Recently, we have witnessed a lot of debate regarding the safety, or lack thereof, of football as a sport. In the wake of studies regarding brain damage suffered by longtime veterans of the sport, and punctuated by the self-inflicted death of one of the recent great players who was a household name, some have called for the banning of college football as a whole.
I am critical of recent attempts by certain journalists who clearly have a preexisting agenda to call for the abolition of college football. While it's true that college football is a step towards the pros, I am not aware of any men who only played college football that have been found to be suffering from the same brain-related medical issues that have been seen in high-profile cases of professional players over the last 10 years. I'll leave those arguments for another time and another place, however.
Today, for a Mothers Day version of History Learnin', I want to review an event that was discussed briefly at Team Speed Kills recently: the tragic death of Georgia football player Richard Vonalbade Gammon.
Von Gammon in his UGA football uniform (This picture has been lawya'd)
(Fair warning: This is a long entry)
To understand the proper context in which this tragic accident happened, let's first look at some of the pregame lead-up and hype surrounding the game.
The following article is from the October 30, 1897 edition of The Red and Black. It's very long, but trust me, it's worth it:
(As usual, my additions and comments are in italics.)
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Virginia vs. Georgia.
The Two Strongest Teams of the South to Meet at Brisbine Park This Afternoon
ALL ABOUT THE TWO TEAMS
The game of foot-ball that takes place in Atlanta between Virginia and Georgia this afternoon is without a doubt the greatest athletic event that has ever occurred in the South. (Well. That kind of sets the tone, don't it?) Those who are well versed in foot-ball hesitate to express an opinion as to the result. Both teams have been recognized as the strongest in the South and both claim the championship of this section. Every man on both teams realizes the fact that there is much at stake, and each one will enter the game with a determination to win or die. (An obviously poor choice of words, given the result.)
Virginia and Georgia are linked together by many strong ties. Two of the original thirteen, they are today two of the foremost states in the union. The strong relationship that has always existed between these two states is made stronger by a thousand little rememberances (sic) that bring back the time when Virginia and Georgia fought side by side in the great civil strife. Today the sons of these two states meet again in battle. This time, Virginia against Georgia. But it is only a friendly contest in which the representatives of each state seek to win honor and thereby honor their native state.
The result is uncertain. People throughout the country are interested in this game. Both of these college have claimed the championship for several years and today will decide the question.
It might be well to take a short review of the two colleges. The University of Virginia has long been looked upon as the leading Southern college. (Notice how the author capitalized "Southern" here but did not capitalize "union" in the second paragraph. "Reconstructed," indeed.) Founded by that distinguised Southern stateman, Thomas Jefferson, it has forged its way to the front and is surpassed by no institution in the country. Fortunate has Virginia been in having a citizenship that appreciates its worth. The legislature of that state has always been ready and willing to make any donation that would advance the interest of the college. Never in its history has there been a Faculty or board of trustees who condemned intercollegiate athletics. With everything in her favor and nothing to retard her progress in athletics, it is not surprising to see Virginia taking such a high stand.
Less fortunate has been the Georgia boys. True, it is, that the University of Georgia is an old institution. But when we think of the many things that have occurred to retard her progress in athletics, as well as other things, we can scarcely realize that she has attained such a high position in the athletic world.
Georgia has never given the support to her foremost institution that she should. The people have not appreciated the worth of their institution. With little support from the State, and none at all from individuals, the University has made a gallant fight.
Especially has Georgia been handicapped in athletics. Not more than four years ago the board of trustees forbade inter-collegiate athletics, and the work of years was suddenly terminated. Recognizing that the spirit of the times demanded inter-collegiate athletics, the trustees rescinded their action and allowed the University to enter once more into inter-collegiate athletics. But great damage had been done. College spirit had greatly depreciated, and Georgia had to begin at the bottom. How well the University has done, need not be told in this hurried article. Year by year the Georgia boys have pushed their college forward until to-day it ranks with the foremost institutions in the country.
