Songs of The Ohio State University

The Tragic Story of John Sigrist

A violent game: 110 years ago, a death brought Ohio State to a crossroads in a debate about football's future

By Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
Friday October 28, 2011

CONGRESS, Ohio - Photographs of grim-faced youths from the early days of college football make us think of them as nearly a different species, as if somehow we are more inherently human.

Not until you hear their stories and read of their personalities does it begin to sink in that these stern fellows loved and laughed and lived in a world not all that unlike our own.

Joy was just as genuine then as now. So was tragedy.

It was 110 years ago today, Oct. 28, 1901, that the future of Ohio State football was put in doubt when John Sigrist became the first (and still only) OSU player to die from injuries suffered during a game. That sad slice of Buckeyes history is nearly as difficult to locate as the gray granite gravestone marking the site of Sigrist's burial in this small, rural community in Wayne County, on the edge of Amish country, about 90 miles northeast of Columbus.

A huge Norway spruce acts as sentry over Sigrist's grave, which sits on a hill that slopes toward a line of trees wearing autumn red, yellow and orange. The scene likely was similar when Sigrist's grieving parents stood with Ohio State President William Oxley Thompson and coach J.B.C. Eckstorm during the interment at Congress Cemetery on Oct. 31, 1901.

Just five days earlier, 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. When it cleared, the year could well have been 2011 for those in attendance, for there is no difference in emotion from one century to the next when holding your breath in the face of potential catastrophic injury.

The Columbus Citizen summarized the play in a prosaic single sentence: "John Sigrist failed to rise from the ground." The daily newspaper went on to describe the scene in more-stylized detail:

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.

Two days after OSU'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 report concluded, "from the moment of the accident the young man was doomed."

Doctors agree that today, given the advances in medicine, Sigrist likely would have lived several months if not several years.

The Citizen reported that the end came peacefully and painlessly:

Up until 15 minutes before he died he had no idea the end was so near.

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

Collective public blame, however, was about to take a big step forward. The finger pointed squarely at a sport that some faculty and students wanted abolished as overly brutal and inhuman. Ohio State football's very existence, and possibly all OSU athletics, was about to be threatened.

Football safety already had come under strong criticism before Sigrist's death. Critics said the game was too dangerous, especially because of the formations in which two teams would line up and run toward each other as a unit, including the infamous flying wedge that led to violent collisions.

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.

College football would come under even more scrutiny in the years after Sigrist's death. In 1906, President Theodore 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.

Sigrist's death prompted O.S.U. "as it was written then" to discuss how to proceed with the remainder of the season.

Thompson immediately canceled 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." There also was concern that scrapping the season would not be fair to Ohio State's opponents.

And lest anyone think the decision to play or not to play had mostly to do with paying respects to Sigrist's death, the Citizen noted that some students thought the season should be canceled for the "principal reason that the team would be weak and dispirited and could not hope to win the state championship."

It would appear that Buckeye Nation's win-at-all-costs attitude is not a modern malady. Even so, it should be noted that Sigrist's death did impact the university beyond wins and losses. The day after he died, students "stood about in little knots and expressed sympathy for the family of the deceased," the Citizen reported.

And from The Dispatch, in describing the Tuesday funeral, held at University Hall: "Gloom was heavy on all."

The entire football team attended the memorial service, and hundreds of students formed two long lines down High Street as the casket was moved to Union Station for transport to Congress.

Finally, after two days of discussion, the Athletic Board stepped aside to let the players decide whether the season should continue. John Sigrist's younger brother Charles passionately defended the game in a speech that was cited as influencing the decision to move forward with football. Only a handful of players left the team, on orders from their parents. The Buckeyes lost three of their last four games after the tragedy, including a 21-0 loss to Michigan, to finish 5-3-1.

Who was John Larkum Sigrist? Thompson eulogized him as having "possessed a sunny disposition, even-tempered, modest, with a pleasant word for everyone."

Sigrist also was industrious, having worked summers in Wisconsin and Arizona to help pay his way through school.

But beyond that, and the fact that John had 10 siblings "he is buried with his parents, Christian and Madeline, as well as what appears from the gravestone to be two sisters" little is known of the Sigrist family. The only living relative with any knowledge of the 1901 story is Mark Sigrist, who grew up on a farm in Wayne County, not far from Congress. But he came by the information only by accident, while trying to organize a family reunion.

"Sometime before World War II, (those) Sigrists had to have moved on, because folks in the Congress area don't remember any of them," said Mark, who lives near Portland, Ore.

The John Sigrist story touches Mark Sigrist all the same, in part because it connects his own history as a Buckeye "he attended OSU in 1967" with a "relative" past.

"I thought our generation, in the '50s and '60s, were the first to go to Ohio State," he said. "But while collecting information (John Sigrist) popped up as an Ohio State football fatality. It was like lightning out of the blue. It was stunning and kind of neat; not that he died but the history there. And I have been an Ohio State fan my whole flippin' life."

Mark knows that his line of Sigrists emigrated from Switzerland in the 1800s, and the majority settled in Holmes and Tuscarawas counties because the land reminded them of their homeland.

"They're physical, and most are into outdoorsy things," he said. "They're stout individuals; not heavy but sturdy. And we're probably more stubborn than the average person, and probably more independent. A lot are farmers."

While not much is known of John Sigrist, this much is on record: He entered OSU in 1897 and was scheduled to graduate in June 1902. His death was mourned by teammates, fellow students and OSU administrators.

And we know this: Sigrist really was no different from us, or from the Buckeyes who will "dig in" against Wisconsin on Saturday. It was recorded as such, the day after he died, when the overall attitude of his teammates was summarized in the Citizen :

As far as the players are concerned, individually they all feel a personal loss in Sigrist, with whom they have played many a stubborn contest, and whose words of encouragement and splendid playing were factors in many a victory. These men know the game and are fully aware of any danger which it may contain ... 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.

The invincibility of youth: a most-human trait.
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