to be the coach at Notre Dame eventually,” says Jeff Walker, a Texas high school football coach who has written a piece on Chevigny for the August issue of the Marine Corps magazine Leatherneck and is also working on a full-length Chevigny biography. “It would have taken a while, but I think it would have happened.

Instead, bad blood grew between Chevigny and Notre Dame head coach Hunk Anderson, and Chevigny decided to leave his alma mater and blaze his own coaching trail. He coached the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League for one year. Eventually, he became the head coach at the University of Texas.

Chevigny’s second game at Texas was his finest coaching hour. Taking the Longhorns to South Bend for the first meeting between the schools in nearly 20 years, Chevigny’s team defeated Notre Dame 7-6.

Unfortunately for Chevigny, the rest of his tenure at Texas didn’t go quite as smoothly. After three seasons and a sub-.500 record, he was fired.

After leaving Texas, Chevigny spent some time in the oil business before returning home to Indiana. Soon after, World War II broke out. In response to the need for more men, the United States increased the draft eligible age to 36. A bachelor with no dependents, Chevigny was drafted into the Army in 1943. He eventually was able to earn a reassignment to the Marine Corps, and was assigned to a base in North Carolina.

There, Chevigny resumed his coaching career. Taking over a base squad that had lost its first two games in the fall of 1944, Chevigny coached his men to several victories before the end of the season, including one over Duke University. In fact, he could have stayed at the base and likely avoided a deployment overseas.

“(But) he sees himself as a leader at that point,” Walker says. “He rediscovers his vision quest. He says, ‘I want to go overseas. We’re sending boys over there. I’m a leader. I need to be there.’”

Which is how Jack Chevigny, hero of the famed “Win one for the Gipper” game at Yankee Stadium, found himself alone in a crater on the sands of Iwo Jima.

Complete confidence

Chevigny’s role in the invasion was that of a communications liaison between the fourth and fifth divisions of the 27th Marine Regiment. But as Japanese fire rained down, Chevigny could only huddle for some kind of cover.

Franck, the former University of Minnesota star, hopped from the space he spared with Chevigny and found another, safer crater. Within moments, he heard an explosion behind him. Before the invasion of Iwo Jima was complete, 6,821 American Marines would meet their death. At that moment, Jack Chevigny became one of them.

Within days, the American forces would secure the island, killing nearly all 21,000 Japanese soldiers in the process. The victory was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s Associated Press photograph of six Americans raising the U.S. flag.

Dying with Chevigny was the last connection to the major portions of the Gipper game legend. In the decades since, historians have combed the various threads of the story skeptically, trying to sort truth from myth making of the day. But Walker, whose research on Chevigny is extensive, believes that his subject did indeed dedicate his tying touchdown to Gipp as he crossed the Bronx goal line.

There is much evidence that Rockne’s speech, Walker explains, affected Chevigny deeply. When he brought his Texas team to play Notre Dame in 1934, he borrowed liberally from it in his own pregame speech, explaining to his Longhorn players that his own dying father had told him to ask his players to beat Notre Dame for him. The official in the 1928 contest, Walter Eckersall, was also a journalist of the time, and Walker believes he was close enough to the action to hear Chevigny shout — and had the journalistic instinct to make a mental note of it.

Finally, Chevigny wasn’t usually the sentimental sort.

“A tough player, a no-nonsense coach, a life of the party, a lieutenant who could laugh with colonels, a guy who could get things done,” Walker says. “A guy who could walk away without hesitation from the sport that made him. (You’d think) Chevigny may have cared less about a fable from Yankee Stadium.”

Except, it turned out, he did.

When Walker examined a Chevigny family scrapbook a few years ago, he discovered among all the random clippings, four cohesive pages, pasted front-and-back with clippings from the Yankee Stadium contest.

It wasn’t the “smoking gun” he has always pursued, but it was just one more piece of strong circumstantial evidence of how important winning one for the Gipper was for Jack Chevigny. Important enough to have him shouting for joy as he crossed the goal line?

“I have complete confidence,” Walker says of Chevigny’s celebratory shout, “that it happened.”