The Conversion Stories of Knute Rockne and Ralph H. Metcalfe

[The Conversion Stories of Knute Rockne and Ralph Metcalfe. “Crossing The Goal Line” by Knute Rockne, and “A Race Well Run” by Ralph H. Metcalfe, taken from Through Hundred Gates Imprimatur: Archbishop John McNicholas 1938.]

I used to be impressed by the sight of my players receiving Holy Communion every morning, and finally I made it a point to go to Mass with them on the morning of the game. I realized that it appeared more or less incongruous when we arrived in town for a game, for the general public to see my boys rushing off to church as soon as they got off the train, while their coach rode to the hotel and took his ease. So for the sake of appearance, if nothing else, I made it a point to go to church with the boys on the morning of the game.

One night before a big game in the East, I was nervous and worried about the outcome of the game the next day and was unable to sleep. I tossed and rolled about the bed and finally decided that I’d get up and dress, then go down to the lobby and sit in a chair alone with my thoughts. It must have been two or three o’clock in the morning when I arrived in the deserted lobby, so I took a chair and tried to get that football game off my mind by engaging some bellboys in conversation.

Along about five or six o’clock in the morning, I started pacing the lobby of the hotel, when suddenly I ran into two of my own players hurrying out. I asked one of them where they were going at such an hour, although I had a good idea. Then I retired to a chair in the lobby where I couldn’t be seen, but where I could see everyone who went in or out of the door. Within the next few minutes, my players kept hurrying out of the door in pairs or groups, and finally, when they were about all gone, I got near the door so I could question the next player who came along.

In a minute or two, the last of the squad hurried out of the elevator and made for the door. I stopped them and asked them if they, too, were going to Mass, and they replied that they were. I decided to go along with them. Although they probably did not realize it, these youngsters were making a powerful impression on me with their piety and devotion, and when I saw all of them walking to the Communion rail to receive, and realized the several hours of sleep they had sacrificed in order to do this, I understood for the first time what a powerful ally their religion was to those boys in their work on the football field. Then it was that I really began to see the light; to know what was missing in my life, and later on I had the great pleasure of joining my boys at the Communion rail.

Knute Rockne, former director of athletics and head football coach of the University of Notre Dame, was killed at the height of his career in an airplane crash, March 31, 1931. As a football coach, this “maker of men” as he was called, never had his equal. A $600,000 Rockne Memorial Fieldhouse was opened in his honor in 1939.

The Day of Disastor

Taken from the Knute Rockne Website

Shortly after takeoff, the plane flew into a storm, became covered with ice and fell into a wheat field. On board this fateful day were 5 passengers and 3 crew members. All on board were killed in the airplane crash in Bazaar, Kansas, on Tuesday, March 31, 1931.

…Suddenly a red and silver monoplane flashed through the cloud bank. The altitude of the plane was about 1500 feet. The farmers heard a loud noise above the motors, not an explosion, just a loud bang. The other wing came off and the plane faltered. One of the farmers said he saw five people chucked off the plane “just like rag dolls.”

…There were no survivors from the crash. A watch on the wrist on one of the victims had stopped at 10:45. One of the passengers held a rosary in his hand.

…All the bodies were taken to the coroner’s office at Cottonwood Falls some thirty miles away for preliminary investigation and identification. It was conducted by the Chase County coroner, Dr. Jacob Hinden and his assistant. “My God!” said the assistant when looking at some papers in his trembling fingers. “It looks like this man is Knute Rockne.” It was the victim who held the rosary in his hand. Knute Rockne was dead at the age of 43.

A Race Well Run
by Ralph H. Metcalfe

There is much satisfaction, I can say, to be derived from winning a sprint race from some of the greatest runners in the world. There is a happy moment when one learns that he has equaled or broken a record. There are pleasures in the fine contacts which can be developed in athletic competition. There are flattering newspaper comments which one naturally likes to read but which, I might say, must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

But none of these, none of the glories and honors that have come my way because I happen to have had some success in running, can compare with the pleasurable thrill that was sincerely mine when I realized, for the first time, that I was a Catholic. I have found new happiness in my religion, an undreamed-of consolation in my prayers. My conversion, very likely, was the most important single act in my whole life and I surely have no regrets.

It may seem odd or unusual to many readers to hear of a Negro convert to the True Church, particularly in the United States. My race, however, is a rich field for domestic missionaries, cultivated more and more, and with increasing success. There has been some splendid work accomplished among my people in the cause of Catholicity. Schools and churches for colored parishioners testify to that fact.

I may say that I had no particularly difficult obstacles to overcome in approaching Catholicism. It was not my ill fortune, as it is with all too many converts, to overcome parental and home objections. As a matter of fact, my dear mother was a convert to the Faith before me. Residing in Chicago, Illinois, our home, she had become interested in the Church because she had friends of her own, both white and black, who were of the Faith. She was impressed by their sincerity of purpose, their zealousness, their calmness in travail because of their religion.

It was at that time, while I was yet a high school student, that I became more than casually interested in the Catholic Church. This fact was one factor that determined my matriculation at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because it is a Catholic school directed by the Jesuit Fathers.

My conversion didn’t come, as some of my non-Catholic friends have intimated, through undue influence on the part of the Jesuit Fathers. Nor was it the result of urging by my friends on the athletic teams or in classes. Long before enrolling at Marquette, as I have said, I had become interested in the Church and my observations at the university only confirmed many conclusions which I had previously formed.

On a trip with the Marquette track team late in the winter of 1932, I confided my “great idea” to a warm personal friend on the squad. He was enthusiastic in his congratulations and urged immediate instructions. “But I haven’t the time now,” I protested. “Too much class work, too much track practice. I want to approach Catholicity with both eyes opened.”

But my friend persisted. He passed on the information to the Rev. John P. Markoe, S.J., then director of the men’s Sodality at Marquette and a “man’s man” in the eye of every Marquette student. So I went to him.

Father Markoe was splendid. I had no misgivings about the step I was taking, but I felt it was a bit tremendous. Through private instruction Father Markoe made things comparatively simple. He first showed me why the Catholic Church is the true Church and then instructed me in its beliefs and practices. There were others, too, who took an interest in me. All along the line, not only in religious matters but in scholastic as well, I have found a fine spirit of cooperation between students and faculty members at Marquette. That is one reason why I remained happy and satisfied while at school.

So I was received into the Church, just slightly more than a year ago as these lines are being written. My Confirmation day was a happy one for me, no happier, however, than December 8, 1932, when I was received into the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It has been my good fortune, since, to have been elected treasurer of that organization, an honor from my fellow students, which I duly appreciate.

I attend the Church of St. Benedict the Moor, colored mission, not so far off the Marquette campus. And, more often than not, I am accompanied there by one of my non-Catholic Negro friends from the Marquette student body.

Catholicity has opened my eyes. It has brought me new happiness. It has consoled me and heartened me. I rely on prayer in my athletic and class efforts, as much as I do in my physical and mental abilities. And my plea to heaven at the moment is that I may ever remain faithful to the Church.

Ralph Metcalfe came out second best as sprinter at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1932. In 1933 he broke the record in the hundred meter race.