They found him at the bottom of the mass.
Back in that time there was no requirement for men on the line of scrimmage. Hell, for a time there was no line of scrimmage. But behind the ball a large group of offensive players would form up into a mass formation, often a wedge of some kind, and charge at a similarly massed group of defensive players.
In 1897 there was very little in the form of protection for players’ heads or necks or, well anything really. So when one charging mass of bulky white boys collides, at full speed, with a similarly charging mass of boys—all of whom have on no real helmet or pads to speak of—people get hurt. In fact, a lot of people got killed.
Not a lot of people know this but in 1896 Georgia was coached by Pop Warner and Auburn was coached by John Heisman.
And the two teams met that year and played a spirited game of football in which Georgia won and no one died.
The quarterback in that game was a young man with a funny name: Richard Von Albade Gammon. Everyone called him Von. He was probably the earliest star the University of Georgia had. That year, Von Gammon bested Auburn’s star QB Reynolds “Tick” Tichenor—an early pioneer of the hidden ball trick—en route to the team’s first legitimate conference championship.
The next year they found Gammon at the bottom of the mass.
It was the day before Halloween, 1897, and the University of Georgia faced off against the University of Virginia—two main contenders for the SIAA conference title that year. Georgia had beaten Tech for the very first time in her history the week before.
In the second half, a Virginia tailback ran into the UGA defense behind a mass and Von Gammon, along with the rest of his teammates went crashing into them. When the pile cleared they found Von at the bottom, unconscious.
Most major newspapers reported that he tripped in some manner and concussed himself severely on the way into the pile. There were rumors swirling after the game that Gammon, as the star of the team, had been intentionally targeted since, at that time, the substitution rule was that you stayed in the game until you physically couldn’t continue. So teams would target star players until they were hurt bad enough that they resigned the competition.
Another account said that Von walked off the field of his own power after being briefly revived, and when asked by his captain William Kent if he was giving up on the game he replied, no, “I’ve got too much Georgia grit for that.”
He then, allegedly, lost consciousness on the sideline.
Either way, Von Gammon was taken to Grady Hospital and pronounced dead soon thereafter.
HIs death was, first and foremost, the end of an 18 year-old life at the hands of a game well out of control at the time. Beyond that it was also the end, for many in Georgia, of the innocence of football. It nearly ended the playing of football in the state.
It was the end of a series of possible outcomes now buried in the muddy tracks of Brisbane Park in Atlanta.
It was the end of a series of things hoped for.
I am going to write to you occasionally from here on out about football. Well, mostly about football.
I have it in my head that writing to you will clarify things for me. Your mother thinks this is a silly format that won’t work. I’m sure she is right, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I get a sappy idea in my brain and it has to crap all over the paper until I’ve been good and thoroughly embarrassed, and then, only then, will I relent that the thing that makes me—the world’s biggest softie—get a little emotional, is not, in fact, a universal draw for all people.
All of that to say, I want to tell you about football, as best I can.
The first thing to say is that there is a funny thing that happens this time of year.
I, and a whole lot of other people like me, fall in love with the world again.
Now that’s not just a funny way of saying we like that the weather gets better all of a sudden, which is certainly true, but the root of it, I think, is that we all fall in love with the world again.
We notice things we had forgotten and, especially as we age, things that we will miss. The way you can go outside without feeling as if you are going to melt through your shirt and down into the storm drain like the terminator from Terminator 2. He was the meltier of the two terminators.
The way you can smell the cool air as it arrives on those windy days when the world turns grey. The smell of charcoal in the air from a thousand different grills.
There is a passage from one of my favorite authors that gets at this through baseball of all things:
“Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it. Whenever I think of Edward, I think of playing catch in a hot street and that wonderful weariness of the arms. I think of leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself and that wonderful certainty and amazement when you know the glove is just where is should be. Oh, I will miss the world!”
Maybe it is a bit morbid of me, but I have been thinking often of how deeply I will miss the world, and it is not that football is the main thing I will miss, it is that it helps me think about why.
