Late at night he stares in the stillness at a large oil painting of his grandfather, the greatest football coach of all time. "Sometimes after a game I will just sit in the living room and look up at that picture and ask, `How'd I do today?' " the man says. "He's pretty close to me."
Knute Rockne III has a heritage he can neither escape nor deny. Wherever he goes, the legendary Notre Dame coach and the Four Horsemen will be stalking him. Whatever he becomes, The Rock will be in his path.***** Heat rises off the summer pavement. Across the street neighbor kids jump through a sprinkler. The coach looks across a series of lawns, fighting to hold their own against the white sun. It is a neighborhood of small ramblers and duplexes; a place where people mow their own lawns, paint their own houses and work on their own cars.
This afternoon Rockne is feeling especially well. Fall football practice begins this day for Brighton High, a school that has been a football power in the state for a decade. Rockne, who has served as an assistant baseball coach and head girls' basketball coach for four years, has been asked to coach the wide receivers. "I'm really looking forward to this," he says.
It isn't his first football job. Before moving to Brighton he spent three years at tiny East Carbon High School as head coach. When he was interviewing for the job he got what has become a customary reaction of disbelief and suspicion. The principal asked, "Why aren't you coaching at some big high school or college?"
"Because," said Rockne, "I couldn't get a job someplace else."
If there is magic in the name, some of it is black. He has been laughed at, mocked and suspected of lying about his namesake. He has been accused of using the name to get jobs he doesn't deserve. He wonders, conversely, if he has been denied jobs by administrators who feared they would be blamed for hiring a coach on name alone. "My dad used to say my name and a dime would get me a cup of coffee and that's it," he says.
Regardless, the legacy has followed him like a wolf, from Indiana _ where he was raised in South Bend _ to the high Rockies, down to Oklahoma, and back to the Rockies. Everywhere he's gone he was a museum piece before he was a coach; a name before a person. "There were times when I really felt like I was by myself and was on an island. I never really knew how to deal with people. Every time I was introduced, people would say, `Do you know who this is?' I kept saying to myself, `Do they like me for who I am or what I am?' "
However obscure the school or town he moved to, Rockne has always been found. The New York Times. People magazine. CBS Sports. The Boston Globe. He was even booked for the Mike Douglas Show, but it went off the air before his turn came up. "We'll be lucky for awhile and nobody will call us. Then it seems like every five years they (the media) will pop up and find us," says his wife, Patsy.
Rockne's fame has brought aggravation in various forms. While he was in high school in South Bend, announcers gleefully called out his name after he was involved in a play. You know who made that play? Ka-nuuuute Rockne, folks! "That kind of thing got old," he says. Though he lettered in three sports, he often went home frustrated and disillusioned. "Sometimes I just thought, `This isn't worth it.' "
Upon graduation, Rockne decided he wanted to get as far away as possible from South Bend. It was a decent effort. He ended up at Utah State in Logan, and walked on as a receiver and outside linebacker.
Soon, teammates became jealous of his notoriety. "I was getting so much ink, so much publicity," he says. "My sophomore year there were some games where I wasn't even on the travel squad, yet everywhere we went, the big article was about me and Utah State football would be the last two or three paragraphs. You'd see about 11/2 pages about me and my grandfather and the end of the article was about the game. A lot of guys got really upset. It got old, but what could I do? I wasn't seeking the publicity. I never asked for it."
During his years at USU, Rockne roomed with teammate Jeff Jorgensen, who helped Rockne begin to put his grandfather's reputation in perspective. But still the legend waited. "A lot of the pressure was because I was never a star. I wasn't a Heisman candidate. I wasn't an All-American. I was a second string, average football player," Rockne shrugs.
While attending USU he met his future wife, Patsy, who, along with Jorgensen, became the most stabilizing influence in his struggle. When they were introduced, she was asked if she knew who Knute Rockne was. She didn't. With that introduction he began the slow process of accepting his history and reconciling himself with the past.
It wasn't easy or fast _ or painless. "It was hard at first," says Patsy. "People would say, `Your grandfather did this and your grandfather did that,' and `Look how old you are and you haven't done any of that.' It has been very hard for him."
After graduation from USU he worked in Logan as a part-time high school teacher, then became an assistant football coach at Kremmling, Colo. The team had only 13 players. From there it was a three-year stop as an assistant football coach at Frederick, Okla. During that stay, People magazine visited for two days, taking pictures and doing interviews of him.
"The head coach got bent out of shape. The story wasn't about his program, it was about me," says Rockne.
From Oklahoma he moved to Northglenn High, a large suburban Denver school, coaching girls' basketball and sophomore football. His next move was to East Carbon, where he landed his only head coaching job. Though Rockne's record as a head coach is impressive enough _ he had a 17-9 record at East Carbon _ his own accomplishments were rarely the subject of articles on him.
As the media requests and curiosity grew, so did the family. They had two sons, but refused to name either one of them Knute Rockne IV, for fear of saddling the child with the heavy legacy. But by the time they had three children _ two sons and a daughter _ the pride in tradition had become stronger than the pain of comparison. They decided their next son would be named Knute. When Patsy became pregnant with their fourth child, neighbors and doctors alike told them they were having a boy. Even during labor the nurses looked at the heart monitor and predicted a boy. But it was a girl, whom they named Kristiana Kay.
