Everybody old enough to remember Pat O'Brien as Knute Rockne knows that the Irish of Notre Dame went out from half time to "win one for the Gipper," i.e., famed Halfback George Gipp, as played by one Ronald Reagan. But would you believe that the Gipper went out to win one for the Irish of Rock-ford's west side? As a pro?
Well, he did, and the date was November 23, 1919. It marked the end of a sports era in this city at the top of Illinois—and the beginning of a local legend. At the time Gipp was a halfback for Notre Dame with another season of college eligibility remaining ahead of him. But that didn't stop him from playing pro ball under the name Baker and picking up a check for $100 (which he wagered into $200).
Seven other Fighting Irish, including the entire Notre Dame backfield and Center Slip Madigan, provided Gipper's supporting cast. They, too, were amply rewarded.
All eight played for a team known sometimes as the Grands, sometimes as the Badgers, that represented Rockford's west side. The Amateur Athletic Club (AAC) represented the city's east side, and the game played that day in 1919 was the second that year in an annual series for Rockford's championship.
The rivalry between the two sides was intense. For years the Irish of the west side had nurtured a smoldering hatred of the Swedes on the east side. In years past they had met in the center of the bridge spanning Rock River and fought out their rivalry with fists and clubs. Now the battles were transferred to the gridiron, but they were no less furious. From the time the "city series" began in 1908, it was not uncommon for the winner of a championship to parade down enemy streets after the game, carrying a mock coffin in solemn procession. At times the parades themselves would result in further battling and flurries of bare-knuckled encounters on street corners.
It wasn't uncommon in the early 1900s for college football players to pick up extra money by hiring out under assumed names on Sundays, and in 1921 when some players from Notre Dame were spotted in a "Sunday game" in southern Illinois they were banned from any further college athletic competition.
Fortunately, the Gipper and his teammates were not caught. And after their great victory over the Swedes, three of them—Gipp, Quarterback Joe Brandy and End Dave Hayes—returned to spark Notre Dame to a second successive undefeated season in 1920. But that is getting ahead of the story.
By 1919 Rockford's intracity football feud had reached a stage of climax. In the year's first game on November 16 the Badgers (i.e., the Irish) won 6-0. Coach George Kitteringham scored their winning touchdown before more than 3,500 persons who stood along the sidelines.
Two days later The Rockford Morning Star carried a story that suggested some lack of ethics on the part of the losing Swedes in preparation for the series' second game: "The good ship 'Mandy Lee' was never so completely loaded up as the AAC football team in preparation for the second game," said the sports page item. "Stars from Camp Grant have been added to the AAC roster, including Lieutenant Red Barcalow and Lieutenant Wagenknight."
Camp Grant was a large U.S. Army installation located south of Rockford. Barcalow was an ex-Purdue fullback and a fine drop-kicker. Wagenknight was advertised as a smooth, shifty quarterback.
When the Badgers' Player-Coach Kitteringham read the story, he commented: "That's good! The more the merrier."
Later in the week betting odds favored the AAC 5 to 4. Wagering was heavy and Kitteringham made sure the odds favored his opponents when he checked into a hospital on Friday with a "stomach ailment."
"We still have enough men from last Sunday," Kitteringham stated from his hospital bed. "We do not need any other substitutions to fall back on."
When Sunday arrived, however, the Badgers had fallen back all the way to South Bend, Ind., and their lineup included a young man named Baker who bore a startling resemblance to George Gipp. Kitteringham, who made a remarkable recovery from his illness, was on the sidelines as his new left halfback ran like a demon, threw a 10-yard touchdown pass and drop-kicked a 35-yard field goal to win for the Irish 17-9. The right halfback—man by the name of Smith—scored two touchdowns. There were those who thought he looked a lot like Arthur (Dutch) Bergman, who is now the general manager of the Washington, D.C. Stadium. Bergman is one of the few Notre Dame players from that game who is still living. Another is Joe Brandy, the quarterback.
"It was a tough game," recalls Bergman. "As a matter of fact, I broke my leg. But I walked on it until I got back to school Monday. The coach [Knute Rockne] took one look at the swelling and told me to go soak it in a bucket of hot water. Later I talked him into letting me get it X-rayed. Sure enough, it was broken—the tibia, just below the knee.
"Rockne wanted to know how I hurt it. He didn't remember any injury from Saturday's game [when the Irish had battered Purdue 33-13]. I told him I had been hurt against Purdue but didn't realize it at the time. I guess he believed me because he later helped me get my first coaching job [at New Mexico A&M]."
Brandy recalls how the players were paid.
"Madigan made the arrangement with the Rockford coach [Kitteringham]," he said. "When they offered us $100 apiece, we said, 'Only if you'll wager it on us to win.' Well, when we got there the first thing we did was check on the wager. The money was down, and when we won we each collected $200. It was the most money I'd ever had in my life. We never considered losing and going home broke.
"Nobody ever reported us, either. I think Rockne may have found out, but he turned his head the other way. He didn't want to lose Gipp for his senior year, and he'd have lost me, too."
