The Death of Benjamin Rich
How the Backyard Brawl Began
“Football is a brutal game. It has its fascination for muscular young men, of course, and being recognized by colleges all over the country it is not surprising that it is popular and extends into all sections. But it kills more people and makes more cripples for life than anything engaged in by the sports of the land.”
– from the Tyrone Daily Herald, October 19, 1897
One of the interesting motifs that permeates the game of football as long as it has been played is that of danger. We like to think of recent steps taken by the NFL and other football governing bodies to prevent head injuries as further examples of the wussification of America, but in fact as long as the game has been played there has been a chorus – louder at some periods than others – calling for restraints to be placed on a game that includes violence as its central tenet.
More often than not, those voices are met with disdain, and the backlash is similar throughout the decades. “The players know what they signed up for.” “This is a man’s game.” “Why not just put skirts on them?”
In 2014, when New York assemblyman Michael Bennedetto proposed a bill to ban tackle football for children 14 and under in the Empire State there was similar outcry. One online response section beneath a story detailing Bennedetto’s plan went something like this:
“The leftists want to feminize our boys.”
“A boy might get a bruised knee.”
“This moron was probably a wimpy wuss when he was a kid and couldn’t play the sport.”
But that wasn’t the prevailing mood in the autumn of 1897, when a young Tyrone man died playing the game of football.
It was a time when the fledgling sport was battling to gain a foothold of legitimacy across the United States, and one of its major challenges was proving that it had some modicum of safety. Newspapers throughout America ran stories weekly expressing concern with the game’s brutality, with many publishing lists of the players that week who had died or been seriously maimed from injuries sustained playing football.
In November of 1897, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle ran an article reporting that in the previous year 10 young men had died during or as a result of football games. Some states, like Georgia, were considering bans on the sport altogether at publicly funded institutions. The state of Virginia attempted passing a similar bill.
That same year, Arkansas Governor Daniel Webster Jones became the first chief magistrate to call for an end to the game, issuing a letter President J.L. Buchanan of the State University at Fayetteville calling for the university to outlaw the sport on its campus.
Even in Pennsylvania there was talk of introducing a bill to ban pugilistic sports, like boxing, and the response to it demonstrated the counter-view of the time. Representative Charles Voorhees, who was a member of the House Committee on Law and Order, said, “We think this bill should be ventilated in the House, there to meet the fate to which such foolish legislation as the bills against the theater hat, football, and cigarette smoking have been doomed.”
Tyrone became a focal point for the anti-football climate in 1897.
The death of Benjamin Rich has become a part of the folklore of Tyrone, a legendary footnote to the annual Backyard Brawl played the first Friday of every high school football season between Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis. But it went far beyond that in 1897, and the reverberations of Rich’s untimely demise on a football field in Bellwood would be felt in the borough for decades.
Rich’s death led to a ban on the sport on the high school level that lasted well into the Twentieth Century. That much has been published many times over the years. But little is known of Rich himself, a 22-year old pharmaceutical clerk who was not a native Tyroner.
It may be easiest to begin at the end. Rich died on Saturday, October 16, 1897 in Bellwood after a football club from Tyrone traveled to play the Bellwood club in what was, by all accounts, a friendly game. A story in the Altoona Tribune reported that “the game had been played in gentlemanly fashion, there being no slugging or unnecessary roughness. The members of both teams were on friendly footing with each other, and although Tyrone was losing, everyone was in excellent spirits.”
Things changed dramatically after halftime. Thirteen minutes into the second half, Rich, playing on the left defensive end, came across the field to tackle G.H. Miller, who had broken through right tackle. The two men went to the ground and Miller essentially rolled over on Rich.
Initially, Rich got up and tried to go back to his position, but before another play could be run he complained of dizziness and left the game. In one of the more sensational accountings of the event, the Tribune said that Rich “gasped out: ‘Boys, I’m afraid you’ll have to put someone else in my place. I can’t see.’”
After being assisted from the field by several teammates, Rich went unconscious, and after he had been in that state for what the Tyrone Daily Herald said was “a lapse of some time,” he was taken to the Bell House to await medical treatment, which was intended to be delivered by Dr. W.H. Morrow and Dr. B.B. Levengood, who were quickly summoned when the dire nature of Rich’s injury became apparent.
But it was already too late. Rich died on the way to the hotel as two teammates carried him in a stretcher.
No one at the game, however, had any idea the seriousness of Rich’s injury, partly because he showed no outward signs of trauma. The Daily Herald reported that the only visible marks on the body were a bruise between the shoulders and a scar on the face. So it’s not surprising the game continued to completion, with Bellwood winning 22-0. When the contest concluded, a crowd quickly gathered outside the Bell House in anticipation of some word on Rich’s condition.
The Tribune reported that the hotel was “thronged with people, eager to learn the final decision of the physicians.”
When the crowd learned Rich had died, it was a scene of shock and dismay, with many crying in the wake of what would soon become a national sports tragedy.
A jury was quickly summoned by a coroner named McCartney, who deputized his son Harry to act for him and conduct interviews with players from both teams, as well as spectators. It took the jury an hour to conclude that “death was caused by internal hemorrhage of the brain, super-induced by overexertion while tackling G.H. Miller and striking head on the ground or stone. It was purely accidental.”
