Steadman was inspired by another winner

WAY BACK WHEN

January 06, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It's been said that John Steadman, the legendary Baltimore sports columnist who died this week, was one of the rubber chicken circuit's most devoted and beloved participants whose appearances before various groups probably equaled that of Brooks Robinson.

It was a point of pride that if a veterans or church group, nursing home seniors, sports fans or students requested an appearance, Steadman showed up. There was never any talk of a speaker's fee, either.

It's also been said that he's probably seen more church basements, auditoriums, nursing homes, retirement communities and schools than an insurance inspector.

Several years ago, I asked him if he wouldn't mind speaking to the Loyola High School Father's Club and instantly he replied with his characteristic enthusiasm.

"What time and day, Kid. You know I'll be there," was his answer.

He was a popular draw with the members. They were once boys and now grown fathers who had shared their youth and adulthood with Steadman, who had held down the sports pages of the News-Post, News American and later The Evening Sun and Sun.

He would return to the Blakefield campus two more times and always before packed houses.

His first appearance was in November, a few weeks before the school's annual Thanksgiving football clash with rival Calvert Hall.

After concluding his remarks, always made without notes, and the question-and-answer period, I told him I had heard that he did a wonderful imitation of Knute Rockne, the famed Notre Dame football coach who inspired teams with his "Win one for the Gipper" locker room speech. I asked if he would consider performing it for us. He said he would.

Obviously, the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne - All American," with Pat O'Brien as Rockne, and Ronald Reagan as George Gipp, the All-American football player who died of a strep infection in 1920, and the drama of the story itself had made a lasting impression on Steadman.

In the movie's deathbed scene, Gipp looks up and says to Rockne, "I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. But some time, Rock, when the team's up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys - tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock, but I'll know about it and I'll be happy."

Suddenly, in Loyola's field house, Steadman stood still for a moment, and then burst forth as Rockne.

Moving back and forth, pointing, smacking his hands and with his voice rising in an ever increasing dramatic fashion, Steadman said, "Well, boys ... I haven't a thing to say. Played a great game ... all of you. I guess we just can't expect to win 'em all. I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. ... And the last thing he said to me was, `Rock,' he said, `sometime, when the team is up against it - and the breaks are beating the boys - tell them to go out there with all they got and win one for the Gipper."

Here, Steadman departed from the script, buried his fist deep into his palm with a smack and roared, "Beat Calvert Hall!"

With that, the Father's Club members, many with tears streaming down their faces, jumped to their feet. The membership's Jesuit adviser, equally overcome with emotion, wasn't about to be left behind and jumped up from his gray folding chair.

It was a bravura performance.

BGE lawyer Bob Blatchley, who was hired by Steadman in 1960 as a $37-a-week cub reporter in the News American's sports department, recalled the other day a time Steadman, took his act to Highland Cemetery in South Bend, Ind., where Rockne is buried.

"After the game, he and Mary Lee, his wife, jumped into a cab and went to the cemetery. He asked the driver if he knew where Rockne's grave was and if he could take him there. When he got to the grave, he stood in front of the tombstone and did the Gipper speech in true Rockne fashion," said Blatchley.

"Suddenly, the taxi driver, wondering what in the world was going on, turned and asked Mary Lee, `Is he all right?' " said Blatchley, laughing.

"He's buried only a long punt from the campus," Steadman wrote of Rockne in a 1988 Evening Sun column.

"And there in front of his tombstone and under the sweeping branches of an old birch tree, we tried to exhort him with a pep talk, using some of his old lines that he might have recognized. But Rockne didn't appear. Not even his ghost."

Some years ago when an aged Pat O'Brien was appearing in Baltimore, Steadman made his way backstage after the show and told him how much he admired his portrayal of Rockne. He asked the veteran actor if he wouldn't mind performing the speech.

He didn't mind a bit.

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