Teenagers can be a heartless bunch, especially when it comes to nicknames. When Choke Rockne finally sired a son, he proudly chose to name the boy after that most famous of his distant relatives, the legendary football coach Knute Rockne.
All went well until the boy’s junior year in high school. In the tryouts for the football team, young Knute came down with a savage head cold. The coach sent him to the showers early and, had Knute merely showered and headed home, all would have gone well. But the cold slowed him down. He showered, then sat on a bench by his locker, resting and building up his strength before getting dressed and heading home.
In the meantime, the substitute English teacher, Miss Hourglass, sought him out. It seems that Knute had neglected to turn in a report on the previous day and, although Miss Hourglass didn’t know him by sight, she did know he was trying out for football.
At the field the coach informed her that Knute had showered and was probably heading home. She might, he said, catch the boy as he was leaving the locker room.
Not being a rocket scientist, Miss Hourglass barged right into the locker room, figuring Knute was already dressed and ready to go. Acutely embarrassed, Knute leaped from the bench where he’d been dozing and tried to cover himself with a towel.
“You, boy,” Miss Hourglass said sharply. “What’s your name?”
Struggling to hold the towel in a strategic position and hampered by his clogged sinuses. Knute croaked out, “Nude…Nude Rognie, ma’am.”
The story spread through school like wildfire, and forever after, in the eyes of his peers, anyway, Knute Rockne became Nude Rockne, whether he liked it or not.
Nude did indeed make the football team and he proved to be a successful running back. So infatuated was he with the game that he went into a deep depression when the season ended. One day in late winter he came to me and Joe and we could see right away that something had changed. Nude looked excited and his normal aura of depression had disappeared.
“Hey, guys,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve got an idea!”
“Gee, that’s too bad, Nude,” Joe replied sympathetically. “But the pickerel are bitin’ over on Crutch Pond. I’m sure, after a few hours of ice fishin’, that nasty ole idea will go right away.”
Nude eyed him uncertainly. “No, really…you guys know how much fun it is to play football, right?”
We nodded slowly, wondering where this was going. I played tight end on the high school team and Joe was quarterback. But once the season was over, both of us were glad to go on to other things, like hunting and fishing.
“Well,” Nude continued, “I’ve come up with a way to play winter football!”
“Winter football? You mean, like in the gym?” Somehow I couldn’t quite picture it.
“No, outdoors! On the snow out on the river! Look,” he dug a list out of one pocket. “I’ve simplified the rules. And we can do it on snowshoes. With all the padded clothes we’ll be wearing and with running on snowshoes, nobody will get hurt. It’ll be a great way to spend some time on these winter evenings. The lights from town will be enough to see by.”
Me and Joe looked at each other. Unless you were cusk or smelt fishing, you couldn’t fish at night anyway, and you certainly couldn’t hunt at night. Maybe this idea of Nude’s had some merit.
By nightfall, word had spread among the teenage boys in Mooseleuk and a crowd gathered at the landing on the Little Salt Pork River. We quickly chose up teams and the only markers on the snow-covered surface of the river were some hastily erected goal posts in the form of spruce poles stuck deep in the snow.
Perhaps surprisingly, the game turned out to be a lot of fun. Bear paw snowshoes quickly became the preferred style for this form of winter football, as they allowed sharper turns and quicker maneuvering. Punts and field goals were accomplished by the simple expedient of standing on one snowshoe with the other foot free for the kick.
“This is great!” Nude waxed enthusiastic at halftime with the score tied at 14. “Once the idea gets around, I’ll be famous!”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed with a grin. “Nude Rockne’s winter football. You’ll be a reg’lar legend.”
The second half began well enough. Our team made a series of first downs, putting us well down the field toward the opponent’s goal. Then matters took a turn for the worse. As Joe took the snap on a second down, the opposing linebackers broke through and were all over him. In desperate haste, Joe shot off a long throw downfield.
I’ll give Nude credit. He was game. Running as fast as snowshoes allowed, he veered to the left, arms outstretched, trying to snag the ball out of the air right at the landing. Seeing it was just out of reach, he dove headlong and caught the football with outstretched fingers. But the top of a pier piling was buried in the deep snow and he dove headlong into the unforgiving wood. The loud “thwock!” carried through the cold night air.
We all gathered around the still figure lying in the snow.
“Think he’s dead?” Gasper Gooch asked curiously.
“Naw. Look there, he’s still breathin’,” Joe answered.
“That was…uh…some catch!” said Condon Fishbane.
“Sure was,” Goat Fletcher agreed. “But if’n that pili’n hadn’t been there, I think he’d of been out of bounds.”
“Maybe we ought to get him to the hospital,” I suggested.
Mr. and Mrs. Rockne met us at the Mooseleuk Hospital. In the emergency room, they stripped the unconscious teenager and placed him on a gurney. Dr. Norton Slit made a careful examination.
“Who is this boy?” he asked, lifting an eyelid and shining a light at the pupil.
“He’s Nude,” Joe volunteered.
“I can see that. But what’s his name?”
“That is his name.”
Dr. Slit scowled fiercely.
“His real name’s Knute Rockne,” I hastily interjected.
Dr. Slit glanced at me. “I thought he was dead.”
“Oh, my God!” Mrs. Rockne screamed. “He’s dead!” She swooned into her husband’s arms.
“No, no! I meant Knute Rockne!” The doctor said hurriedly.
“Yeah, he died in an accident, too,” I agreed.
“What do you mean, too?” Mr. Rockne glared at me while trying to support his wife.
Dr. Slit shook his head, obviously trying to clear it. “Look, all you people are going to have to clear out! I’ve got to get some x-rays and do a more thorough examination.”
The upshot of it all was, Nude had a skull fracture and Dr. Slit had to operate in order to relieve pressure on the brain. Eventually, Nude made a full recovery, with only a small scar along the hairline to show from the ordeal.
The accident kind of spelled the end to winter football. But I’ve always thought the idea had great potential. All that was needed to make it a big time sport was the right sponsor.
Perhaps one of the major breweries would be interested.
At any rate, Nude grew up and moved away. He became a successful real estate developer in the Portland area. As an adult, he became just plain old Knute again and it was under that name that he met and married Emily Snoot.
Knute and Emily came back to Mooseleuk one summer for our high school reunion. At a dinner party, the pair sat at a table with me and Joe.
I smiled, looking at Knute’s hairline.
“That scar’s pretty small now,” I remarked. “You can barely see it.”
“Knute says it’s from an old football injury,” Emily said.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “That was when he was Nude.”
Emily looked at her husband, startled. “You played football in the nude?”
“No, no…you don’t understand…” Knute flushed a deep red. Joe tried to correct the misconception.
“No, you see, we all called him Nude.” Emily frowned. Joe hurried on. “See, it all started when Miss Hourglass saw him naked…”
I could see where this was headed and, rather than get subpoenaed in a divorce case, I excused myself and stepped outside. The summer moon was nearly full and its light reflected on the surface of the Little Salt Pork River. For just a moment I could picture it as it had been on that long ago winter night. The deep snow, the churned up playing field, and Nude lying unconscious beside the pier. It seemed like, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get away from our roots, from the things that formed us when we were young. Behind me, through the open door, I could hear Joe desperately addressing that same theme.
“So, you see, Emily, even though you’ve always known him as Knute, he’ll always be Nude to us!”
For more articles and stories about hunting, fishing and the outdoors, be sure to subscribe to our monthly publication the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
To access past copies of the Northwoods Sporting Journal in digital format at no charge, click here.