The story gets much darker in the aftermath of Rich’s tragic demise. The team waited with his body in Bellwood until the Philadelphia Express train arrived to return them to Tyrone.
Not one family member was there to accept Rich’s remains.
Rich was the only support of his widowed mother Annie, and on October 16 both his mother and sister Eva were out of town, with his mother in Pittsburgh and his sister as far away as Philadelphia. His mother’s address was obtained from the envelope of a letter she had written to her son, and she learned of his death by way of telegram.
The Tribune concluded its story on the tragedy by saying that Rich’s mother’s “request that he not engage in the football game went unheeded.”
Until that fateful day Rich had worked as a pharmaceutical clerk and superintendent of a drug store on Logan Avenue owned by J.S. Smith. He had moved to Tyrone just over a year before from Unionville. Reports were that “his kind disposition and good character had made him many friends.”
He took care of his mother because his own father, J. Gilligham, had died in a tragic lumbering accident when a log rolled onto him while working in a saw mill. His grandfather had died in an accident, as well.
His funeral took place in Unionville and it was reported as the largest funeral gathering in the history of the town, which at that time had a population of around 350 residents. All of the town’s stores were closed. Residents of nearby towns attended, including 50 from Tyrone, who travelled on the Bald Eagle Valley train, which included a special car for team members. The Rev. A.J. Weisley of the First Presbyterian Church of Tyrone presided over the services.
Backlash locally was relatively swift. On Monday, October 19, a brief editorial appeared in the Herald calling football a “brutal game.” “It kills more people and makes more cripples for life than anything engaged in by the sports of the land, prize fighting not to be excepted.”
In short, while never calling for the all-out ban that eventually occurred, the Herald said we don’t need this game.
“Amusements and exercise for physical development we need and should have, but it should be in milder form than the rough and tumble game of football,” the author wrote.
The Tyrone football club at its next meeting passed a series of resolutions, and one among them was that the team would “refrain from engaging in any football game during this season.”
That may well have been the genesis of the ban on football at Tyrone High.
However, Rich’s death resounded nationally, as well. Stories of his demise were carried in papers from Buffalo to Pittsburgh, from New York City to Washington, D.C. and Chicago. In a time when the safety of the game of football was being debated both in the media and in the halls of government, this was big news, and it fit well into the narrative that with football the question wasn’t if someone could die playing it; it was how may would die before someone finally did something about it.
But if history has shown anything it is that football in Tyrone, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, will always experience a resurrection. The same can be said for the nation at large. In the wake of the concussion scandals that rocked the NFL in the 2010s, the league was hit with further controversy when players like Colin Kaepernick began kneeling for the National Anthem in protest of police brutality. While many fans said they were through with the game, in 2017 NFL telecasts accounted for 71 of the top 100 most-watched shows.
In Tyrone, when John Franco revitalized a dying program in the mid-1990s, he orchestrated a metaphorical resurrection that made football in the borough more popular than it had ever been.
However, in the case of Rich, football’s resurrection was more or less literal. For several years leading into the 1920s, students at Tyrone High were clamoring for a return of the game of football. While the high school yearbook, the Falcon, reported in 1916 that interscholastic football was still “prohibited in our high school for the present,” students were beginning to form intramural clubs to play the game. In 1914 and 1915, there were games that featured the seniors playing the sophomores and the juniors playing the freshman. In 1920, the school almost had a team ready to compete, though the Falcon said issues with acquiring the proper equipment put the brakes on plans for a full PIAA-sanctioned season. Still there was enough interest for a few non-sanctioned games, including one against Bellwood, which Tyrone lost 42-0.
Finally, in 1921, Tyrone High School fielded a team for the first time, led by Coach Albert Bowen, and its inaugural campaign was met with cheers from the community and media alike. Twenty-four years was enough to soften the pain brought on by the death of Benjamin Rich.
But one has to wonder if by 1921 the community had become numb to the pain or if they were simply over it because Rich’s death did not serve as a precautionary tale of what can happen when a violent game goes too far.
During the 1921 season, when the Orange and Black finished 1-7 – winning their first game against Curwensville before dropping seven straight – Tyrone took one on the chin in Week 2 in a 19-0 loss to Hollidaysburg. There were plenty of injuries on both sides, not surprising in an era when some players chose to play without even the moderate protection afforded by leather helmets out of some feeling of machismo.
Here is how it was described in the Herald:
“Football is never any pink-tea affair and Saturday’s game was no exception to the permanent rule. Several players were badly bunged up: one Hollidaysburger had his nose broken and one Tyrone fellow lost a tooth or two. But it was a great game, worthily contested …”
That was a far cry from what was being written in the pages of the newspaper a quarter of a century earlier, and it reflected a serious shift in values in the community, for better or worse.
But Rich’s death on the gridiron would not be the last in Tyrone because 40 years after Tyrone played its inaugural high school game, another young player would collapse on a playing field and come to his end as a result of complications stemming from the game of football.
And the reaction would be quite contrary to that expressed in the wake of the death of Benjamin Rich.