You might think that head injuries are only the latest in a series of threats against the game of football. Unfortunately, head injuries have been the primary threat to football from its very beginning. In particular, a head injury almost brought an end to football at the University of Georgia. If it weren’t for a letter to the Governor then the names Lindsay Scott, Kevin Butler, Eric Zeier, and Herschel Walker would mean nothing to us. Here’s how it happened.
His name was Richard Von Albade Gammon. Everyone called him “Von.”
He played during the 1896 and 1897 seasons. His head coach was a guy you may have heard of, Glenn “Pop” Warner. He was the Quarterback for the 1896 Bulldogs, and it just so happens they were the first University of Georgia team to go undefeated, racking up four wins and a SIAA conference championship. They completed their season on November 30th 1896 with a win over Auburn.
Not even a full year later Von Gammon was dead.
The day was October 30th, 1897. The University of Georgia had just hired Charles McCarthy, a law student at the time who took the job to pay his way through school. McCarthy later became an advisor to three U.S. Presidents and founded the nations first Legislative Reference Library. His team was undefeated through its first two games with victories over Clemson and Georgia Tech. On the 30th they traveled to Atlanta to play the University of Virginia.
Virginia built up an 11-4 halftime lead and were driving again in the second half. The story goes that it was during a later drive Von Gammon rushed into a pile of players to make a tackle on a Virginia running back. The play was whistled dead and the pile cleared. Von Gammon lay on the turf motionless and unconscious, the victim of an apparent severe concussion. He would never regain full consciousness again.
He was rushed to the closest hospital for treatment, but he was pronounced dead in the early morning hours of Halloween, 1897. According to Loran Smith in The Georgia Football Vault, Von Gammon’s last words were, “A Georgia Man never quits,” spoken in a semi-conscious state as he was carried off the field.
Now something you may not know is that at that time there was a severe prejudice against the game of football in America. That prejudice came to a head later in 1905 when 19 players died playing football across the country. Then President Teddy Roosevelt had to convene a meeting of the “leading” football programs at the time—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—to find a way to reform the game. Earlier, however, the Harvard-Yale and Army-Navy games were both suspended for multiple years due to an onslaught of crippling injuries. Many were clamoring for the game to be banned entirely. Gammon’s death brought a perfect storm to its tipping point in the state of Georgia.
And it just so happened that the State Legislature was in session.
The AP reported it this way, “His death has stirred prejudice against the game among members of the state legislature…it is probable that a bill will be passed in a few days making it a misdemeanor to engage in a game of football in this state. The faculty of the university has decided to prohibit the game in the future.”
The Legislature didn’t waste much time, as a State Representative proposed a bill to that effect the day after Gammon’s death. The House passed the bill with little effort.
One would suspect, obviously, that there would have been public outcry against this bill from football fans across the state. Notable among them was Dr. Charles Herty, the first football coach at the University of Georgia, who published an article in the Atlanta Constitution on November 2nd that attempted to save the program to which he himself had given birth. But the letter had seemingly little effect on the Senate’s view of the matter as they passed the bill by a wide margin two weeks after the letter appeared. The bill went to the desk of Governor William Yates Atkinson on November 18th for his signature.
Then something happened that no one expected.
Governor Atkinson received a letter at the hand of one of his State Representatives written by Von Gammon’s mother, Rosalind Burns Gammon. Now, as a mother whose son was just taken from her you might expect her to be thanking Atkinson for ending the sport that killed her son. I imagine this would’ve been my reaction were my child killed playing football. Hell, sometimes I think that without having the slightest skin in the game. I can only imagine losing the person I loved most to a game, of all things.
But that’s not what Rosalind Gammon asked of the Governor. She begged him to veto the bill.
Here is what I find to be the most poignant excerpt from the letter,
“It would be the greatest favor to the family of Von Gammon if your influence could prevent his death being used for an argument detrimental to the athletic cause and its advancement at the University. His love for his college and his interest in all manly sports, without which he deemed the highest type of manhood impossible, is well known by his classmates and friends, and it would be inexpressibly sad to have the cause he held so dear injured by his sacrifice. Grant me the right to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life.”
The most cherished object of his life.
Her letter, it seems to me, was not an attempt to defend the merits of the game of football. Her son assuredly would’ve done that, but the boy was dead, his voice silenced, his sacrifice complete.
Her argument was that her son should not be used to end the game that he loved. This sounds very familiar to me. It sounds like the pop of a concussion, the crack of a leg break, the snap of a torn ACL, or the silence of 90,000 people who want to forget that all of this is happening to real bodies, to real men, to real boys.
And then the refrain always comes from even the injured one, “Don’t take away the game I love.” And who can argue against the one who chose to devote his life to such a cause? Not me.
All I can do is remember.
Remember the Lattimores, the Seaus, and the Olivers. For in remembering we make sure that even sacrifice to the greatest vanity of our lifetime will not be for naught.
I remember the concussion that almost ended football in Georgia because if I forget I will end football all over again by allowing it to regress into what it once was: brutal, vicious, and careless.
There are many ghosts that haunt the Hedges. Many call us to revel in the beauty of god-like bodies that caused us to believe that even flesh might transcend its bounds and do things none could imagine. But one ghost calls us to sobriety, to reflection, and to sacrifice.
On October 30th football in the state of Georgia almost died. On October 31st Richard Von Albade Gammon did. His ghost begs us to honor his life and its most cherished object, in all the good it does for so many.
His ghost also begs for us to count the cost.–Jason writes about football more often at Dudeyoucrazy.net. He still loves football and isn’t planning on stopping watching it anytime soon.–