Father Julius Nieuwland
After the college football national championship game, faith filled fans of Notre Dame Football need something positive on which to dwell, so how about a miraculous story surrounding Knute Rockne? Many readers may be aware of legendary Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne’s winning prowess on the football field. However, he was also a budding scientist and man of faith. Before becoming a coach, then promising student Knute Rockne worked with famed Notre Dame Priest and scientist Father Julius Nieuwland who helped invent synthetic rubber and is the only priest in the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. Father Nieuwland CSC believed that a bright future lie ahead for his promising Chemistry student named Rockne. Both Father Nieuwland and the future Notre Dame Coach were immigrants, Father Nieuwland from Belgium and Knute Rockne from Norway. However, the labratory was not to be for Rockne, for it was the college gridiron where he would earn his lore.
While Rockne was surrounded by Catholicism, he was a Norwegian Lutheran. However, it was Coach Rockne’s players that helped convert him to Catholicism. What was it about Catholicism that did it? The Eucharist. During the early 1920’s when the Four Horseman strode the gridiron in South Bend, Coach Rockne was worried that all of the new found fame might make his players stray from the straight and narrow. The late George Gipp was known to do just that and a slightly older 30something Coach Rockne didn’t want that to happen again, so the coach would often keep a close eye on his players.
One morning Coach Rockne noticed several of his players leaving their dorms in the wee hours of the morning. He followed them to early morning Mass. Before practice that day he asked them about their movements in the wee hours. They informed him that they had early classes and couldn’t get to Mass any other time. “It’s that important to you,” Coach Rockne asked?”They told him that the Eucharist was just that important.
Coach Rockne then discussed the matter with several priests who gave him books to read about the Faith. In 1923, Knute Rockne was received into the Church, thanks in great part to the personal witness of his own players.
Knute Rockne is hardly alone in being a faithful example of Catholic leadership on the gridiron at Notre Dame. While Coach Gerry Faust will hardly be remembered for his record, no coach stands taller as a faith leader than Coach Faust who would tell anyone who would listen about the Catholic Church and “Our Lady.” Coach Faust was certainly helpful to me with regard to my first book and went out of his way to help me promote it. Keep in mind he didn’t know me from Adam only from meeting me at a high school football game, talking on the phone and reading the book’s manuscript. He spends many days a year at small Catholic school fundraisers that help those schools keep their doors open.
He is much beloved by his former Notre Dame players as well as those at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati where Coach Faust garnered his fame. While some have gone on to become college and NFL stars, others have achieved success in many different venues. In the late 1960s, one overachieving young man who played for Coach Faust at Archbishop Moeller High school came from a large working class Catholic family. He would go on to become the current Speaker of the House. Speaker John Boehner and Coach Faust remain in contact to this day and speak highly of of another.
I would be remiss in not mentioning former Coach Lou Holtz who also does his fair share of fundraisers for worthy Catholic charities. He can rattle of the names of every grade school nun who taught him back in East Liverpool, Ohio. Obviously there is so much more I could write, but I go into much more detail about this and many other matters in my book; The Catholic Tide Continues to Turn. I hope this helps paint the picture of Knute Rockne and two other coaches at Notre Dame who were leaders of men and personal examples of faith.