On the last day of the 1905 college football season, Harvard hosted Yale in the 26th meeting between the two teams. At one point in the typically low-scoring affair, Harvard's Francis Burr trotted back to return a punt. As the ball fluttered through the air, Burr called for a fair catch. Then things got ugly, as things often did in those days. After all, this was the year of what the Chicago Tribune called college football's "death harvest."
Two Yale defenders bore down on the helpless Burr, one of whom, Jim Quill, punched him in the face, shattering his nose. The other player, according to John Sayle Watterson's College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, citing contemporary newspaper accounts, "delivered a body blow with his feet which knocked Burr 'senseless.'" That sounds an awful lot like a drop-kick. No foul was called on the play.
In his book, Watterson questioned the objectivity of the referee, Paul Dashiell, who as chair of the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee had ties to legendary Yalie Walter Camp, the so-called "Father of American Football" and the author of an annual rules guide. This may well have been true. But according to Ken Crippen, executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, the referee still called the play correctly. "There was nothing saying you couldn't drop-kick or punch or anything like that," Crippen told me. "It was one of those things where, as a gentleman, you wouldn't do that. But they didn't write anything specific into the rules that you couldn't drop-kick a player."
Such was football in 1905 that the drop-kicking of Francis Burr wasn't even the worst thing to happen on that Nov. 25. Three players died that day. In a game against New York University, halfback Harold Moore of Union College tried to "buck the line," in the words of the The St. Louis Republic. He was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head and died six hours later from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 19.
In Sedalia, Mo., 16-year-old Robert Brown was making a "run around the end," or what we would know as an off-tackle run, when he was tackled and "thrown heavily upon the ground, alighting on his neck and shoulders … paralyzed from the neck down." He died without regaining consciousness, according to the Mexico Missouri Message.
Several hundred miles away in Rockville, Ind., Carl Osborne of Marshall High School was killed instantly when a broken rib punctured his heart, according to The St. Louis Republic.
You'll see different figures cited for the number of football deaths of 1905. Were there 13? Eighteen? Nineteen? Twenty-one? To the people invoking it, the exact number doesn't matter so much as its readiness to be pressed into service of any argument. Sometimes, the figure is used to suggest that football is inherently dangerous no matter what anyone does about it. Sometimes, it's used to prove that football can adapt after a crisis.
But if the number of deaths remains a useful and malleable fact even now, 109 years later, the deaths themselves have been forgotten. How exactly did 18 football players—or 19 or 13 or 21—die in 1905?
Even though we call it by the same name, football was a different sport in those days. Most obviously, there was no forward pass. The most common play featured the flying wedge, a formation whose last vestiges—remember the play on kickoffs, the one with those fat dudes holding hands and clobbering a single, smaller guy running downfield?—were struck from the pro game a few years ago. In the wedge's ancestral form, players would start a few yards behind the line of scrimmage and then embark on a sort of rolling train wreck. As Crippen explained to me, "They knew it would be effective. If you would run up the middle, then you would just slam them as hard as you possibly can in order to try and gain as much yardage as possible." As for padding, there was none. This was before leather helmets, before rudimentary pads, before everything. The most you would see would be the occasional nose guard or hat.
Games were 70 minutes long; players would take part in almost every play; there was no neutral zone between the offensive and defensive line; and since you needed only five yards for a first down, there was less incentive to run outside the tackles. Teams would strategize to control possession by bowling their way forward, inch by inch, yard by yard, punch by punch.
It was an ugly game. Five weeks before Yale-Harvard, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned a group of football insiders from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to address the growing concerns of brutality in football. A press release went out, in which the universities' respective coaches promised to abide by the codified rules of the game, though it wasn't much of a promise. Even then, the officials from Yale denied knowing anything about roughhousing in college football.
The first death of the 1905 season occurred during practice on Oct. 9 at Hampden-Sydney College, when Howard Montgomery was paralyzed in the lower body and died as a result of similar injuries. Ten other deaths were reported in a similar fashion: Someone suffered an injury while playing football, and then he died. James Bryant, 17, of Cañon City, Colo., fell on his back, and when the pile of players was pulled off him, he was dead.