A theologian I admire called sport the “liturgical celebration of our contingency.” I like that turn of phrase a great deal and wish I had thought of it.
Sport is not, as a Sunday School teacher might one day try to tell you, something completely under the control of God. No, what this theologian meant, was that sport is one of the few things that God has left to us. In playing these games, we celebrate the fact that we are finite things, here for a finite time, and within the confines of that finitude a whole slew of things are actually possible.
So when football rolls around every Fall, I fall in love with the world again. With contingency. With that beautiful chaos we celebrate by heaving our lighters into the propane storage facility that is college football and saying “ok. let’s do this.”
This whole thing started when a guy named Andy Johnson faked a handoff and went into the end zone against your Grandaddy’s favorite team.
I can never remember if your Grandaddy was in school there at the time. But against a far better Tennessee team, an Athens native tried to fake a handoff to a kid named Harrison at the 10 yard line but then bootlegged out to the left and scored.
The funny thing about the play is Andy dropped the ball trying to hand it off to Harrison and the damned thing bounced up like it had landed on concrete, right back into his hands like he had attempted a drop-kick but thought better of it and ran into the end zone.
Anyway, this guy named Andy scored that touchdown and there was a man named Larry watching the game. At the time, he lived in the town where you were born—Nashville. He had taken a job as UGA’s radio announcer some time before, but I don’t think he was quite a UGA fan yet. He still commuted in from Nashville, that same drive I made to come see your Mom when we were engaged but living in two different cities.
But when Andy Johnson went into the end zone in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee on October 3rd, 1973 a man named Larry Munson hollered out “My God, Georgia beat Tennessee in Knoxville!” and things seem to have started to change for him. And as they changed for him, so they began to change for a whole lot of people who listened to him.
Later that night he and his engineer dove into the hotel pool after midnight with all their clothes on. They dove into the pool together, whooping and hollering and full of life.
I like to imagine them floating together in the pool, feeling the weight of their dress shirts in the water, not knowing what they had started, not knowing what all this would become.
Because some years later, your Pops would be sitting on the porch of a frat house in Athens, Georgia, while Larry was in Knoxville again, and Larry would holler “HE’S RUNNING OVER PEOPLE” and the whole thing they had started got a lot bigger.
BEING A SELECTION FROM THE JOURNAL OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES FROM THE STATE OF GEORGIA
OCT 27, 1897
The House met pursuant to law at ten o’clock a.m. this day, was called to order by the Speaker, and opened with prayer by the Chaplain.
The roll was called and a quorum found to be present.
From the Governor’s Report:
“Since November 1st, 1894, there have been twelve negroes lynched who were charged with rape and assault with intent to rape, and one white man who was charged with rape.
In addition to these, there have been seven negro men, one negro women, and one white man lynched which were charged with other offenses. Total for three years, 22, or little more than 7 per year. These occurred in the following counties: Appling, Clinch, Dooly, Habersham, Monroe, Montgomery, Spalding, Muscogee, Talbot, Colquitt, Twiggs, Jasper, Calhoun, and Bibb.”
“In dealing with this question, the people of the Southern States are, of all people, in the most trying position. Here, a large percent of our population has been clothed with the right and privileges of citizenship before receiving the training necessary to prepare them for the duties and responsibilities of so important a position.”
“Notwithstanding the anomalous condition which exits here...it is the duty of the citizen to leave to the government under which he lives, the righting of wrongs, and the punishment of crime....[Lyching] is fundamentally wrong, because it defies government, ignores law and punishes without law or evidence.”
OCT 28, 1897
By unanimous consent the following bills were introduced, read the first time, and appropriately referred, to wit:
By Messrs. Brown and Jordan of Pulaski—
A bill to amend the charter of the city of Hawkinsville.
Also, a bill to repeal an act to amend the charter of the city of Hawkinsville.
