1905 Football Deaths

In mid-February, I reported on Ron Smith’s corrections to a piece in of The College Football Historian, the January newsletter of the Intercollegiate Football Researchers Association (IFRA). I thought that one of Smith’s items warranted a further look:

“2) If 18 players died in the 1905, nearly all were NOT college players, (The 18 college death’s myth is often noted by writers.)”

So, I spent a little time searching through old newspapers and found the number of football deaths for 1905 listed variously as 13, 18 ,19, 19 (with one happening in Canada), and 21. Along the way, I found some lists of “Football Victims,” none of which were complete and overlapped each other. So far, I have identified 20 individual people who died in 1905 as a result of football injuries. It’s clear that at least twenty Americans died playing football that year and there may have been more. One of the deaths stands out because it was so different from anything I expected to find.

Bernadette Decker of Eckhart, Maryland—that’s right, an 18-year-old girl—died from a “…malady of short duration resembling malignant peritonitis, resultant from injuries received in a game of football played by the girls.” One assumes that she was playing in a sandlot game, a physical education class, or some sort of exhibition, such as one for a fund raiser because no team or school name was mentioned. Bernadette was not the sort of person the “experts” would expect to be injured in a game because they often attributed serious injuries to poor physical condition.

New Castle News reported about the demise of the daughter of Magistrate Edward Decker, Democratic leader in Eckhart: “Miss Decker was a girl of fine physique and was devoted to athletes. Four physicians constantly in attendance could do nothing to check the disease.”

What actually happens is stranger than anything my not-very-fertile-imagination could invent.

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