5 Life Lessons From A Legendary Notre Dame Football Coach

With the Michigan Wolverines’ College National Championship victory not far behind us, and Super Bowl LVIII around the corner, I decided to rewatch a favorite football film.

I’ve probably watched Lloyd Bacon’s 1940 classic, Knute Rockne: All American, five or six times! Starring Pat O’Brien, Gale Page, and Ronald Reagan, the film is funny and insightful. It doesn’t shy away from portraying the titular Notre Dame football coach’s Catholic identity, and manages to do so in a natural rather than a pushy way.

Rewatching the movie, I realized that it says a lot about life on a deep level. Let’s dive into the signals from Knute Rockne’s playbook!

Lesson #1: God can transform every circumstance and life experience.

If his parents hadn’t immigrated in 1892 from Voss, Norway to Chicago, Knute Rockne may never have played football.

The film shows how Rockne faced his circumstances as opportunities rather than hindrances. He grew up poor and had to wait six years while working his way to attending Notre Dame in 1910. He could’ve given up early on, deciding that his circumstances would dictate whether he could get an education, but he didn’t.

In the movie, a post office coworker asks, “Ain’t you just a little too old to start college, Rock?”

“Nah, that doesn’t worry me. I am a little worried about being too dumb to finish,” he jokes.

Instead of listening to his doubts, Rockne focuses on studying, ranking it above football and achieving the recognitions of Honor Man and football captain, and graduating Magna Cum Laude. If he’d let the doubts win, he’d never have realized his potential.

In the movie, as often happens in real life, the little details in Rockne’s life prove providential.

A summer job as lifeguard gives Rockne and his friend Gus Dorais the opportunity to practice what would become their legendary forward pass strategy. Rockne’s skill in chemistry may have contributed to the organizational skills that would make him a celebrated football coach. Even observing the structure of a show dance one evening gave him an idea for a backfield shift that would make the Notre Dame team unbeatable!

In your own life, have you noticed a time where God has used a seemingly irrelevant experience or challenging circumstance?

Lesson #2: Sometimes, the right choice isn’t the obvious one.

In the movie, Rockne has to make some tough decisions, and there are plenty of respected, opinionated people around him! For example, his professor, Fr. Julius Nieuwland, is adamant that Rockne is meant to pursue chemical research.

“I could make a first-class scientist of you inside of ten years,” Fr. Nieuwland says. “That’s what you were born to be.”

Rockne accepts a position teaching chemistry at the university and assisting Fr. Nieuwland in his laboratory. He also juggles football, against Fr. Nieuwland’s advice, although Rockne says, “I’ll only coach for a year…. Father, you don’t think I’ll be crazy enough to take up coaching as a life work, do you?”

After three years of pursuing both coaching and chemistry, Rockne needs to discern his true calling. Torn, he asks for advice from another of his mentors, Notre Dame President Fr. John Callahan.

He asks Rockne, “Which work is closest to your heart?… Anyone who follows the truth in his heart never makes a mistake. I’ve watched your work with these boys these past few years and I’ve seen the splendid results. You’re helping mankind, Knute. And anyone who helps mankind helps God.”

Even after he finds his calling as a coach, Rockne is presented with many other choices as various universities clamor to acquire his talents. Fr. Callahan assures Rockne it would make sense if Rockne decided to move to a more prestigious university, but Rockne remains faithful, much to the relief of Fr. Callahan and the university.

There are voices everywhere telling us what’s “practical” and “makes the most sense” – but, as Rockne demonstrates, discernment isn’t always that simple.

Lesson #3: Your mistakes don’t define you.

In the movie, one of Rockne’s most devastating moments is Notre Dame’s streak-breaking National Championship loss to the Army, which he attributes to his own pride. Rockne takes the late train, hoping to sneak back unnoticed by students and fans who will doubtless be furious at the avoidable loss.

“For three years now, they’ve met every train. But we lost this one. I lost it,” he says.

When the train pulls in the early morning hours, Rockne is humbled to find the station packed with a cheering crowd and the band playing the school fight song, just as if the team had won.

“Maybe – maybe you folks didn’t understand the newspapers. We didn’t win this game, we lost it,” he says to the crowd.

