Rockne's legend lives on
By ANDREW SOUKUP
Associate Sports Editor
Seventy years ago last Saturday, a small plane plummeted through the night clouds hanging over Kansas, spinning end over end. One wing had fallen off, and a trail of smoke followed the plane through the sky. It continued its dive until it plunged into the ground, instantly killing all eight passengers aboard.
One of them was Knute Rockne.
News of the legendary Notre Dame football coach's death rocked the world. His funeral was broadcast over the radio in Europe and Asia. The king of Norway even knighted Rockne posthumously. Studebaker immediately halted production of the Rockne Sedan Six 65 automobile when news of the tragedy hit newspapers across the America.
The man had died. The legend was just beginning to live.
Rockne was already a hero in American culture before his plane crashed. He was a few months off leading the Notre Dame football team to the 1930 national championship. When he died at the age of 43, he was on his way to Hollywood to negotiate a deal about a film documentary.
"In my opinion he was what you would call a straight, honest man and he liked to win football games," said 83-year-old Easter Heathman, one of only three people alive today who saw the mangled wreckage of Rockne's plane in person.
Saying Rockne liked to win football games is like saying Father Hesburgh was a decent University president. In Rockne's 12 years as the head coach, he posted a 105-12-5. His 88 percent winning percentage, impressive in the 1930s, is considered untouchable by most of today's Division I coaches.
In the 1920s, an era when sports were just beginning to become a part of mainstream American culture, Rockne and Notre Dame defined sports. He coached the Four Horsemen and gave the famous "Win one for the Gipper" speech. He started the Bengal Bouts boxing program as a way to keep his players in shape.
He was a renowned track and field coach. Rockne didn't just embody the spirit of Notre Dame — he created it.
Heathman was a mere teenager when he and his uncle arrived at the crash site. What he saw would change his life forever.
"I went to Notre Dame last year and arranged a meeting with Father Theodore Hesburgh," he said. "In our conversation I said, `Father, it's amazing how this has enriched my life.' "
Heathman dedicated the rest of his life to preserving a monument on the spot where the plane crashed. He unselfishly led historians, tourists, fans, and countless others from his modest house through the Kansas woods to the simple, 10-foot obelisk.
"It's given him a reason to be," said Heathman's friend David Kil, Notre Dame's assistant registrar. "People start stopping by and he takes them up there. If they offer him money, he won't take it. If they insist, he'll use it to put a new wreath out. He is an ambassador who is an unsung hero."
Heathman is a folk legend to Notre Dame fans, and the monument he protects has been a gathering place for die-hard football fans.
Sometimes, visitors will travel to Heathman's farm merely to talk to the spirit of Rockne. They'll talk about what Rockne means to them, what he means to Notre Dame, and the incredible tradition he started.
Last year, on the 69th anniversary of Rockne's death, a group of five Notre Dame seniors invited Bob Davie to join them in Kansas. They had been making the trip to Kansas since they had been freshman.
"They have a ceremony where each one of them would talk to Knute and they would say what he meant to them and what he meant to Notre Dame, and how the tradition continues," Davie said. "Then it was my turn."
So what did the current Notre Dame football coach and the heir to Rockne's legacy have to say?
"I said, `Why'd you have to make these expectations so high?" Davie said.
And that's exactly what Rockne did for Notre Dame. He raised the bar and he changed what is expected of Notre Dame football seasons. As Davie himself said, 5-7 seasons aren't acceptable by Notre Dame standards: "Knute, I know you can hear me, and I apologize about that," he said last year.
Davie has a special memento of the Rockne crash site. "[Heathman] came by and brought me glass — actual glass — from the windshield of Rockne's crash," he said. "That shows you what this place is, tradition wise."
Seventy years ago, a simple plane fell from the sky, carrying one pilot, six passengers, and a Notre Dame football coach. Seventy years ago, a legend was found lying on the ground, a rosary in his pocket. Seventy years ago, one man died.
His spirit survived.
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, April 3, 2001