To-day the proud spirit of the University comes to cheer her boys on. Few have been her defeats and many are her victories. There is not a man but what recognized the fact that we have a hard fight. But the old Georgia spirit says, "Boys, we can't lose," and the echo comes from every man on the team, "We will not lose." Facing great odds, and knowing that they have some weak points, Georgia's spirit is not hampered. The boys that come from Athens to-day are as confident of victory as if they were to meet an inferior team. The people of Atlanta cannot realize the spirit that animates these boys. If they knew the determination that filled the breast of every man they would be slow to say that Georgia will go down in defeat. Watch the boys who come to uphold the "red and black." If defeated, it will only be because it was an impossibility to win.
The stinging defeat that Georgia gave Virginia last spring in base-ball will serve to make Virginia fight all the harder. It is the clashing of two determined teams. The Georgia team knows that there are three hundred anxious fellow students watching their every move. They know what a keen disappointment it will be to see their team go down in defeat. Animated by this, Georgia will put forth her best efforts.
Virginia's team also knows that there are hundreds of anxious men in old Virginia waiting for the news. Every one of these Virginia boys, though so far away, are present in spirit, and are watching and hoping the victory will be theirs.
It is interesting to think of two such teams. Every citizen in Atlanta should go out to see such a game. Never before have two such teams met, and never again will so great and opportunity present itself to the citizens of Atlanta.
Virginia's team is one of the heaviest in the South, and one of the heaviest in the country. The line is strong, and it will be no easy matter to break through. The men behind the line are heavy and fast. The whole team approaches perfection. They have had a Princeton coach, and will bring some of old Princeton tricks into play.
But it is Georgia that so interest the people of Atlanta and Georgia. Many will be in the audience this afternoon who will have sons and brothers on Georgia's team. Well may they feel proud of Georgia's boys, for they will be the same gritty and determined players, it matters not whether their colors are defeated or whether they float triumphantly.
For six weeks the Georgia boys have been hard at work. Each day has shown a marked improvement in their work. Chas. McCarthy, of Brown University, has done faithful work. Although sick and weak he has appeared on the field every afternoon and done his duty the same as if he had been in perfect health. Seeing this man, sick and pale, exerting such efforts, has put new life into every man. It is the spirit of determination that Virginia will have to defeat, and it will take more than a strong team to do that.
Bond will play center for Georgia and a great center he is. Six weeks ago he entered the University never having seen a foot-ball and today he is regarded as the best center in the South. Bond is not a heavy man, but has the strength of a giant and all the quickness that is necessary for his position.
Geo. Price will play right guard. Price is a heavy man and will keep the Virginians from breaking through on his side of the line. Geo. Price has always taken a prominent stand in athletics. He is a steady conscientious worker need not fear any trouble from him.
At left guard will be found Brooks Clarke. Clarked played guard for Cornell last year. He is a great strong man and will give the Virginia boys some trouble. Clarke is from Atlanta and hundreds of admiring friends will watch his great work.
(position-by-position review continues...)
Moore will play one-half and Gammon the other. (That's referring to the halfback positions, not one half as in half the game.) Both of these men were on the team last year and did good work. There is no surer ground gainer on the team than Moore. When he gets the ball he always gains his distance.
Gammon is noted for his bucking. He played at quarter last year, but will take care of halfback this year.
Jones will probably be fullback. If not, Gammon will go to full and Jones will take his place at halfback.
Both teams are confident of victory. Both have great records, and it remains to be seen which will be the champions of the South.
There is a duty that every man in the University should perform to-day. The aid of the student body will have a great deal to do with the winning of the game. Let every man be prepared to cheer the 'Varsity boys onto victory. Do not become disheartened, but remain hopeful to the end. Do not give up under any circumstances, and we will win.
THE RED AND BLACK hails with delight this day. We believe that this is the beginning of a new era in Southern athletics. (Again, a sadly prophetic statement.) The good that will come from to-day's game will serve to help us in the future.
