Rob Oller | In early 1900s, as now, safety of football was called into question

Rob Oller
Rob Oller

The White House wants Big Ten football back on the field, determining the reward is worth the safety risk. Been there, done that. A different president initially pushed for the same thing more than 100 years ago.

History always comes back around, humbling the arrogant view that we are experiencing a crisis never before seen on America’s timeline.

This time it is Donald Trump tweeting how college football should play a fall season, despite health concerns associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Back in 1903, it was President Teddy Roosevelt using his bully pulpit to promote his own sports agenda, the old Rough Rider telling an audience: “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”

Roosevelt’s dilemma was that playing football increasingly was turning fatal. It is one thing to face the threat of athletes contracting and spreading COVID-19; Roosevelt was staring at the reality of college players dying from injuries suffered during games.

Football in the early 1900s was a brutal business in which players locked arms in a phalanx and used their helmetless heads as battering rams. Gruesome injuries ensued, including crushed skulls, severed spinal cords and broken ribs that speared through hearts. Eighteen deaths were reported in 1904 alone. College faculty and students increasingly found the violence abhorrent.

In 1906, Roosevelt considered shutting down the game after 13 players died during the 1905 season. But a meeting of 62 college programs resulted in major changes, including banning the flying wedge. Introduction of the forward pass around the same time also made the game safer, as fewer teams bull-rushed each other en masse.

Football still was exceedingly dangerous, at least by today’s standards. Ohio State halfback Chic Harley, who led the Buckeyes to their first win against Michigan in 1919, suffered from major head issues — although who is to say what was concussion and what was mental illness? — but by then college stadiums no longer were the “killing fields” described by newspapers a decade earlier.

Unfortunately, improvements in safety arrived too late to save John Sigrist, who in 1901 became the first and still only Ohio State player to die from injuries suffered during a game.

On Oct. 26, a football Saturday, Sigrist was digging in on defense against Western Reserve. It was a critical game for the Buckeyes against a fifth consecutive in-state opponent during an era when the goal was to be crowned champion of the Ohio colleges. A large crowd had gathered, taking advantage of newly installed bleachers at University Field, which was located at Athletic Park on High Street near Woodruff Avenue.

Early in the second half, Western Reserve made a 2-yard gain through the middle of the line that Sigrist, who played center-rush, determined would not be repeated. On the next play, he stooped into a semi-erect position, with his head lower than usual, and drove forward. A pileup ensued.

The Columbus Citizen described the scene: “John Sigrist failed to rise from the ground.” The newspaper went on to report that “tender hands lifted his limp body from the field and carried it to the armory.” An ambulance was summoned and Sigrist was removed to Grant Hospital, where two days after Ohio State’s 6-5 win the 27-year-old senior in the College of Agriculture died from his injuries, which included fractured vertebrae in which bone crushed the spinal cord.

The autopsy concluded, “From the moment of the accident the young man was doomed.” The Citizen reported that the end came peacefully and painlessly, that up until 15 minutes before he died Sigrist had no idea the end was so near.

Perhaps sensing his eventual fate, in his final hours Sigrist told Ohio State President William Oxley Thompson that he absolved all other players from blame.

It wasn’t enough. Ohio State football’s very existence became threatened. Football safety already had come under strong criticism before Sigrist’s death, and those opposing the continuation of football were not without ammunition. In 1899, Ohio University quarterback Ralph O’Blenness was paralyzed after being knocked backward onto his head during practice in Athens. He died two weeks later.

Sigrist’s death prompted Thompson to cancel the next week’s game against Ohio Wesleyan, but disagreement dominated the discussion of what to do about the remaining four games. The majority opinion on campus seemed to be that the show must go on, if for no other reason than, as the Citizen reported, “Each year a debt is contracted which is not expected to be met until the Thanksgiving game is played.”

Money, man. Then as now. The season continued.

Finally, consider this summary printed in the Citizen: “As far as the players are concerned, individually they all feel a personal loss in Sigrist … but they regard the accident as one of the chances incident to playing the game, and never consider that such a calamity is in store for them.”

Sound familiar? History rides again.