COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. -- In the back of a dusty, century-old building on a main street in the middle of nowhere, Sue Ann Brown stumbled upon a wicker casket. It looked dreary, morbid and hardly used. Of all the items inside the Knute Rockne Crash Exhibit that chronicle the life and times of the great Notre Dame coach, this sarcophagus might be the most sensitive.
There's no way to tell for sure if it's the one, says Brown, who oversees the exhibit on a day-to-day basis. She is the daughter of a beloved small-town Kansas farmer who is largely responsible for keeping alive the memory of the man who might have laid in that casket.
"This," Brown says, leaning down to remove a blanket covering the modest receptacle, "was possibly used to transport Rockne's body. … It's just too gruesome to put down there in the exhibit. We have never displayed it. Nobody has ever seen one like this."
There are good-taste limits to the public's consumption of history. The exhibit here -- a block from the Chase County Courthouse -- has done its best to preserve this particular slice of American life. Might as well call it the waiting room to one of the most significant pieces of college football antiquity.
Approximately 10 miles from this town of less than 1,000 is an obelisk sitting in the middle of a 1,500-acre cattle ranch. It marks the exact spot where Rockne and seven other souls perished in a plane crash 90 years ago this week -- March 31, 1931.
At the height of his power, influence and innovation, Rockne was gone in a matter of moments. Notre Dame lost a bright light, and football lost a legend. Ninety years later, he remains the winningest major-college football coach with victories in 88.1% of his games over 13 seasons (105-12-5)
Like all the great ones, Rockne's mythos has grown with time.
Consider the similarities between two coaches now considered the greatest of all time. Rockne won six mythical national championships at Notre Dame between 1918-30. Alabama coach Nick Saban just won his sixth title with the Crimson Tide (seventh overall) -- all since 2009.
Both coaches are considered innovators, bigger-than-life characters.
Rockne is credited with refining the forward pass, developing formation innovations that still exist today and modernizing protective equipment. This despite dying at age 43.
In the 1920s, he was one of the three most significant celebrity voices in the country along with Will Rogers and Babe Ruth.
"It just amazes me, 90 years ago along with some folks, in this plane crash, my grandfather died," said Nils, a Rockne grandson. "But for 90 years, they still want to honor his memory."
Brown has some decisions to make this week. What to display? How much? How long?
There's a propellor from the crash. A sheriff once recovered it from a local resident who hung it above his couch. Someone made a pillow out of the material used in one the plane's seat cushions. Deep in a real-life bank vault -- the building used to be a bank -- is a coroner's report from the day of the crash.
Taking up the most room in the small, wood-paneled exhibit space is a 1932 Rockne 65 sedan. The Rockne was a subsidiary of now-defunct auto manufacturer Studebaker. Rockne loved Studebakers.
Not on display is that casket, the significance of which was previously defined, Brown says, by the son of a local funeral home director.
"He told me the casket that they carried Knute Rockne's body in [to transport to Notre Dame] was in the top of his garage," Brown said. "When [the funeral director] passed away and the items were sold, somebody bought this and donated it to us."
Brown basically inherited the job of keeping the Rockne flame alive in these parts, an effort started by her father. Easter Heathman died in 2008 at age 90; he was the leading unofficial caretaker of the Rockne legacy. As a 13-year-old that March day 90 years ago, Heathman was one of the first upon the scene of the smoldering Fokker F-10 that crashed amid the stark Flint Hills.
At that point, it was almost as if Heathman was chosen by a higher power. Later in life, he became an unpaid tour guide who led folks up to the crash site, a mile and a half up into the Flint Hills from his Bazaar, Kansas, home.
Brown grew up watching it unfold.
"Some of them will get out of the car, kneel down and say a prayer, first thing," Brown said. "It's so touching, and they appreciate it so much. It's on their bucket list. People from the big city just can't believe we'd take our time to drive somebody out in a pasture."
As for that waiting room, there will be 50 or so folks on Saturday who will gather at the exhibit at 303 Broadway like they do every five years to remember Rockne.
They've been doing it regularly since 1996, the 65th anniversary of his death. To them, it is more than a somber observance. They are a social club united through tragedy, enriched through friendship, time stamped over the years.
Brown and her family will extricate themselves to a back room where they will watch the ceremony streaming on their phones. It just seems courteous to allow those who have flown in from all across the country to get the prime seats.
"People are going to have to come back here and use the restroom," Brown joked. "We'll just snag 'em and sell 'em a T-shirt."
There will be the Rockne brothers, Nils and Knute III, grandsons of the great man.
There will be Bernie Kish, former executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame, who himself dedicated a large part of his professional career to Rockne's memory.
There will be Jerry McKenna, a sculptor who has crafted 11 pieces of Rockne-related art that reside everywhere from Voss, Norway -- Rockne's hometown -- to Notre Dame Stadium.
There will be the Happer family, whose number reaches double digits. The suburban Kansas City-based clan revels in their relative's significance. John Happer was a comptroller for Great Western Sporting Goods on the flight escorting Rockne to appearances in Wichita and California when the plane went down.
"Every time we had a memorial, each year there were more Happers," Brown said.
In America, we love football, and we love celebrity. Rockne was the epitome of American athletic royalty.
