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When the game almost went away

In 1909, fatal injuries nearly did in college football

President George W. Bush flips a coin at the 50 yard line to start the 109th annual Army Navy football game in Philadelphia today.  (Laurence Kesterson / Staff
President George W. Bush flips a coin at the 50 yard line to start the 109th annual Army Navy football game in Philadelphia today. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Like Christmas sales and shortened days, the Army-Navy game is an early December fixture.

The colorful event, to be contested for the 109th time this afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, has been played in all but five of the last 100 Decembers.

World War I canceled it in 1917 and 1918. The 1928 and 1929 games never took place because of institutional disagreements over eligibility rules.

In each of those cases, however, it was understood that the annual football meeting of military academies one day would be resumed.

That wasn't the case in the other year without an Army-Navy game.

The 1909 contest was scrapped because of death. Or rather deaths.

Before the smoke cleared, and football's rules were drastically reworked, it appeared it wasn't just the future of Army-Navy that was in jeopardy. It was all of college football, a sport Stanford president David Starr Wilson would call "rugby's American pervert."

In an Oct. 30, 1909, game against Harvard, Cadet tackle Eugene Byrne suffered a paralyzing back injury that killed him within days. Army immediately scrapped the remainder of its 1909 schedule, including the Navy game.

Navy officials had pondered the same action two weeks earlier.

On Oct. 16, in an 11-6 loss to Villanova, Midshipman quarterback Earl Wilson was paralyzed by a soon-to-be-outlawed flying-wedge tackle. He would die in April.

Those deaths - and that of Virginia halfback Archer Christian in November - reenergized the public outcry against football. While it turned out that Army and Navy never had any doubts about their game's resumption, there were fears that football might be finished.

It was saved in May 1910, when a special committee headed by the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton revamped the sport's rules.

They effectively banned the flying wedge - packs of sprinting players catapulting themselves toward their opponents' weakest point - by mandating seven-man lines and four-man backfields. Pulling, pushing and interlocking holds by teammates were outlawed. Kickoffs now had to travel at least 10 yards. To alleviate weariness, the two 15-minute halves were replaced by four 10-minute quarters.

The desired result was achieved. The game opened up. Those menacing masses of players that had wreaked such physical havoc vanished. Deaths and serious injuries decreased.

But nothing could bring back Byrne, Wilson or Christian.

Col. John Byrne had never been so afraid as when he looked down at his motionless son.

Byrne had seen death. He'd been a Civil War commander, police chief of Buffalo, and now was that city's most prominent private detective. Eight years earlier, he'd been the man in charge of security at the Pan-American Exposition when President William McKinley was assassinated there.

But this was his son.

That afternoon of Oct. 30 1909, Eugene "Icy" Byrne, a 23-year-old Army tackle and the team's acting captain, had gone down on a running play midway through the second half, with the Cadets trailing Harvard, 9-0.

Teammates couldn't stir him. By the time Army's team physician, W.J. Hanna, reached the fallen player, Byrne was the color of fireplace ash.

"I can't move," the frightened young man told the doctor, according to an account in the Buffalo News.

Col. Byrne, then in his late 60s, had climbed a fence and hurried to the crowd forming near his fallen son. West Point's superintendent, Col. Hugh L. Scott, and its commandant, Gen. F.W. Sibley, were there as well.

After 15 minutes, Byrne was placed on a stretcher and taken to the academy's hospital. The game was ended.

"We cannot tell at this time whether the injury will prove fatal," Hanna said.

Days later, Byrne was dead. In December, his father died of a stroke.

Some blamed his death on the flying wedge. Others, like University of Chicago president Harry Judson, suggested it was due to Army's relative lack of practice.

"Army players are under the disadvantage of having only about one hour a day to devote to gridiron work," Judson said, according to a 1909 New York Times story. "At Chicago University the men are out several hours a day and we have never had any fatal accidents."

That reasoning didn't slow the criticism.

"Does the public need any more proof," wrote the Washington Post, "that football is a brutal, savage, murderous sport? Is it necessary to kill many more promising young men before the game is revised or stopped altogether?"

The answer was yes.

On. Nov. 13, as his Virginia team played Georgetown, halfback Christian suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage trying to burst through the line.

Then, in mid-April, Navy's Wilson succumbed to the paralyzing neck injury he'd suffered against Villanova.

Like Army, Virginia and Georgetown canceled the rest of their seasons after the fatal injuries. Navy did not, finishing the 1909 season at 4-3-1.

By 1910, the rules revision had quelled the public's distaste for football.

"The adoption ... eliminated the cruder versions of nineteenth-century football and established the groundwork for a sleeker, faster, wide-open game," football historian John Watterson wrote in American Heritage magazine.

As it turned out, despite the deaths of Byrne and Wilson, the two military academies had no intention of missing another Army-Navy game.

Citing correspondence between academy officials, the New York Times on Dec. 2, 1909, reported that "there is no doubt the game will be played next year whether the rules are modified or not."

On Nov. 26, 1910, Franklin Field was packed with spectators for whom the deaths of the previous fall were an increasingly faded memory.

In the first of three consecutive shutout wins, Navy defeated Army, 3-0.