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Football came close to ending in Georgia colleges

POSTED: September 29, 2013 12:30 a.m.

Probably among Georgia legislators there are few who would not call themselves fairly rabid football fans.

It is hard to imagine then, especially right in the middle of another exciting football season, that legislators in 1897 voted to ban football in Georgia’s colleges. The ban, however, never came about.

Here’s how it happened.

Richard Vonalbade Gammon of Rome was a quarterback for the University of Georgia in 1896 when his coach was the fabled Glenn “Pop” Warner. He played fullback and on defense on the 1897 team.

Georgia had beaten Clemson and Georgia Tech that year and was playing Virginia in Atlanta when Gammon didn’t get up after being tackled. When he failed to respond, doctors were called out of the stands to see if they could revive him.
Gammon had suffered a severe concussion and died the next day.

College football wasn’t that old or popular at that time, and the player’s death caused an outcry against the sport in Georgia and other parts of the country. The Georgia House of Representatives voted 91-3 to outlaw football at Georgia colleges. Teams at Mercer and Georgia Tech disbanded, as the Georgia Senate also approved the ban.

However, Gammon’s mother, Rosalind Burns Gammon, wrote a letter to her representative, asking that football not be banned because of her son’s death. Her son, she wrote, wouldn’t want to be the cause of the end of football. After reading the letter, Gov. W.Y. Atkinson vetoed the bill, and football continued on Georgia college campuses.

Mrs. Gammon became known as “the woman who saved football in Georgia.” In 1921, Virginians who played in that 1897 game presented to the University of Georgia a plaque honoring Gammon and his mother.

That story is retold during the current football season in an exhibit at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries on Hull Street across Lumpkin Street from storied Sanford Stadium. It’s part of a small exhibit about Georgia football that includes old helmets, a Herschel Walker jersey and other memorabilia. A football signed by former Gainesville High School great Bennie Rothstein, who also starred at Georgia in the 1920s, is on display as well.

Most of Georgia football lore is exhibited in the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall elsewhere on the UGA campus.

The special seasonal exhibit in the Russell Building is just a sampling of what’s in the Special Collections Libraries. Tons of the late Sen. Russell’s papers, as well as his desk and other office memorabilia are the centerpiece of the library, which also includes the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection. The latter includes an exhibit of early radio microphones.

The libraries should be of interest to anyone, especially Georgians, and Northeast Georgians can find numerous “local angles” to explore. For instance, one of the major collections is that of Lamartine G. Hardman of Commerce, known as “the Renaissance Governor,” who served 1927-31. Hardman was one of the founders of Harmony Grove Mills and owned the historic farm in Nacoochee Valley that is now preserved in the Georgia Trust.

Then there’s Del Ward, a Brenau College graduate, who became a radio and television personality in Macon. After college, she first worked at WGN in Chicago as the first female all-night disc jockey and became an actress on the side. She returned to her Georgia hometown to join WMAZ, where she worked from 1957 to 1997. Ward became well known for her celebrity interviews.

Many of those interviews can be viewed or heard in the Russell Libraries.

The three museum galleries are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1-5 p.m. Saturdays. While the exhibits are compelling, research and study are the focus with the wealth of information from many of those who made their marks on Georgia through government or other avenues. Information on policies and procedures, as well as online resources is available here.

Charles Campbell, who was Sen. Russell’s chief of staff and a key mover along with Gainesville’s W.L. Norton Jr. in establishing the Russell Foundation, will discuss his book recalling his work with the senator at 2 p.m. Oct. 11 in the Russell Libraries Building. He is immediate past chair of the Foundation Board of Trustees.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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