When Georgia Banned Football (Almost)

If things turned out differently, today’s Georgia Bulldogs might be playing in a kennel instead of a stadium.

In the 2015 film, “Concussion,” forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) declares, “God did not intend for us to play football.”

Neither did the two houses of the Georgia state legislature in November 1897, when they voted to ban the sport throughout the state. If it hadn’t been for a grief-stricken but thoughtful mother and a young, attentive Governor, today’s Georgia Bulldogs might be playing in a kennel instead of a stadium.

Football in parts of Georgia is almost as sacred as the Shroud of Turin is to Catholics.

A disclaimer: I don’t mean to diminish the risks and dangers of the national pastime that millions of Americans play, watch and tailgate over. One can hardly read about the alarming number of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) cases traceable to football injuries without wondering if more should be done to make the game safer. And to learn about the sad travails of particular players whose names you know, like former New York Jets defensive back Jim Hudson or Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, is to glimpse the pain and suffering firsthand.

Football in parts of Georgia is almost as sacred as the Shroud of Turin is to Catholics. The never-ending tug-of-war between the University of Georgia’s Bulldogs and Auburn University’s Tigers is known as “the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” When I asked a man from my neighborhood’s homeowners association a few years ago if his committee had any problems with my erecting a flagpole in my front yard, he replied, “Not unless you put an Auburn flag on it.” Atlanta was even home to America’s most lop-sided college football score in the history of the game: 222 to 0 in a 1916 match between Georgia Tech and Tennessee’s Cumberland College. (Tech won).

Down, Set, Hike

It was a balmy Halloween Eve 1897 when the University of Virginia and the University of Georgia faced each other on the field in Atlanta. Republican William McKinley was President and 43-year-old William Yates Atkinson, in the stadium to watch the game with his wife, was Georgia’s Democratic Governor. (Atkinson, I’m proud to note by the way, was one of only two of Georgia’s 82 governors to hail from my adopted hometown of Newnan. I first learned this football story from the ever-helpful Mark Puckett, who tends the store inside the historic courthouse in downtown Newnan, where a great portrait of Atkinson hangs.)

Seventeen-year-old Richard Albade Von Gammon played fullback for UGA. From Rome, Georgia, Von Gammon was a good-looking and exceptionally good football player. He was eager for his team to win what was billed as a very important game against a very big rival.

In a biography of Governor Atkinson, Newnan native David Clifton Heck recounts the pivotal moments:

At the beginning of the second half, the scrimmage was near the center, left side of the field. The ball was in the possession of Virginia. It was not known who of Virginia was holding the ball, but Von Gammon was close by and lunged at the player with the ball. Nobody knows now or then what exactly happened. Von Gammon missed the tackle, and then there was a colossal pile-up of players on top of other players. Underneath was Von Gammon, who had hit the ground with a tremendous thud…

The whistle blew; the players got up and moved away, all except Von Gammon. Here there are varying accounts. But most say that he was picked up dazed and half-conscious… One of the doctors quickly injected some morphine in an effort to revive him and relieve the pain. The doctors agreed that the injury was a brain concussion, an unusually severe one.

When UGA team captain William Kent, not realizing yet the full extent of the boy’s injury, said to him, “Von, you are not going to give up are you?” the reply he heard was, “No Bill, I've got too much Georgia grit for that.” Those were Von Gammon’s last words. He lapsed into unconsciousness and died early the next morning in Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, surrounded by his parents and friends.

Banning Football?

A year before, alarmed by the high rate of football injuries, a member of the Georgia legislature introduced a bill to outlaw the sport. It went nowhere. But now in the wake of the Von Gammon incident, anti-football sentiment quickly gathered steam. Governor Atkinson indicated he was sympathetic. Within a month, a new bill to vanquish football passed both houses. In the words of biographer Heck, it “was so broad that not only young adults could be fined, imprisoned, and sent to the chain gang, but technically and definitely the way the thing was worded, so could children.”

As sweeping as the bill was, Governor Atkinson was about to sign it when he learned of a letter from Von Gammon’s mother Rosalind. It read in part,

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

Atkinson vetoed the bill. The pleadings of Robert’s mother made all the difference. They prompted the Governor to pull back from a hasty move and he used the occasion to remind the legislature of some things it shouldn’t have forgotten: The bill went far beyond the proper limits of government, violated “sound policy and fixed principles,” and interfered with parental authority and personal liberty. When football is played properly and with due consideration for safety, he said, it promoted physical, moral and intellectual development, as well as courage, courtesy, and control of one’s temper.

Rosalind Burns Gammon became known as “the woman who saved Georgia football.” Her son Robert Albade Von Gammon is remembered as a fine young man with a mother who cared about him and his legacy. And William Yates Atkinson is recalled as one of Georgia’s better chief executives.

Pigskin, Free Will, and the Man Upstairs

Was Dr. Omalu right, that God didn’t intend for us to play football? I don’t know the answer to that, though I admit I only checked the New Testament. The closest thing I found was foot-washing, and He seemed to be recommending it.

It seems far more likely to me that God would intend for you to exercise informed free will and personal judgment in the matter, to take precautions whenever you can. I believe he might remind you (on good authority) that you can die from any number of things, and sooner or later will.

I think He would want you to comprehend the risk before you decide to accept it, just as He would if the matter was skydiving or drag racing or sailing in a tempest on the Sea of Galilee. He would likely encourage efforts to improve the safety of the game, something that’s been happening naturally for most of the 120 years since Richard Von Gammon lost his life on October 31, 1897.

God might want you to listen to your mother’s opinion on football too. But I seriously doubt if God intends for politicians to fine or jail people who play it.

Just sayin’.

More by Lawrence W. Reed

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