We take the privilege of wishing Virginia a pleasant trip and visit to Georgia. If she wins the game we are satisfied that she will deserve it. If she loses we are confident that she could lose to no one who would be more worthy of the victory.
May the sons of these two great states fight against each other as gallantly as their fathers fought together, and may the defeated accept the result as gracefully and peacefully as did the sons of Georgia and Virginia over a quarter of a century ago.
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So, basically, this game was the 1897 version of last year's LSU/Alabama regular-season game. The biggest game the South had ever seen to that point, and the winner would be widely declared the best team in the South, which was no small distinction.
The paper, as was customary for big games at the time, included a "songs and yells" sheet for both teams, as well. I make note of this to point out two of the songs in Georgia's repertoire (really, more for historical curiosity than anything else):
Oh, the ball's with Georgia
Speedy gains she's making---
The foe is rattled--- it's line is breaking---
Georgia, Rah! Georgia, Rah!
Georgia, Rah! Georgia, Rah!
There's a touchdown, Georgia,
And the game is taken,
You're still our glory---our faith's unshaken.
Georgia, Rah! Georgia, Rah!
Georgia, Rah! Georgia, Rah!
Oh, Georgia now and ever---
Georgia, Rah! Georgia, Rah!
Oh, Georgia now and ever---
Yes, forever and forever---
Georgia, Rah! Georgia, Rah!
Georgia, Rah! Rah! Rah! for Georgia!
DEAR GEORGIA, 'TIS OF THEE
Dear Georgia, 'tis of thee,
Crowned with this victory,
Of thee we sing,
When our rash foe had died,
Great swelled our hearts with pride;
"Nobly done!" at thy side,
Will ever ring!
None can e'er conquer thee,
But will meet misery,
When e'er they try.
Georgia, they glorious name
We'll ever praise the same;
Oh, Georgia! thy great fame,
Will never die!
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(For reasons that are probably obvious, the second song was never included in a song sheet again, as far as I can tell.)
So, by all accounts, the build-up of the game was massive, and there were many thousands of people in attendance in Atlanta's Brisbine Park (about 4 blocks from the current location of Turner Field) on the fateful day in question. The score of the game is barely important, of course... anyone who has followed Georgia football for any length of time knows the tragic result.
Just after halftime, near the beginning of the third quarter, Richard Vonalbade Gammon (known as "Von") charged into the run of play on the defensive side of the ball, took the Virginia player down... but never himself rose after the pile of players was cleared. He was carried to the sideline, began vomiting, and two doctors in the crowd came down to the field and determined that he had a "severe concussion." The rest of the game was cancelled, and Gammon was transported to a hospital in Atlanta, where he died in the late evening/early morning hours from his injuries.
And literally overnight, the face of college football in Georgia changed. The actions taken as a result of this game were swift and severe.
The following article appeared on the front page of the Athens Daily Banner on November 3, 1897:
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THE TEAM DISBANDS
Varsity Football Players Lay Aside Uniforms
GAMES ARE CANCELLED
Athletic Council and Member of the Team Held Meetings and Called in all Games -- Faculty Meets Later This Week
The Varsity football team is a thing of the past.
Immediately upon the arrival of Capt. W. E. Kent from Rome, where he attended the funeral of Von Gammon, the football team met and unanimously resolved to disband.
Yesterday afternoon the Athletic council held a meeting at which the members of the team were present, and formally settled the status of football at the University so far as they were concerned.
All games were cancelled and it was resolved to have no more football contests this year. The uniforms of players were all called in and the game of football cut out of the list of sports at the University.
Later on this week the faculty will hold a meeting, discuss the matter fully, and take such action as they deem proper.
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Following that was this report in the Athens Daily Banner, on November 10, 1897 (again, on the front page):
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FACULTY ACTS ON FOOTBALL
Pass Resolutions Concerting Athletic Sports
THEY COMMEND THE TEAM
For Voluntarily Disbanding After the Sad Death of Von Gammon and Urge the Boys to Refrain From All Dangerous Games
In Faculty meeting, Nov. 5th, 1897.
