LAURIUM, Mich. — Sixty-five years after sports legend George Gipp died, natives of the land named Keweenaw still take pride when their hometown hero's No. 1 cheerleader utters the famous phrase: "Win just one for the Gipper."
President Ronald Reagan, as an actor, coveted the role of the Notre Dame football hero. Citizens of Laurium and Calumet share his enthusiasm.
"It gives us a little prestige" when Reagan recalls Gipp, says 72-year-old Dominic Vairo, who followed in Gipp's footsteps and played football for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. "It lets the world know we're still alive up here."
The Keweenaw Peninsula in Gipp's days had a reputation for nasty winters, copper mining and rough-and-tumble athletes.
The hard winters remain, but the decline of copper mining has sapped the economic vitality of the region and drained tax resources from the schools. Without a basic industry, the unemployment rate hovers in the double digits.
And for the past four years, a local booster club has had to help finance athletics at Gipp's old school.
"We've been down, but we're coming back," says Wayne Sickler, athletic director at Calumet Public Schools. "I'd say we run a limited athletic program. We don't have any luxuries."
Sickler also served as interim coach of a Copper Kings football team this year that finished 1-7, after two winless seasons.
Good athletes from the north country near Lake Superior are fewer these days mostly because there are fewer students--the enrollment in the district has dived to 1,690 from a peak of some 6,300 in 1910, when copper mining was in its heyday.
"There's no industry, that's what's sad," says Vairo. "Our young people have left."
An increasingly aging population remains, and they remember that the likes of Gipp, Hunk Anderson and O.J. Larson all traveled from Copper Country to play ball at a little Catholic school in faraway Indiana for Knute Rockne.
Lyman Frimodig, another local boy, went to Michigan Agriculture College--now Michigan State University--and became a 10-letter winner.
Gipp "is like the hometown hero," says Donna Holmstrom, of the local chamber of commerce. "People have always been very sports conscious up here."
Vairo, an offensive and defensive end, followed the trail to Notre Dame, made the team as a walk-on under Anderson, then captained the Fighting Irish in 1934 under Elmer Layden.
He played briefly for the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League before eventually returning to the the area to sell insurance and real estate in his native Calumet. He settled in nearby Laurium, just down Lake Linden Avenue from the Gipp Memorial, erected in 1935.
"In the summer, there's always somebody there, taking pictures," Vairo says.
The memorial, made of local fieldstone and mortar, stands back from the highway. "In memory of George Gipp All American," it says. The dates 1895 and 1920, the years of Gipp's birth and death, flank the raised figure of a football.
Nearby is a placard listing the winners of the George Gipp All-American Trophy, "awarded annually to the graduating (male) senior of Calumet High School to encourage a high standard of excellence in scholarship, athletics and sportsmanship."
"The Gipp award here is like the Heisman award for (Auburn running back) Bo Jackson," Vairo says.
Sixty-five years after Gipp's death, athletes at Calumet know the trophy but are vague on who inspired it.
"I know he went to Notre Dame," says 16-year-old Dennis Kargela, a junior who played quarterback for the Copper Kings in 1985. "He must have went to school around here.
"The award is dedicated to him because he was a good football player or something," Kargela adds. "He died at an early age, but I'm not sure."
Sickler says he hasn't heard of any Calumet coach ever invoking the memory of Gipp as Rockne supposedly did at halftime of the 1928 Army-Notre Dame game, won by an inspired Fighting Irish.
Maybe that's because Gipp never played football for Calumet. He did, however, excel in basketball and baseball and went to Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship, according to newspaper clippings and Gipp contemporary Joe Mishica.
"He was a natural athlete," says Mishica, 88, who played football at Calumet but didn't meet Gipp on the gridiron until after high school, when he was a linebacker for Kalamazoo (Mich.) College. "He preferred playing pool to football. It was his chance to make little side money."
Gipp's likewise earned a reputation for rowdiness at Notre Dame. Like no other player could, he challenged Rockne with his off-field behavior.
"He loved gambling, good liquor and a smoke," Gipp's roommate, Dutch Bergman, said many years later. "He studied the frequency of dice rolls and the probability of card draws."