Today in Sports History: March 31st

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(The aftermath of Rockne's fatal crash)

3/31/1931 - The Gipper dies in plane crash

A verdant pasture near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas was the site of college football's first and arguably biggest tragedy. TWA Flight 599, carrying Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, crashed there when one of its wings broke off an hour into flight. All eight passengers died.

Rockne, known closely as the "Gip" or "Gipper," was one of his era's top celebrities and was without question its most renown coach. In 13 seasons, he lost only 12 games and had just managed the Fighting Irish to back-to-back, undefeated championship seasons. His .881 winning percentage remains the highest of all time. He was only 43 years old. In the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne, All American," Rockne is portrayed but future president Ronald Reagan, who spouts one of the most famous movie lines ever: "Win one for the Gipper."

James Easter Heathman, who lived on a farm only one mile away, was 14 when he and his family drove to the wreck site. From the day he saw the site until the day he died in 2008, Easter became the de facto caretaker for the Rockne Memorial, guarding and erecting the burial at the spot of the crash. Heathman unknowingly became the last living tie to Rockne's illustrious life.

"Well, it didn’t catch fire, but there was an odor of gasoline and hot oil," Heathman recalled of the crash. "The plane hit in a kind of an upside down condition. There were five bodies thrown right through the floor of that plane." "It was a sight I had never seen before. It was a terrible sight. Just horrible."

The accident forced TWA to make safety alterations to its airliners; the glued-on wing that fell off during Flight 599 had simply rotted off. In a time where commercial airliners were still in its infancy, the public outcry was strong. As a result of the crash, the Fokker Trimotors plane (of which Rockne flew on) was removed from commercial flights altogether, damaging the respected Fokker company name...

Further reading:

Man who saw Knute Rockne plane crash dies at age 90 [USA Today]

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