Whereas, In the absense (sic) of suitable provision by the University for the physical culture of its students, through systematic exercises of a gymnasium in charge of a qualified instructors, the students necessarily resort to outdoor sports to secure such physical exercise as is necessary to the maintenance of health and bodily vigor, and
Whereas, Being solicitous that athletic exercises, sports and contests on the part of students of the University should be conducted in such manner as would best contribute to physical and moral development and be free from evils possibly incident thereto, the faculty without relinquishing their ultimate authority or responsibility in connection therewith, have by tacit consent, entrusted the management of such exercises, sports, and contests to the Athletic Association of the University, a body comprising students, alumni, and members of the faculty and of the board of trustees, and directed mainly by an executive council known as the Athletic Council, composed of the physical director, and representatives of the students, the alumni, the faculty and the board of trustees, selected by the association, and
Whereas, The faculty have had and have full confidence in the wisdom and ability of said association and its Council in the management of athletic matter connected with the University.
Be it Resolved, 1. In view of the sad and deplorable accident by which Von Gammon, a student of the University recently came to his death as the result of injuries received during an inter-collegiate game of football, that the faculty earnestly recommend to the athletic association, through the Athletic Council, that measures be taken whereby students of the University may be discouraged from engaging in such athletic contests as are not reasonably free of liability to serious physical injury.
2. That, being apprised, through the physical directory, that the present football team of the Athlectic (sic) Association has voluntarily disbanded and that the Athletic Council has cancelled all engagements for further participation in the inter-collegiate games of football, the faculty heartily commend the students and the council for such action, as being, under the circumstances, praiseworthy and proper.
A copy from the minutes,
W. D. HOOPER, Sec'y.
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The groundswell of anti-football sentiment caused by this shocking incident extended to the statehouse, as well. In the immediate aftermath of the Georgia-Virginia game and Von Gammon's death, a bill prohibiting the game of football in the state of Georgia overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress within 3 weeks, first by a vote of 91-3 in the House, and then by a vote of 31-4 in the Senate. (And, in fact, I'll be posting another "History Learnin'" article later this week with a reprint of an editorial in the Macon Telegraph from 1897 that could have virtually been written by Buzz Bissinger.)
All that remained of football's tattered and tainted legacy in Georgia then sat on Governor William Y. Atkinson's desk. With his signature, the game would have been reduced to a mere memory in the state. It was at that time, however, that Rosalind Burns Gammon, Von Gammon's mother, penned a now-famous letter to her local representative, which was passed along to the Governor.
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. Dr. Herty's article in the Constitution of Nov. 2d is timely, and the authorities of the University can be trusted to make all needed changes for all possible consideration pertaining to the welfare of its students, if they are given the means and the confidence their loyalty and high sense of duty should deserve.
Moved by her words amidst the still-fresh grief of the loss of her son, the Governor vetoed the bill, and the legislature chose not to override the veto, thus preserving football in Georgia for future generations. Changes were made to the rules, which I will also cover in a future edition of "History Learnin'," but the game itself was preserved.
It is difficult to overstate the courage and determination shown by Mrs. Gammon in the wake of this tragedy. She had just lost her son to a game everyone around her was now roundly condemning as brutal and deadly. Instead of giving in to her grief and allowing anger and fear to color her opinions, however, she recalled back to her son's love of playing the game. And if Von was half as passionate about football as his mother was in writing about it, then we can imagine that Von was a great player, indeed. Her impassioned plea moved the entire statehouse. The representatives from Rome (her hometown) championed her cause, and before long the groundswell for the prohibition of football became an equally strong groundswell in favor of its preservation.
Charles Herty may have been the father of Georgia football, but as far as I'm concerned, Rosalind Burns Gammon is its mother. Without her, there would have been no Georgia football after 1897.
Happy Mothers Day, Mrs. Gammon. All of Bulldog Nation is forever indebted to you for your brave service in the face of unspeakable grief, and we will continue to honor you as long as football exists at the University of Georgia.