By Mr. Henderson of Irwin—
A bill to incorporate the town of Ocilla.
By Mr. Webb of Cherokee—
A bill to incorporate the town of Woodstock.
By Mr. McCook of Chattahoochee—
A bill to prevent the hunting or catching of opossums between certain dates.
By Mr. Copeland of Walker—
A bill to provide for the manner of proving the fact of confinement in the penitentiary and chaingangs of this State.
NOVEMBER 1st, 1897
The following message was received from the Senate, through Mr. Clifton, the Secretary thereof:
Speaker: “The Senate has passed by the requisite constitutional majority the following Senate bill, to wit:
A bill to be entitled an act to define and punish the crime of stealing hogs, cattle, and sheep, and for other purposes.
The following joint resolution was, by unanimous consent, introduced, read the first time, and referred to the Committee on Education, to wit:
By Mr. Awtry of Cobb—
A joint resolution declaring it to be the sense of the General Assembly of Georgia that the game of football should be prohibited from all schools and colleges receive financial aid from the State...
I learned a lot of things while I was in Nashville that I want to tell you about. I don’t have time for them here, but there is one thing that seems pertinent.
My mentor introduced me to this parable of sorts by a really great philosopher:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Another writer I really admire said that football is something like a windmill. It isn’t itself the wind, but just moves the wind along in a different direction. So while we might be tempted to see in football a unique sort of glorification of violence, that is only a shift in the wind. The root of the problem goes much deeper and is much uglier. It is just one part of a larger, single catastrophe.
And it will feel, Bug, oftentimes like you are the one who has gone insane.
It will sometimes feel like cruelty has always been the rational standard and that you have gone quite mad to suppose that this is not a glorious Mount Zion but in fact the pilling high of wreckage.
You will be tempted, Bug, to treat such cruelty as natural, as basic common sense. But that is where you would be wrong. Many do turn to football to seek violence and to worship it as the god that might give them power. But they, if I may be so bold, will recoil in horror when the counties of Appling, Clinch, Dooly, Habershamt, Monroe, Montgomery, Spalding, Muscogee, Talbot, Colquitt, Twiggs, Jasper, Calhoun, and Bibb give back their dead.
And the One coming to seek their justice has the winnowing fork in his hand and millstones innumerable on his shoulders.
But there are other, deeper reasons that people turn to football too. People are often looking for an excuse to love their neighbor for no reason other than that they are nearby. And in that fundamental desire is a hope I cannot let go of.
In truth, it is like we are all on a runaway train. Some turn to football for violence and they are like those who revel in the destruction. But there are others who turn to football for hope, and they are like those who reach for the emergency brake.
I think what I want to say to you is that hope is a movement of the whole person.
It is a choosing to be a part of the world when the easiest thing to do is to despair—to choose *not* to be a person in this world, now.
So many people, Bug, choose to do the latter most of the time. They don’t really choose it. They choose not to choose.
I would love to tell you that this is what makes humans special, but I do not know if that is true. I do not know if elephants or dolphins or cardinals aren’t faced with choosing to be elephants or dolphins or cardinals that day. I like to imagine that they are, but we just can’t hear their poetry about it. Wittgenstein once said that if a lion could talk we couldn’t understand it.
God what a silly thing to tell you.
Anyway, I think sports are beautiful because they remind us that hoping is a human business.
It is a task we humans seem to be uniquely suited for. Because while elephants and dolphins and cardinals might do things that are natural and yet, even in their normalcy, are indescribably beautiful, we have no evidence that they hope for things not seen. Yet, this seems to be the primary task of human beings, so much so that we spend most of our time living in a time other than the one we are in, either the future or the past.
It is a myth to say that hope pushes us to live our lives in the future.
Hope, in its purest form, is a full-eyed recognition of the present moment.
Not that some moment in time out of mind will at last be made right, but that this moment, right now, might be transfigured.
