Marker to commemorate Rockne's Sandusky connection

SANDUSKY In the summer of 1913, a student who played end for his college football team in Indiana wo
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010



In the summer of 1913, a student who played end for his college football team in Indiana worked as a lifeguard at Cedar Point. Although football offenses in those days seldom used the forward pass, he spent much of his time on the beach working on passing plays with his roommate, quarterback Gus Dorais.

The young man left Sandusky and returned to his college, a Catholic university with no national reputation for athletics. In a big game that fall against heavily-favored Army -- then a major power -- his team gained 243 yards in the air and pulled off a 35-13 upset. The aerial assault, honed in Sandusky, confused the cadets and changed the game of college football.

The young man went on to make a name for himself as a football coach at his school, Notre Dame. And today Knute Rockne is still remembered as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, despite the fact he died young. He was killed March 31, 1931, at age 43 in a plane crash in Kansas. He ran up a 105-12-5 record at Notre Dame, including six national championships.

Erie County's seminal role in the development of a football legend hasn't been forgotten by the Erie County Historical Society.

A new historical marker honoring Rockne will be unveiled at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in front of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 510 Columbus Avenue.

Anne Rockne, the coach's granddaughter, plans to attend.

"On behalf of my entire family, we are very humbled by this," she said.

The classic movie, "Knute Rockne, All American," a 1940 picture starring Pat O'Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as football player George Gipp, will be screened in the church's gathering room.

The movie has the Rockne family's stamp of approval, Anne Rockne said.

Knute Rockne's widow loved the movie, she said.

"My grandmother went out to California. They wanted to make sure they told the story correctly," she said. "Grandma was kind of an advisor on that movie."

Also during Sunday's dedication, the Erie County Historical Society's sports expert, Gary Erney, will talk about Rockne, said Janet Senne, president of the historical society.

The historical society unveiled the Rockne plaque last fall.

"Legendary University of Notre Dame Head Football Coach Knute Rockne married Bonnie Skiles of Kenton, Ohio, in the rectory of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church on July 15, 1914," it says. "Father William F. Murphy officiated. The two met in the summer of 1913 while employed at Cedar Point.

"Best man at the wedding was Notre Dame football teammate Charles 'Gus' Dorais, who with Rockne perfected the forward pass in their spare time while working together as lifeguards at Cedar Point in the summer of 1913.

"Throughout the 1920s Rockne was head coach at Notre Dame. He sent members of his football team to Cedar Point, including the Four Horsemen, to work and practice at the Sandusky Resort."

Two football fans in Sandusky, Dick Winnes and William Coe, paused at the plaque while riding their bikes on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Both men said they found the plaque fascinating, despite the fact they are fans of Ohio State, not Notre Dame.

"He is a football hero," Winnes said. "I didn't realize he worked at Cedar Point."

In "Rockne of Notre Dame," a book published in 1999 by Oxford University Press, author Ray Robinson wrote that Rockne and Dorais spent many summer afternoons in 1913 in their bathing suits at the Cedar Point beach, practicing their passing game. Rockne learned it was best to catch the football with his hands rather than letting it bounce against his chest.

"Spectators on the beach were not used to seeing a football thrown in the air," Robinson wrote. "After all, footballs were made for kicking. They marveled at the insanity of these two young fellows exhausting themselves under a broiling sun."

Robinson also wrote that during the same summer Rockne met Skiles, "a pretty young woman from Kenton, Ohio, who was a waitress at Cedar Point's Grill Room." Soon Rockne "found himself eating most of his meals there."

Grandma was not impressed with Rockne at first, but he pursued her and won her over, Anne Rockne said.

The coach led Notre Dame to many victories. He died while still at the top of his game.

It's remarkable there's still so much interest in the coach, Anne Rockne said.

"It's just amazing. It's been 75 years," she noted.