Bergman added: "It was the only game I played under an assumed name, and I think it was the only time for Gipp. I'm not so sure Rockne didn't know about it later. I do know Rockne used to play with the Fort Wayne Friars, under an assumed name, when he was a coach."
Brandy says it wasn't hard for the Notre Dame players to make their Rockford encounter.
"I remember how we worked the deal. We all gave Rock excuses about going home for the weekend. Then we met in Indianapolis after the Saturday game at Purdue. Early Sunday morning we caught a train to Chicago, then another one out to Rockford. They met us on the rear steps of the train and hid us out at a hotel. That's where we dressed, in a hotel room. We had to bring our own headgear and shoes, and they gave us jerseys.
"Madigan played center, Hayes played one end and Grover Malone played the other end. I was quarterback, Gipp was at left half, Bergman was right half and Fred [Fritz] Slackford was fullback. We even brought a substitute [George Fitzpatrick, halfback] in case anyone got hurt."
Bergman adds: "They furnished the tackles and guards. We told them, 'Just block straight ahead. Don't pull or you'll murder us.' "
In Rockford Eugene J. Welch, ex-Badger player and official, recalls the day vividly: "I was one of three guys who met the Notre Dame players at the Illinois Central station," he says. "They got in at 11:30 a.m., wearing dark glasses and getting off the train separately. We hustled them into a bus and took them to the old Nelson Hotel. Funny thing, too. Tony Haines, the AAC coach, was on the same train, coming back from officiating a game in Michigan. He didn't know about the Notre Dame players, of course, and when we saw him we just said 'hi' and tried to act inconspicuous. Then we rounded up our boys and hid them until game time."
Folke Bengston, later to become Rock-ford's police chief, recalls playing with the Irish imports.
"I was the regular center, but they put me at right guard because they brought Madigan. To this day I'm not sure who all played for our team. I do know it was a bloody battle."
Losing Coach Haines, a Yale University football standout in 1908 and a Big Ten official for 34 years, adds:
"I knew what we were up against when they ran onto the field. I had worked Notre Dame games. I recognized Gipp. Our referee that day, Fred Gardner of Rochelle, Ill., had worked the Notre Dame-Purdue game the day before. He knew what was happening, but he never told on the Notre Dame boys. Neither did I. No one was ever barred."
Rockford newspapers didn't blow any whistles on the Notre Dame players, either. The next day's Register-Gazette, however, did carry a black-type editorial on the sports page that said:
"Local football fandom has been wandering through a maze of speculation covering the identity of the Grand football players who put over the victory on the AAC. It was no ordinary bunch of gridiron talent that had been imported for the fray. That much was evident after the smooth-working backfield had been in operation for two plays. The backs played too well together not to have been in operation all season, and they maintained this pace through all four quarters, showing some of the niftiest football that has been seen on the local field in many a day.
"Claims are made by the AAC camp that the Grands for the greatest part were made up of university regulars who are disputing the championship of the Middle West with Illinois. The only wonder is that the score against the AAC was not of greater proportions. As far as settling city honors the scrap certainly did nothing of the kind...for not over 50 percent of the talent engaged were Rockford products."
The east-side Swedes, who lost more than money on the contest, understandably felt they had been bilked. "This was just a gambling proposition," recalls J. A. Lengquist, who played with the AAC. "It hurt us to lose. There was a lot of bad feeling after that. You'd think, though, that the great Notre Dame team could have beaten us worse than 17-9."
Coach Haines agrees: "Actually, if one of our ends hadn't missed a signal on a pass play, we could have beaten them. It was a helluva game."
Apparently, the Notre Dame players were hampered by some questionable officiating. They were penalized 110 yards, and The Rockford Morning Star game story commented:
"To the credit of the Grands it must be said they did not deserve the penalties inflicted upon them, most of them being called by Referee Osborne, whose work in the second game was even poorer than the first."
Winning Coach Kitteringham's postgame comment:
"There was no understanding or agreement that I was to use one Rockford player or 11 Rockford players. Football is football, and I know the fans wanted to see good football. When the report got out that the AAC was loading up, we turned to our reinforcements."
The "reinforcement" players climaxed their unbeaten, untied season (9-0-0) after leaving Rockford by beating Morningside College in Iowa 14-6 with two feet of snow on the field on Thanksgiving morning.
Bergman, with a broken leg, missed the final game. For Gipp, Madigan, Slackford, Brandy, Hayes, Malone and Fitzpatrick, it was the third game within six days.
As for the intracity series, it failed to survive the bitterness of that game. A year later the Rockford Amateur Athletic Club was founded, using players from both the Irish and the Swedish parts of town. This team represented the whole city of Rockford in games against other localities and the old Badger-AAC rivalry, though far from forgotten, was never again actively fought out.
"That's the sad part about that game," says Enfred Enrickson, who was captain of the Swedes the day Gipp beat them. "It killed that type of football in Rockford."