Two years later they had another girl. "I guess you could go on forever trying to have another boy," he says. "But we finally decided five children was enough."
***** Rockne followed his uncle, Knute, Jr., who had no children. His own father was named John. John Rockne had seven sons and one daughter. Only Knute and the family's oldest brother, John Jr., went into coaching. John recently quit high school coaching to work in a sales job in Ohio.
The kids grew up competitive. John Sr. would play football with his sons at night between street lights. Later, after the family moved to a home with a large side yard, the boys would mow the yard in stripes to make it look more like a fooball field.
Ironically, Knute III never knew his grandfather. He was born in 1950 and the legendary Notre Dame coach died in a Kansas plane crash in 1931. John Rockne was only five years old when the original Knute was killed.
Nevertheless, the young Knute Rockne is bound tightly to Notre Dame and his grandfather. He was baptized in the oldest building _ a log cabin _ on the Notre Dame campus. When he was a child the family would attend Irish football games and follow up with a pilgrimmage to his grandmother's home. Knute would sit on the floor and listen to stories of his grandfather's deeds late into the night. "I would listen to those guys _ like the Four Horsemen. They would come back to my grandmother's house when they were back in town to visit and they would talk about my grandfather a lot."
Rockne says while growing up he didn't notice a preponderance of talk about the old coach in his parents' home. His own family has drifted even farther from the legend. Though he owns the only original oil painting in existence of The Rock, he says his children have only a vague idea of their heritage. The oldest son, Devin, 16, is a BYU fan. Rockne's two sons went back to South Bend when they were small, but on a high school coaches' salary, it is difficult to afford many such trips.
Rockne hopes at least one of his children will attend Notre Dame. "I don't think the kids understand," he continues wistfully. "I can talk about it, but to them Notre Dame is just a team they've got to watch every time they play on TV. I don't think it really sinks in. It would be different if we could go back to the memorial to Rockne. If they could be there in the fall when the leaves are changing, and feel the spirit, then maybe they'd understand."
***** Over the years he has tried various ways to deal with the legacy. There have been periods of denial, others of trying to emulate his famous forefather. Those feelings have been mostly replaced by resignation and acceptance.
As recently as four years ago Rockne unabashedly admitted his goal was to coach at Notre Dame. Following in the footsteps hasn't been easy in many ways. The original Rockne might have become a world class chemist, had he not opted for the $15 a month increase in salary to become head football coach. He was a research assistant to Dr. Julius Nieuwland, whose discoveries led to the development of synthetic rubber. The elder Rockne initiated lighter weight football equipment, pioneered passing football and the platoon system, did most of the design work on Notre Dame Stadium and opened his own stock brokerage.
With time has come maturity, and Rockne III accepts interview requests with patience and humor. Students breathlessly approach him with the latest newspaper or magazine clippings and are incredulous that he hasn't bothered to read them. "People may look at me and say, `Wow, you're somebody neat!" he says. "Patsy will just say, `You haven't seen him in his underwear, have you?' "'
At 38, he knows that to get back to Notre Dame he would have to become a graduate assistant at a college and work his way slowly up. It is a road he says now he will never travel.
"The dream, in a sense, has died. I'm not working to make that come true. And to be honest, I'm not sure I want to do that now. I'm also not sure I'd want to spend three or four months out of the year recruiting. Even now, if I was offered a position at Notre Dame, I don't know if I'd take it. I'm not sure I would want to spend that time away from my family.
"At one time it was my biggest aspiration. I did want to go back and work at Notre Dame. It was as worthwhile and honest a dream as I ever had. But priorities change and responsibilities come. Realistically, I've put the dream aside. I don't know that I'll ever get a chance to meet that goal."
He also knows of the pressure that would accompany him being in South Bend. The ghost is still strong there.
Rockne says he is happy with his job and recent years of coaching have been his most satisfying. This year Brighton advanced to the semifinals of the 4A tournament before being eliminated. His wall is checkered with plaques of appreciation from former students and athletes. Many stop to look him up when they are in Salt Lake.
"Those things mean more to me than any Coach of the Year award could mean," he says. "The things from the kids are the things that I cherish most."
"It's taken a lot of years to come to grips with this," says Patsy. "He just didn't decide things one day. As he's gotten older, he has realized he will not be able to do what his grandfather did, and finally accepted that as long as he does his best, it doesn't matter. We'd all like to be better, sure, but he needed to accept that he would never be his grandfather."
Rockne rises to open the living room door and looks at the portrait of his grandfather, cradling an ancient football in the crook of his arm. "A great man," he says absently.
"There will never be another Knute Rockne, ever, ever again," says Patsy softly. "The man was brilliant _ not just in coaching, but in everything. He was a genius. For his grandson to repeat that is impossible. You have the name and you are expected to have the glory."
Rockne smiles. He and his grandfather will be linked together by blood and fame forever. "I like to think my grandfather would be proud of me. I think that I am coaching and directing young men much the same way he did. Football was a game that was meant to be played hard, but at the same time, it's not an end to itself. When football is over, it's time to prepare somebody for life."
Sometimes on autumn days when the sun has weakened and the air is clear, he says he can still feel the draw of Notre Dame; hear the voice of a grandfather he never knew. But finally, after half a lifetime, it is no longer a voice of mockery, but of peace.