The Graves of Gus Cifelli and George Strickler
by Randy Snow
Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Sunday, March 27, 2022
In my never-ending travels to honor the legends of football’s rich history, I recently visited the graves of a former pro football player as well as the man behind one of college football’s most iconic photographs.
This time, I was in South Bend, Indiana at the Highland Cemetery on the northwest side of town. I was there to find the final resting places of tackle Gus Cifelli and sports editor George Strickler.
August Blaze “Gus” Cifelli was born in Philadelphia and played college football at Nevada and at Notre Dame. He won three college football national championships at Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949. Cifelli was selected in the 19th round of the 1950 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. He played five seasons in the NFL. His first three seasons were in Detroit, from 1950-1952, and he won an NFL title with the Lions in 1952. He was traded to the Green Bay Packers for a draft pick in 1953 and in 1954 he played for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cifelli was also an amateur boxer, winning the Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championships in Nevada and California. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II before he attended college, serving in the Pacific as an aircraft gunner aboard the USS Intrepid.
When his professional football career ended, he went back to school and earned a law degree from the University of Detroit Law School in 1965. In 1973, he was elected as a Michigan Trial Judge for the 48th District Court in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Three years later, he became a Chief Judge.
In 1978, while Cifelli was presiding over a case, a litigant pulled out a gun in the courtroom and grabbed his attorney after the lawsuit that he had filed was dismissed. Cifelli leaped over the bench and tackled the man, holding him until police took him into custody. Cifelli retired from the bench in 2000. In 1994, the Detroit Area Italian-American Club named him their Man of the Year.
Gus Cifelli died on March 26, 2009 at the age of 83.
The second grave that I visited in the Highland Cemetery was that of George Strickler.
In 1924, Strickler was a sophomore at Notre Dame and was employed by famed coach Knute Rockne to act as a student publicist/reporter for the team.
On the Wednesday prior to the Notre Dame game against Army at the Polo Grounds in New York, Strickler saw a Rudolph Valentino silent movie titled, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." During halftime of the Army game, Rockne told Strickler to go to the press box and eavesdrop on the reporters who were covering the game in order to see what they were saying about the team. The reporters were all commenting on the outstanding play of the four members of the Notre Dame backfield. Strickler interjected, "Yeah, just like the Four Horsemen," referencing the movie. There was no reaction at the time from the assembled group of reporters.
Following Notre Dame's 13-7 win over Army, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was covering the game, immortalized them in his syndicated Sportlight column. His article started out with what has become one of the most famous passages in sports history;
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."
The week following the game, Strickler arranged to have a picture of the four backfield members taken on horseback, in reference to Rice's article. That photograph has become one of the most iconic pictures in college football history.
Rice had actually used The Four Horsemen moniker a few times in his articles over the years, but it never caught on until he used it in reference to the Notre Dame backfield in 1924. Strickler’s picture of the players on horseback added another element to the name and a college football legend was born.
George Strickler went on to become the longtime sports editor of the Chicago Tribune newspaper and was also the president of the Pro Football Writers of America from 1964-1965. He died on December 8, 1976 at the age of 72.
By the way, famed Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne is also buried in the Highland Cemetery in South Bend. His was the first football related grave that I ever visited way back in 2006. It started me on this journey of “Grave Discoveries” that continues to this day.
If You Go There
Knute Rockne and Gus Cifelli are buried in the Graceland section. George Strickler is buried in the Ridgeland section. All the sections throughout the cemetery are well marked, but they are quite large. Therefore, the best way to find the graves is to stop by the cemetery office at the front gate, ask for a map and have someone mark the locations on the map for you.
Strickler’s marker is flat to the ground. When I was there, it was very hard to find because it was covered with wet leaves. I had to brush off several markers in that area before I found it.