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January 1, 2009

WIN ONE FOR OURSELVES

“Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”
—George Gipp, Notre Dame University football All-America selection, on his deathbed, to Coach Knute Rockne

Few stories in sports are as inspiring as that of George Gipp, the Notre Dame halfback, quarterback and punter who uttered these gripping deathbed lines at age 25 to legendary Coach Knute Rockne in 1920. Rockne, in turn, used Gipp’s final request to motivate the Fighting Irish, the heavy underdog, to victory over an undefeated Army team in 1928.

I recall George Gipp because his story is inspirational in more ways than one. Gipp was a baseball player, but Rockne recruited him for football. He responded by rushing for 2,341 yards, a career record unequaled until 1978, while passing for 1,789 yards. On defense, he didn’t allow a pass completion in his territory in four years. He never gave up, couldn’t be stopped and had thoughts only for the success of the team as he lay dying from a disease now routinely licked by antibiotics, a strep throat.

Gipp’s story is among the many tales of perseverance, inspiration and risktaking that have helped shape American culture and lore. It demonstrates qualities of action, optimism and fortitude that are sorely lacking during these days of recession. There is no question that the global economic slump, stunning for its speed and intensity, has flummoxed the business community. We are afflicted by much more than a simple lack of self-confidence. We are beset by a kind of paralysis that has unnecessarily worsened the impact of the weak economy and left business leaders in a fog of inaction and indecision.

Think back to the Great Depression. It began, like this recession, in the United States, with the October 1929 stock market crash. It didn’t end for a decade or more. But during that time, the spirit of invention and risk-taking carried on. Among the inventions during that time were television, the metal beverage can, fiberglass, the helicopter, fluorescent lights, cellophane tape, the parking meter, chocolate chips, xerography copying technology, radio astronomy, the ballpoint pen, nylon stockings, Scrabble, miniature golf—and the first antibiotic, 19 years too late for George Gipp.

It’s easy during times like this to sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to take the first step, some other company to accept a little risk and take the initiative, some other person to try to break out of the huge inertia of recession. But in our history, our best times have come when our spirit of trying new things, of entrepreneurship and of enterprise was set free to pursue good ideas, some of them risky. We are all free to change our circumstance, to invent with great self-confidence a better reality for ourselves.

Of course, times are difficult and prudence holds sway. I certainly don’t advocate betting the company. I don’t suggest anyone should risk their household or family savings. But with a new administration and Congress in Washington and a huge stimulus package on tap, let’s all remember the example and words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his first inauguration during the height of the Depression in 1933. He said:

“This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. … Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Amazing words. An indomitable sentiment. No doubt Gipp, as he lay dying, and Roosevelt, as he took up the nation’s future, were internally touched by doubt and fear. But outwardly, they understood the need to rally, to find the optimism to do better, to bring us to new levels of achievement. These are examples for all of us, now, to live by.