BEING A CONTINUATION OF THE JOURNAL OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA
NOVEMBER 1ST, 1897
The following joint resolution was introduced and read, to wit:
By Mr. Felder of Fulton—
A joint resolution extending the thanks of the House and Senate for courtesies shown a party of members from both Houses on their recent visit to Nashville, Tenn.
NOVEMBER 4th, 1897
By Mr. Little of Muscogee—
A bill to appropriate $5,781.06 for the purpose of reimbursing the State Treasurer for money advanced to pay mileage of Legislators at the extra Session in February, 1897.
By Mr. Bartlett of Paulding—
A bill to prohibit the willful destroying or injuring of any house by the use of dynamite, powder, etc.
By Mr. Edenfield of Screven—
A bill to make football and all similar games unlawful.
Referred to the General Judiciary Committee
Faith, Scripture says, is the substance of things hoped for.
Most people don’t think of faith as a substance. in fact, most people in my profession spend their entire lives speaking of faith as if it is the furthest thing from substance you can imagine. Faith is an ethereal sort of movement of the soul, or a turning of the intellect from one proposition to another, or even perhaps some movements of the body in ethical action.
But faith, Scripture says, is a substance just like the rest of the world is a substance.
Faith is “stuff” of the same variety as televisions or soil or hummingbirds.
Faith, ideally, is meant to be the sort of thing you can see and touch. You can point to it, amongst a lineup of things, so to speak, and say, “There. That is faith.”
I was thinking about what to say to you and I was reading a poem I like to read when I’m thinking of you. A brilliant woman wrote:
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Your mom was sitting with me and she said
There is something beautiful about the moment that a runner breaks through into space
And I said what
And she said
There is something about that moment. That moment when you see them break into open space and you don’t see the runner anymore you just see the space and your whole body says “huhhhhhhhhh.”
And that is the beauty of this sport—that hope.
The possession of the body in that feeling is the substance of things hoped for, Bug.
That feeling of the Earth’s floor giving away beneath your feet as your entire body levitates from whatever position it is in.
That feeling that begs you to think space could open and we could run into it, and in the moment that it opened those that loved us could see us run into open space and go huhhhhhh and we would run into it all the same.
That feeling that space could open and we could win, Bug.
We could win.
We could run through the wreckage and debris and garbage and find ourselves in the clearing, find ourselves in the place where all flesh is loved as flesh.
That, I think, is the root of my love for this heinous thing.
This sport has good bones, Bug.
I will hide most of what this sport is from you.
Because I am trying to sell you the world.
The world I have fallen in love with, despite its shit.
I have fallen in love with the world, and college football along with it.
I will hide most of it from you, dear one.
But this thing has good bones.
John Heisman contends that the first forward pass ever in the game of football was thrown against Georgia.
While some attribute it to the 1876 Yale-Princeton game—wherein legend has it that the ref flipped a coin to decide if the play was legal or not—Heisman said it first occurred in the 1895 meeting between North Carolina against Georgia.
In 1895, the year before Von Gammon enrolled at the University of Georgia, Pop Warner’s Dawgs were trying to break a deadlock against North Carolina. UNC was punting and, upon seeing the near certainty of a block, Carolina’s Joel Whitaker flung the ball forward to George Stephens, who ran the ball 70 yards for a touchdown. UNC won the game 6-0.
I like to imagine Von Gammon in the stands in Atlanta that day.
I like to imagine him, like everyone else, seeing that ball flying the air and feeling the floor of the Earth fall away beneath them.
Because a forward pass, while illegal at the time, is a symbol of something greater.
The flight of it and the beautiful symmetry of the receivers hand’s, like baseball gloves, being right where they should be. The slowing of time and the stretching of space by the flight of the ball as if the receiver never moved but was pulled to the landing point by some hidden current in the field.
And all of us watching being pulled ourselves by the purity and strangeness of contingency, pulling us all toward the question “this place could be beautiful, right?”
Because a forward pass, like a new season, is the beginning of a series of things hoped for.