On Nov. 4 at Oak Park High in Chicago, Vernon Wise was making a tackle when he was struck in the side and back by an opposing player, and received "internal injuries," from which he died. Two days later in San Jose, Clarence Von Bokkelen had his skull fractured and died hours later. The month was rounded out when Randall McLeod of Hampton High in Marshalltown, Iowa, had his intestines ruptured, and G.C. Ficken, a fullback in New Orleans was struck on the head in a scrimmage and died without regaining consciousness.
There were two football deaths in December, from injuries incurred in earlier games. Arthur Roote of Salem, Mass., only 13 years old, suffered "internal injuries" and died in the Salem hospital on Dec. 3. Another New England death occurred on Dec. 7 in Bridgeport, Conn., when Leo McNally died of a broken back he suffered on Thanksgiving Day.
These are the 11 known deaths that resulted directly from a football injury. If nothing else, they suggest that the game has gotten safer at a faster rate than it has gotten bigger and faster. The other reported deaths, however, are where things get weird.
Twenty-seven-year-old John Dondero of Willimantic, Conn., was by far the oldest football fatality of the year. According to The Minneapolis Journal, doctors blamed a cerebral hemorrhage, "superinduced by the player's poor physical condition at the time." It was argued in various papers across the country that Mr. Dondero was too old and too fat to be playing football.
Girls played football in 1905 as well, and they died playing football, too. If you happened to be of the belief that delicate girls ought not to be playing the rough-and-tumble game of football, then the death of Miss Bernadette Decker, 18, in Cumberland, Md., was perfect kindling for your argument. From the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.: "Miss Bernadette Decker … died this morning from a malady resembling malignant peritonitis, due to injuries received in a game of football."
These two deaths were also much fodder for football death-deniers. Take a look at this article in the New-York Tribune, Dec. 4, 1905:
Football suffers more from its friends than from its enemies. Eighteen of the deaths referred to were those of mere boys, all of them under eighteen years. Football is a man's game, the most strenuous sport that we know. It is fit only for players who are absolutely sound in wind and in limb, and who have arrived at physical maturity so far as growth is concerned….one of the deaths ascribed to in this arraignment of football as due to the game is that of a millihand [sic] who went into a match right from work [Dondero] … another is that of a Maryland girl. Think of that! And football takes the blame. Really it is quite too ridiculous for words.
Quite too ridiculous for words indeed, sir.
The paper also stated that "Miss Decker's case baffled four physicians, who were constantly in attendance." Medically speaking, her diagnosis makes little sense. Peritonitis is an infection of the abdominal cavity; you can't really die from that "due to" football anymore than you can die from cancer due to a gunshot wound. I spoke with Dr. Matthew Matava, professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and president of the NFL Physician's Society, to find out what this likely could have meant back in 1905. I asked him if this could have been a case where internal injuries sustained while playing football were misdiagnosed as an infection. He agreed this assessment was "probably accurate."
Matava also issued a general caution regarding all diagnoses from that era: "You have to keep in mind, in 1905, they knew very little about anything. They just didn't have much in the way of diagnostic tools at their disposal, their physical examination methods were crude, there was not a lot of pathophysiology, meaning the makeup of disease and what causes disease in the body. There were no antibiotics to speak of at the time, really. Keep in mind, epidemiology of injuries back then was prehistoric as far as accurate data on injuries and all that." With that caution in mind, I present to you three cases that were reported in the 1905 newspapers as deaths "related to" or "caused by" football, yet seem suspicious upon reflection:
James Squires: As reported by the New-York Tribune, among other papers, James was a member of the Alton (Ill.) High School football team. In an Oct. 21 game against East St. Louis he "received a kick on the knee, which resulted in blood poisoning." Now, it seems odd to claim a glorified kick in the shin could be a cause of death, but as Matava explained, he likely received an infection as a result of a cut or wound. This is a pretty clear-cut case where modern medicine would have saved James's life.
