In the 100 years between the time of 1920s college football coach Knute Rockne and 2020’s professional football player Damar Hamlin, there have been a lifetime of coaches, players, fans and sportscasters who have inspired teams, built communities and given dreamers their big breaks. The Library of Congress holds a treasure trove of resources offering a historic look at many of these moments in football history.
I grew up watching sports, and I especially love football. Like millions of other sports fans, I was stunned watching the Monday night game when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin stood up from a hard tackle and instantly collapsed backwards onto the field. I had never seen anything like this before.
The closest I can recall was in 1985 when Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann had a career-ending leg break after a rough New York Giants sack. For those who keep stats, this was also seen live on “Monday Night Football.” The difference is that Theismann was conscious. Hamlin was not.
To the few who haven’t followed the story, on Monday night, January 2, 2023, in a game against the Cincinnati Bengels, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and was revived on the field live on national television. He was rushed to a nearby Cincinnati hospital, where it was reported that he had to be revived again. He was unconscious for several days while doctors watched and monitored his progress. It seemed that every news outlet speculated on his condition and the possible outcomes. Social media was flooded with sentiments, fans held vigils outside of the hospital, and no matter what team you rooted for, we all became Bills fans cheering for Damar Hamlin’s healthy recovery.
What came out of this moment is something I also can’t recall; a nation coming together to pray, honor and support a football player. I have no personal connection to Damar Hamlin, and the Buffalo Bills aren’t even “my team,” but somehow I found myself glued to his fate, praying for his recovery, and invested in his survival. I was not alone.
NFL teams and fans from all over the nation were finding ways to honor and show Damar Hamlin their support. Most teams in the league traced the number 3 on the 30 yard line in the Bills’ signature blue in honor of Hamlin’s #3 jersey. Fans in the stands, at almost every NFL game, were holding up signs to show that they were praying for Damar.
Thanks to the quick efforts of team trainers, first responders and hospital staff, Hamlin is alive, out of the hospital, and just 20 days later, he and his family watched the final Buffalo Bills game of the post-season, which happened to be against the Cincinnati Bengels, while resting in a suite at the Bills’ stadium. He lovingly received a standing ovation from fans and players from both teams.
Damar Hamlin is continuing his recovery, and he may even play football again. Nevertheless, he is well on his way to solidifying his legacy. On the day of his hospital release, he posted on social media thanking his team, the fans, and the world for the love and support, and to him “…this is bigger than football.”
This feels reminiscent of Notre Dame’s legendary football coach Knute Rockne and his beloved player, George Gipp.
Their story, as told in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne: All American,” starring Pat O’Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as Gipp, only begins to scratch the surface of their impact. The film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1997.
If you haven’t seen the movie, this is the film that Ronald Reagan, while lying in a hospital bed, famously says to: “…win just one for the ‘Gipper’.”
Often misquoted, the line has become infused in American culture and politics. During his 1980 presidential run, Reagan was affectionately referred to as “the Gipper,” and in his 1984 speech, now President Reagan, inspired Olympic athletes to go out and ‘”do it for the Gipper.”
I’m sure coaches from Little League to major league sports of all genres have quoted Rockne in their locker rooms hoping to bring that same spirit to their teams.
Knute Rockne, who led the “Fighting Irish” from 1918 to 1930, is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in college football history. A mention in the Library of Congress National Film Registry says that his sudden death, in a tragic accident in March 1931, triggered a national outpouring of grief comparable to the deaths of presidents.
In the case of George Gipp, he died at the age of 25 from a streptococcal throat infection and pneumonia. He died in December 1920 at a time when antibiotics were not yet available.
The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America has a vast collection of newspaper articles about Knute Rockne, “The Gipper,” Notre Dame Football, and almost any news item that you could want, sports or otherwise, from 1777-1963.
The Library also holds the NBC Collection with some the greatest radio recordings in sports history. The collection contains a significant number of broadcasts that honors Rockne, George Gipp, and the team. One recording of note is the March 27, 1946 recording titled “Knute Rockne Tribute” featuring a eulogy from Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s famous “Four Horseman” football stars.
Feeling nostalgic for your college team? The Library holds a copy of the 1971 recording of the “40 Greatest College Football Marches” performed by the University of Michigan Band.
In 1964, National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle formed NFL Films with the intent to educate and promote football’s image for national television. The first production, in 1966, was the film “They Call It Pro Football.”
Before this full-length movie debuted, football films were basically highlight reels set to the sounds of marching bands. “They Call It Pro Football,” narrated by John Facenda with music by Sam Spence, presented football on an epic scale and in a way rarely seen by the fans. Telephoto lenses brought close-ups of players’ faces and the ball, slow motion showed intricacy and grace, and coaches and players wearing microphones let the audience in on strategy and emotion. Ever wonder what a coach says to a referee after a bad call? It’s in there.
If you don’t know much about football, “They Call It Pro Football” gives a basic explanation of player positions and their importance. If you are a nostalgic football fan, the film shows rare footage of some of the greats, including Johnny Unitas (then Baltimore Colts), Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers), Sonny Jergenson (then Washington Redskins), Gayle Sayers (Chicago Bears), Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings), Raymond Berry (then Baltimore Colts), and many more.
In 1948, the Library of Congress acquired the George Grantham Bain Collection; one of America’s earliest news picture agencies. The collection documents sporting events, theater, celebrities, strikes, disasters, political activities, and public celebrations. The bulk of the collection dates from the 1900s to the mid-1920s, but some images can be found as early as the 1860s and as late as the 1930s. The photographs Bain produced and gathered for distribution were worldwide in their coverage, and the photo of Knute Rockne headlining this blog post is from the Bain collection.
The Library of Congress also holds the impressive Al Wester Collection (1948-2007) with over 20,000 items collected in his legendary career. Wester, it appears, saved everything from his years as a sports announcer in football, golf, baseball, horse racing, basketball, auto racing, boxing and bowling. He was most notable as the broadcasting voice of Notre Dame Football and play-by-play for the New Orleans Saints.
All of these items are a small glimpse into the Library’s collection of over 100 years of football and sports history found in newspapers, books, videos, film, recorded sound and photographs.
Through research, it becomes clear that Hamlin is metaphorically right: the impact of sports is bigger than the game. It is “…bigger than football.” And I think, now 100 years later, Knute Rockne would agree.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Library of Congress.
For more information about the items in this blog or any sports history, Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.