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Rare Knute Rockne auction items could bring a fortune

July 11, 2016

They sat inside a northern Indiana safe deposit box for more than two decades—two prized possessions that legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne carried with him when he died in a 1931 plane crash.

Every so often, be it on the March 31 anniversary of Rockne's death in a Bazaar, Kansas, field, or during the buildup of another big Irish football game or just because he felt like it, Michael Lopez would travel to the bank from his Valparaiso-area home, eye the items and wonder if it was time to find them a new home.

Thinking otherwise every time, Lopez would return the pieces to the safest of keepings, go back to his job at U.S. Steel in Gary and turn most of attention back to his true passion — Harley Davidsons.

Thanks to a family connection to Rockne, Lopez gained possession of the items in 1988—the year Notre Dame last won a football national championship. The items, which include Rockne's engraved pocket watch and a prayer book, have been in the bank since 1993—the year Notre Dame last came close to winning a national championship.

But Lopez now wants to find a new home for them.

Both items, as well three index cards outlining Rockne's life that Father Mooney used during the coach's eulogy and a funeral prayer card, will be turned over to Goldin Auctions. They will go up for bid Aug. 4 as part of 100 sports items at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The auction house starts accepting bids Monday. The online auction at www.GoldinAuctions.com runs through Aug. 13.

"It's been a lot of fun owning them," the 51-year-old Lopez said. "I love putting the word out there about Rock and keeping his name alive. But after 28 years ...

"I just think this is the best route, the best course for this collection is the sale of it."

The Rockne connection dates back over a century to Lopez's great-great-uncle. The Rev. Vincent Mooney was a college classmate at Notre Dame of the man who would become known as the father of the most well-known college football program in the country. Rockne also was friends with Lopez's great-uncle, the Rev. Vincent Brennan.

"All of them lived right across the street from one another," Lopez said.

Father Mooney baptized Rockne, who was converting from Lutheran to Catholic, in 1925 in the Log Chapel on the Notre Dame campus. Afterward, Mooney gave Rockne a prayer book with the inscription, "Notre Dame 11/20/1925 To Knute Rockne—a loyal friend—May the blessing of God descend upon you and yours and remain forever. Devotedly, Father Vincent Mooney, CSC, Class of 1916."

When Rockne celebrated his first wedding anniversary in 1915, his wife, Bonnie, gifted him a Chesterfield watch. Inscribed on one side were the initials "KKR"—Knute Kenneth Rockne—with "SOUTH BEND" etched on the other.

The pocket watch was found in Rockne's suit vest pocket and the prayer book in his travel bag after Transcontinental and Western Air Flight 599 fell into a remote Kansas prairie field in 1931. The 43-year-old Rockne was en route from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles where he was expected to serve as a technical adviser to Universal Studios' film "The Spirit of Notre Dame."

Following Rockne's death, his wife gave her husband's rosary and prayer book to the Rev. Mooney; the watch went to the Rev. Brennan. The items were passed down to the priests' uncle/brother, who was Lopez's grandfather, Edward Brennan, a former columnist for the Gary Post-Tribune.

"Gramps was the last one in the family to graduate Notre Dame," Lopez said. "Class of 1931."

Edward Brennan eventually passed the Rockne possessions to his wife, Lopez's grandmother. Of their five children, their daughter, Sarah, Lopez's mother, eventually took possession. Lopez was gifted the items from his mother on the day of his 23rd birthday after completing a tour of duty in the Air Force.

Now it's time for someone outside the family to own them.

"I have contemplated it for so many years, many, many years," Lopez said. "Do I have second thoughts? Of course I have."

Just as Lopez hasn't always been sure of whether he should put the items up for auction, he has no idea what kind of monetary value to place on them. Are they worth thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

"I've had people tell go from one side of the spectrum to the other," he said. "Everybody tells me what they think they're worth, but they don't know. I don't know. I have no idea."

Goldin Auctions knows well the sports memorabilia auction arena. A copy of the 1918 baseball contract of legendary slugger Babe Ruth sold for $1.02 million. A rare early-1900s Honus Wagner baseball card fetched a record $2.1 million.

"Knute Rockne is Notre Dame royalty and one of the greatest coaches of all time, so it's especially humbling for us to bring his treasured personal items to auction for the first time," Ken Goldin, founder of Goldin Auctions, said in a written statement. "We hope that the winning bidders make these special items available for Notre Dame alumni and fans to enjoy."

A search of the company's website shows that Goldin Auctions also is no stranger to Notre Dame memorabilia. It has auctioned dozens of items over the years with final bids ranging from low—50 assorted football pennants from the 1980s for $147—to high—the 1977 national championship ring of team captain Steve Orsini for $8,963.

There are times when Lopez wants to keep the possessions locked away. He wants to pass them on to his only adult son, Gregory. He wants to keep them in the family for generations to follow. But he also realizes that auctioning the items might return a financial windfall that nobody ever imagined.

"It was a lot of fun (but) things change," Lopez said. "This is a fitting way for it to end.

"It's just time."

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