June 22, 2017

Visiting the Land of The Gipper

We used Notre Dame’s bye weekend to make a long-anticipated trip to the Copper Country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – the area that gave us George Gipp and several other ND standouts of the Knute Rockne era. It was research for our upcoming biography on Rockne…and a great reminder of all the unique places that are part of the Notre Dame story.

Back in the 1910s, the copper mining industry was at its peak in the area, and copper helped fuel a burgeoning economy and population in the region. Some 90,000 lived in Houghton County, including the cities of Houghton, Hancock, Calumet and Laurium.

Calumet High School alone sent to Notre Dame not only Gipp, but Heartley “Hunk” Anderson, who would become Rockne’s great confidante, assistant coach and ultimately his successor as head coach of the Irish; fellow lineman Ojay Larson; hockey-football athlete Percy Wilcox; and a few years later, Dominic Vairo, captain of the 1934 Irish, and Larry Danbom, starting fullback in the mid 1930s.

The Gipp Memorial is a beautifully designed and maintained V-shaped park that features a monument made of rocks from the shores of nearby Lake Superior. A Notre Dame flag is proudly flown above the memorial, which also features plaques and a path of paving stones in the shape of a football. A visitor can’t help but be moved by the civic pride evident in the hometown of one of the all-time greats of college football.

Gipp’s childhood home at 432 Hecla Street in Laurium stills stands, as does Hunk Anderson’s on Tamarack Hill at the edge of Calumet. And a significant portion of Calumet High – including an impressive and classically outfitted assembly and study hall – dates back to the late 19th century.

School board president and local historian Bob Erkkila was our tour guide extraordinaire, and he made sure we saw it all. Some hockey side trips were also fascinating – to Houghton’s Dee Stadium, birthplace of U.S. professional hockey; the Colosseum in Calumet, the oldest continually-operating indoor ice arena in North America; and George Gipp Arena in Laurium.

Friday night, we joined a good crowd at Agassiz Field to watch the Calumet High School Copper Kings take on rival West Iron County. The Copper Kings roster is dotted with names like Torola, Kariniemi, Lahnala, Pieti, Mattila, Tanskanen, Erkkila, Eskola, Helppi and Lasanen, speaking to the great Finnish heritage that worked the mines.

A full moon rose just over the pine trees that ring one end of the field. Before the game, the Calumet band takes the field single file, seemingly from between the pines. The color guard is front and center. Time for the National Anthem.

And then….the Victory March, as played by the Calumet Copper King High School band.

You could almost feel the spirits of Gipp, Anderson, Larson, Wilcox, Vairo, Danbom. The links to the past, the strength of tradition. These are the cornerstones of Notre Dame football… yesterday, today, tomorrow.

It was perfect.

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Jim Lefebvre writes at Forever Irish, at www.NDFootballHistory.com. He is author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, and is currently working on a definitive biography of Knute Rockne.

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