“That doesn’t matter!” they say. “We still got you, Rock!”

Win or lose, the community values having Rockne as their coach. That’s a deeply Christian way of looking at things. No matter our failures, or the failures of others, we are meant to value people above anything they do or accomplish.

In the parable, the prodigal son’s value isn’t based on anything he’s done. He’s loved and received home with open arms, simply for being him. That’s the powerful truth at the basis of human dignity.

Lesson #4: Rules exist to open you up to unending potential.

What possible connection could there be between a movie about a legendary football coach and former art student and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton?

Rockne and Dorais employ the groundbreaking forward pass as never before to evade the Army’s defense. Watching Rockne run the field, catch Dorais’ far throw, and dash for a touchdown without getting caught, a spectator in the crowd shouts, “They can’t do that!”

Another spectator replies, “They just did, for 45 yards!”

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton argues that, contrary to myth, rules actually encourage innovation, using painting as an example:

“Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits… If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”

When Rockne and Dorais repurpose the forward pass, the outraged person cries out that they’re breaking the rules. But they’re not. The rules have given them the materials to make up a new play. It’s the same game, but so fresh that it shocks witnesses into thinking that the game has been totally remade.

The new forward pass can be seen as a metaphor for our own lives. It’s a mistake to think that God’s commandments are a straitjacket and make life boring. As St. Maximillian Kolbe once said, “Hatred is not a creative force: only love is creative.”

Lesson #5: Football – and life – should be about more than a game.

In the movie, it’s clear that Rockne loves football because it can serve a higher purpose if played right. He explains his philosophy in front of a committee in New York looking into college football scandals.

“Do you mean to say that you’ve never interceded for a football player who fell behind in his classes and had to be suspended from your team?” one of the committee members demands.

“I mean just that,” Rockne says. “Any player who flunks his class is no good to his coach nor to the school he attends.”

“Where do these elaborate spectacles of sport fit into the scheme of education? How would you grade an average athlete’s contribution to the national intelligence?” another member asks.

Rockne states, “To limit a college education to books, classrooms, and laboratories is to give to education too narrow a meaning for modern times. Now, if I have learned any one thing in my twenty years’ work with my boys, it’s this one fact: the most dangerous thing in American life today is that we’re getting soft, inside and out.”

For Rockne, football should help players grow in virtue:

“We believe that the finest work of man is building the character of man. We’ve tried to build courage, initiative, and tolerance, and persistence, without which the most educated brain of man is not worth very much…. I don’t know how you’d grade a boy for learning these things, Professor… But wouldn’t it be a good idea not to grade anybody’s contribution to the national intelligence until all the results are in, maybe five or ten years after graduation, when his record and character are not hung on the wall like a diploma but inside the man himself?”

In the film, Rockne’s star player, George “The Gipper” Gipp, attests to Rockne’s philosophy: “He’s given us something they don’t teach in schools, something clean and strong inside: not just courage, but a right way of living none of us will ever forget.”

For Catholics, the purpose of life is to live our inherent greatness, growing in virtue, letting God work through us.

In Goal to Go: The Spiritual Lessons of Football, James Penrice shares, “Sometimes I follow Jesus the way I follow football: I love to watch the game, but I’m afraid to actually play it.”

As Penrice says, living life in Christ means getting outside our comfort zone. Really living life, in all its triumph and messiness, means following God’s will through all of life’s twists and turns, struggling to discern our unique call, and accepting and showing God’s forgiveness.

Like Rockne, whatever our call might be, let’s strive to grow in strength of character and equip others for the journey, too.

Comment below and tell us what you think! What other life lessons can football teach us?

Image: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

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Emily Chaffins is a fiction writer who has won multiple awards, including a Silver Key Award in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (Humor Category) and First Place for Undergraduate Fiction in the Florida International University Student Literary Awards. She is also a freelancer for the Florida Catholic newspaper and OSV News, and contributes to the Archdiocese of Miami's Let’s Talk Blog and Catholic Exchange. Additionally, she curates and contributes to the Archdiocese of Miami’s “Through the Catholic Lens” blog. Besides writing, Emily enjoys singing at church, cooking and baking with her family, and reading really big books. She can be found on Instagram as @the.smallest_things.

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