75 years after death, Rockne's legend lives on

Updated: March 30, 2006, 2:45 PM ET
Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Knute Rockne was one of the most prominent figures in America -- let alone the famous coach at Notre Dame -- when his plane crashed in a Kansas pasture 75 years ago Friday.

Easter Heathman, however, didn't know anything about him that morning. The 14-year-old boy merely heard a loud noise, ran to the scene -- and later helped carry Rockne's body on a stretcher.

"I remember it just like it was yesterday," Heathman said in a telephone interview from his Kansas home.

Rockne's death at age 43 at the height of his career -- having led the Fighting Irish to consecutive undefeated seasons his final two seasons -- shocked football fans nationwide and made front-page news across the country. President Herbert Hoover called it "a national loss."

"The fact that he died when he did, when he was at the top of his game, is a true travesty," current Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

Heathman, now 89, recalls his uncle calling on March 31, 1931, saying he'd seen a wing fall off after the plane emerged from clouds.

"He said the plane was turning end over end, and the wing came fluttering down to the ground a half-minute or so after the plane crashed," Heathman said.

Over the years, Heathman has become the unofficial caretaker of the crash site near Bazaar, Kan., and the monument that was built there. He and others plan to gather Friday to commemorate the life of Rockne and the seven others who died.

Another ceremony will be held Friday in Rockne's hometown of Voss, Norway. At Notre Dame, the video documentary "Knute Rockne and his Fighting Irish" will be shown hourly Friday afternoon.

"It's a time for us to reflect on true greatness, which is what he was," Weis said.

With a 105-12-5 record in 13 seasons, Rockne's major college football winning percentage of .881 remains unmatched.

"He set the bar," Weis said. "And everybody else just tries to live up to that bar he set. It's probably unreachable, but at the same time it's great to have something for everyone to shoot for."

Murray Sperber, an Indiana University professor emeritus who wrote "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football, said Rockne did more than build a great football team. The money he raised through football helped build Notre Dame.

"When he took over, Notre Dame was a small school and it was hard to schedule games," Sperber said.

Rockne hired game officials who were friendly to the Irish, promoted himself and the school to sportswriters, and permitted any radio network to broadcast Irish games for free, allowing them to become better known, Sperber said.

"He figured out how to work the system," he said. "You've got to admire the guy, coming into this very tough system and figuring out how to beat it -- and beat it tremendously."

In 1919, Rockne's second year at the school, a total of 56,500 people saw the Irish play football. Ten years later, 551,112 people saw the Irish play.

"Notre Dame was really built on the money Rockne's teams made in the 1920s," Sperber said. "If it hadn't been for Rockne and the football money, Notre Dame might still be this small Catholic school in northern Indiana."

Bernie Kish, former executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame who has researched Rockne's life, said the coach's death in his prime added to his legacy. But he said Rockne was a larger-than-life figure when he was alive.

"He was the first coach who captured the imagination of the nation. Rockne was just absolutely adored and loved nationwide, not just by Notre Dame fans," Kish said.

Kish said Rockne also was the first entrepreneurial head coach, establishing coaching camps, endorsing athletic equipment, and leading a celebrity contingent to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. He also was known for developing coaches.

"But he was also just a personality in his own right," Kish said.

Pat Reis, a 1985 Notre Dame graduate from Minneapolis, will be among those commemorating Rockne's life at the ceremony in Kansas. It will be his fourth trip to the site he first visited in college.

"If you've ever spent any time at Notre Dame, there's still a strong presence of Rockne. So the road trip was a bit of a mission trip," he said. "It was just one of those spiritual things."

He received his tour of the site from Heathman, who estimates that over the years he's shown it to thousands of people.

"They call and make an appointment. They stop here at the door," he said. "Some of them are Notre Dame fans, some of them are not."

While wanting to visit the site may sound odd to some, Reis said he thinks it makes sense to any Notre Dame fan.

"We try to keep it not too Elvis. But with the stature of Rockne and the hearts of so many Notre Dame fans, it tends to get a little toward Graceland and the thing that Elvis has going with his followers."

But to Heathman, who is now a big Fighting Irish fan and has been to Notre Dame four times over the years, it's more simple than that.

"It's just a way to pay tribute," he said.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press