SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Knute Rockne was one of the most prominent figures in America -- let alone the famous coach at Notre Dame -- when his plane crashed in a Kansas pasture 75 years ago Friday.
Easter Heathman, however, didn't know anything about him that morning. The 14-year-old boy merely heard a loud noise, ran to the scene -- and later helped carry Rockne's body on a stretcher.
"I remember it just like it was yesterday," Heathman said in a
telephone interview from his Kansas home.
Rockne's death at age 43 at the height of his career -- having led the Fighting Irish to consecutive undefeated seasons his final
two seasons -- shocked football fans nationwide and made front-page
news across the country. President Herbert Hoover called it "a
"The fact that he died when he did, when he was at the top of
his game, is a true travesty," current Irish coach Charlie Weis
Heathman, now 89, recalls his uncle calling on March 31, 1931,
saying he'd seen a wing fall off after the plane emerged from
"He said the plane was turning end over end, and the wing came
fluttering down to the ground a half-minute or so after the plane
crashed," Heathman said.
Over the years, Heathman has become the unofficial caretaker of
the crash site near Bazaar, Kan., and the monument that was built
there. He and others plan to gather Friday to commemorate the life
of Rockne and the seven others who died.
Another ceremony will be held Friday in Rockne's hometown of
Voss, Norway. At Notre Dame, the video documentary "Knute Rockne
and his Fighting Irish" will be shown hourly Friday afternoon.
"It's a time for us to reflect on true greatness, which is what
he was," Weis said.
With a 105-12-5 record in 13 seasons, Rockne's major college
football winning percentage of .881 remains unmatched.
"He set the bar," Weis said. "And everybody else just tries
to live up to that bar he set. It's probably unreachable, but at
the same time it's great to have something for everyone to shoot
Murray Sperber, an Indiana University professor emeritus who
wrote "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football,
said Rockne did more than build a great football team. The money he
raised through football helped build Notre Dame.
"When he took over, Notre Dame was a small school and it was
hard to schedule games," Sperber said.
Rockne hired game officials who were friendly to the Irish,
promoted himself and the school to sportswriters, and permitted any
radio network to broadcast Irish games for free, allowing them to
become better known, Sperber said.
"He figured out how to work the system," he said. "You've got
to admire the guy, coming into this very tough system and figuring
out how to beat it -- and beat it tremendously."
In 1919, Rockne's second year at the school, a total of 56,500
people saw the Irish play football. Ten years later, 551,112 people
saw the Irish play.
"Notre Dame was really built on the money Rockne's teams made
in the 1920s," Sperber said. "If it hadn't been for Rockne and
the football money, Notre Dame might still be this small Catholic
school in northern Indiana."
Bernie Kish, former executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame who has researched Rockne's life, said the coach's death in his prime added to his legacy. But he said Rockne was a
larger-than-life figure when he was alive.
"He was the first coach who captured the imagination of the
nation. Rockne was just absolutely adored and loved nationwide, not
just by Notre Dame fans," Kish said.
Kish said Rockne also was the first entrepreneurial head coach,
establishing coaching camps, endorsing athletic equipment, and
leading a celebrity contingent to the 1928 Olympic Games in
Amsterdam. He also was known for developing coaches.
"But he was also just a personality in his own right," Kish
Pat Reis, a 1985 Notre Dame graduate from Minneapolis, will be
among those commemorating Rockne's life at the ceremony in Kansas.
It will be his fourth trip to the site he first visited in college.
"If you've ever spent any time at Notre Dame, there's still a
strong presence of Rockne. So the road trip was a bit of a mission
trip," he said. "It was just one of those spiritual things."
He received his tour of the site from Heathman, who estimates
that over the years he's shown it to thousands of people.
"They call and make an appointment. They stop here at the
door," he said. "Some of them are Notre Dame fans, some of them
While wanting to visit the site may sound odd to some, Reis said
he thinks it makes sense to any Notre Dame fan.
"We try to keep it not too Elvis. But with the stature of
Rockne and the hearts of so many Notre Dame fans, it tends to get a
little toward Graceland and the thing that Elvis has going with his
But to Heathman, who is now a big Fighting Irish fan and has
been to Notre Dame four times over the years, it's more simple than
"It's just a way to pay tribute," he said.