Years ago, McKenna was a young Air Force officer driving a general's primo Mustang through Kansas back to the base in San Antonio, Texas. Enticed by the Rockne legend, he was compelled to take a detour to Cottonwood Falls.
Trapped in a snowstorm, McKenna wrecked the Mustang.
"That's when I got into trouble," he said. "That was kind of a fiasco from start to end. I had to tell a beloved general I had wrecked his Mustang. I didn't know where the hell I was going."
A devotion of sorts began. McKenna was drawn to Rockne's humble beginnings that included emigrating from Norway to become a figure known worldwide. Through football, Rockne was responsible for putting a small, northern Indiana Catholic university on the map.
McKenna's son is named Michael Rockne. It got to the point that Jerry began incorporating part of Rockne into the sculptures. In with the usual metals, he melted in metal trim from a wagon in Norway, material from the Golden Dome itself and metal from the Rockne's doomed aircraft.
"I've got a piece of rock from the crash site, a piece of glass from the aircraft," McKenna said. "I've got a Rockne pen, a box if Rockne cigars from the late 1920s."
Saturday's celebration will not include much of the Peterson family. They bought the land that holds that marble and limestone Rockne memorial in 2018. Public visits to the site have been limited since then. The area around it was settled in the mid-1800s because it suited cattle ranching. The native prairie grass was excellent for feeding cows. The rich bottomland soil near creeks and rivers was ideal for farming.
That is still the case today, except something seems missing. Brown's family settled here in the 1860s when there were still Native Americans in the area. Its history is in her bones. The previous owners gave Easter Heathman the combination to the locks on the cattle gates leading to the site. No more. The Petersons prefer it that way.
"Well, if you pay $4 million for grass, you've got the right," Brown said.
For now, the plan on Saturday is for Nils and Knute III to ride up to the site in an ATV with a Peterson family representative. Brown's husband would like to get up there earlier to trim weeds beforehand. That used to be a regular occurrence.
"Easter kept it up and kept the cattle off it," McKenna said. "You don't find those kinds of memories out in the middle of nowhere like that."
Nils has visited the site maybe a half-dozen times. For Knute III, this will be the first trip. The burden of carrying his grandfather's name may be one of the reasons. Knute III is the son of Jack Rockne, the last remaining child of Knute Rockne, Jack died in 2008.
The coach's celebrity seemed to precede his grandson wherever he went.
"It became overwhelming at times," Knute III said. "It took a while for me to come to grips with who I am and what I was going to do. When I was a young coach, everybody kept bringing up my grandfather. I didn't get into coaching to be my grandfather. I got into it because I wanted to get into it. It always seemed like everybody was a little more willing to bring up my grandfather when comparing me."
Knute III jumped at the chance to get out of South Bend, Indiana, for college. He traveled West to Utah State where he was a backup wide receiver. But during road trips, there would inevitably be local stories about him instead of the Aggies' main contributors. He sensed his teammates' resentment.
"The pressure that I felt, I just couldn't be good," he said. "I had to be great. I had to be an All-American. I had to someone who never lost a game. It took a while for me to get to that point where I could be me and not have to look over my shoulder."
Knute III learned about his grandfather once when Jack Rockne hung a sheet on a wall and showed a movie starring Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan – "Knute Rockne, All-American". That's the famous "win one for the Gipper" film that enhanced, if not established, the Notre Dame mystique.
There is also a Knute IV, Knute III's grandson. The 10-year-old has not yet been informed about the significance of his first name. Maybe that's easier these days.
"It is getting much more difficult for people [to recognize] when I say my name," Knute III said. "People don't really say anything anymore. It takes a real sports fan to make a connection."
Knute III, 70, retired after the 2016 season having spent more than 40 years as a high school coach in Utah. Maybe that's the way this story sort of winds down in rural Kansas with a sort of anonymity.
Cottonwood Falls draws part of its identity from Rockne, who along with his progeny, have given back to Chase County and this town -- the 10,940th largest in the United States.
There are only handful of folks a year now who even inquire about going up to the memorial. Brown isn't concerned about the safety of the trove of memorabilia at the exhibit.
"This is Cottonwood Falls," she said. "We're like Mayberry."
Perhaps it will be up to a new generation to keep the Rockne flame alive around here. "Rock" will always be a legend at Notre Dame. Upon his initial meeting with former Notre Dame president Fr. Ted Hesburgh, Heathman remarked how Rockne had enriched his life.
"Of course it has," Hesburgh said.
Over the years, Heathman was honored several times in South Bend for his selfless labor honoring the great coach. That was enough. There is a McKenna-sculpted plaque of Brown in Notre Dame Stadium. Brown gets emotional talking about her father's entry into Notre Dame's Monogram Club.
"He got the honorary jacket at 50-yard line," Brown said. "Students were yelling 'Easter, Easter, Easter.' I thought that was so cool that so many young people knew Easter. The people at the university treated my dad like a rock star."
That next generation now includes Brian Kelly. If Kelly makes it his 14th season in 2023, he would become the longest-tenured coach in program history. All these years later, Rockne's mantle is still multiple seasons away from being toppled.
Even then, it may not ever be possible to surpass Knute Rockne.