April 21, 2004
New York, N.Y. – The late Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne was one of six distinguished Americans honored today in a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty.
The Ellis Island Family Heritage Award was presented to members of Rockne’s family, including his only surviving offspring, John Rockne of South Bend, Ind. The award celebrates Ellis Island as the door to America for the 17 million immigrants who first set foot on U.S. soil there. Annually a select number of Ellis Island immigrants or their descendants are chosen to be honored by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
Other recipients of this year’s award were film director Martin Scorsese (a member of Notre Dame’s performing arts advisory council), NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus.
Rockne came from Norway to the United States through Ellis Island in 1893 as a 5-year-old with his mother and sisters. The other recipients are the grandchildren of Ellis Island immigrants. The award included the presentation of a copy of the original ship’s passenger manifest documenting their, or their ancestors’, arrival at Ellis Island.
The new Peopling of America Award also was presented today, honoring an immigrant to the United States who does not trace his roots to Ellis Island, but rather arrived at another time and/or through another port of entry and whose life and major contributions to American society are an inspiration. Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei was the first recipient.
Joining Rockne’s family for today’s ceremony were representatives from the University, including John Heisler, associate director of athletics, and Matthew V. Storin, associate vice president for news and information.
Rockne was a receiver for the Notre Dame football team in 1912 and ’13, earning third-team All-America honors as a senior. He was an original “student-athlete,” majoring in chemistry and graduating magna cum laude with a grade average of 90.52 on a scale of 100.
As an undergraduate, Rockne worked as a chemistry research assistant in the laboratory of Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, the renowned chemist who discovered the formulae for synthetic rubber. Upon graduating, Rockne was offered a position at the University as a graduate assistant in chemistry, which he accepted on the condition that he be allowed to work as an assistant to football coach Jesse Harper.
When Harper retired after the 1917 season, Rockne was appointed head coach and Notre Dame’s football program soared to national prominence. He coached from 1918 through 1930, finishing with a 105-12-5 (.881) career record that ranks as the best winning percentage in the history of college football. His teams won consensus national championships in 1924, 1929 and 1930, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame with the inaugural class in 1951.
Rockne died at age 43 in a plane crash March 31, 1931, in Bazaar, Kan.