Horatio Knight: On Nov. 5, this Springfield, Mass., native played in an inter-class football game, which, according to one account, "resulted in meningitis," and he then died on Nov. 9. This is ludicrous. An infection isn't a cause of death from football any more than an infection is a cause of death from breathing. To be more precise, as Matava explains, "Meningitis is basically an infection of the cerebral spinal fluid that coats your brain." When I asked him if the symptoms of meningitis could be confused with football injuries, he expressed severe doubt. "Meningitis would give you a fever, mental status changes, a very sore neck when you try and move it, which concussions tend not to do unless you injure the spinal cord or the spine of the neck. The only common symptoms [with head injuries] would be loss or change in consciousness and mental status. That would probably be the extent of it. You're not going to have the fever you would have associated with an infection."
How doctors would have established meningitis as the cause of death is dubious as well. The lumbar puncture was invented in London in 1889 and was first used in the United States in 1893. Given the rate at which medical technology spread around the turn of the 19th century, it's difficult to say if rural areas would have had access to that method, though Matava leaned toward the negative. He also expressed skepticism, to say the least, over their sterilization practices: "Let's say the kid was knocked out, and they asked for cerebrospinal fluid from the spine, and let's say they didn't prep the area (prep meaning wipe off the skin before they stuck a needle in her spine) and the contamination from the skin resulted in the diagnosis of the infection based on what the cultures grew after the fluid. Antiseptics were at their infancy. I have no idea how they would have even sterilized the needle they stuck in his back. The symptoms might be the same."
So with cases like Horatio Knight, it's simply impossible to know how much of a role football played. Maybe the hysteria of the day offered up an easy culprit, when all he really had was a common infection. Or maybe he did indeed die from his football injuries, and the meningitis diagnosis was the result of poor sterilization practices. The mysteries of time abound.
Haerman Norgaard: Playing a game in Harlan, Iowa, this member of the Council Bluffs High School team died from "an abscess of the brain, brought on by injuries received in a game," according to the Deseret Evening News of Salt Lake City. Said Matava: "An abscess is a collection of pus which is infectious material. It's basically white blood cells that have accumulated to attack an infection, or the bacteria that are causing an infection, and you get so many of them in a closed space, that when they multiply, the bacteria and the white blood cells form this collection of fluid that when you literally open it up or expose it, it looks almost like a popped zit on a larger scale." So it's a giant, internal killer zit. Delicious.
Remember the infection going around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers facility? The MRSA outbreak? Well, MRSA is an abscess caused by the staph species. But, this doesn't have anything to do with head trauma. The infection doesn't enter your body via head trauma (obviously); it must enter through some opening or wound, at which point it may travel to the brain. Ultimately, if the cause of death was an abscess, it can hardly be blamed on football. As Matava summarized, "Except for that [the] kid happened to play football, there's no causal relationship there."
So although James Squires, Horatio Knight, and Haerman Norgaard were reported as having died as a result of football, it's difficult to attribute their deaths to the game itself.
Then there was poor, unfortunate Leslie Wise. The 14-year-old was playing in a chummy game of football when, according to every newspaper report I encountered, including the New-York Tribune's, Leslie "was tackled, and when he fell a weed entered his nostril and penetrated the brain, causing death a few hours later." To repeat: He died because a weed went through his nose and into his brain.
As if to assure readers there is no man-killing weed sprouting in Milwaukee, the paper added, "The weed which caused his death was only a slender spike, which could easily have been broken." You know, like every other weed on this planet. I had to ask Matava for his thoughts on this peculiar account. "Neurosurgeons will actually go up through the nose to do surgery nowadays on the bottom part of the brain, the pituitary gland. So it's a legitimate access up into the brain. Certainly with enough traumatic force, it's anatomically possible." A million-to-one shot, Doc. The one and only death in American history caused by weed.
Lack of proper medical knowledge, oversight, or wherewithal from the coaching staff is still a problem in football today, so it should come as no surprise that a few deaths from 1905 could be similarly categorized. William Kelley of Buffalo was scrimmaging in practice, fighting for a roster spot on the second team. Nearly everyone, including the coach, considered him undersized for the first team, but Kelley prided himself on his Rudy-like effort and zeal. According to The Evening World, a New York paper, Kelley sustained fatal internal injuries "while making a desperate effort to gain a yard. … [H]e was taken home unconscious … and succumbed to his injuries." According to the report, the coaches told Kelley that he had to gain a certain number of yards that day or he would be "counted out".