Richard Vonalbade Gammon was born Dec. 4, 1879, in Rome, Georgia. He attended the University of Georgia, where he played on some of UGA’s earliest football teams. He quarterbacked the team in 1896, then played fullback and on defense for the 1897 team. That team won their first two games, against Clemson and Georgia Tech. The third game was against the University of Virginia, played in Atlanta on October 30. Early in the second half, with Virginia running the ball, Von Gammon charged into a large group of players in an attempt to make the tackle. When the play was over and the players unpiled, Gammon lay motionless on the ground. Several teammates tried to communicate with him, but he was unable to speak. He was carried to the sidelines, where he began vomiting. Two doctors in the stands came to his aid. One injected morphine into his chest in an attempt to revive him, but they soon determined that he had a severe concussion. He was rushed to Grady Hospital in an ambulance, but there was little the house surgeon could do. Early in the morning hours of October 31, Von Gammon died from his injuries.
For an example of an editorial condemning football, see this article from the Union Recorder in Milledgeville, reprinted from the Atlanta Journal. Newspapers digitized by the Digital Library of Georgia.
News of his death spread throughout the state, causing shock and outrage. There were some accusations that the Virginia players had been intentionally rough on the play, but this was quickly denied by players of both teams. In fact, the Virginia players were as devastated by the news as were the citizens of Georgia. The Georgia legislature was in session at the time, and a representative almost immediately - on November 1 - introduced a resolution outlawing football in the state; it passed by a vote of 91-3. The three schools in Georgia with football teams - Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Mercer - all voluntarily disbanded. A newspaper headline from the Atlanta Journal read “DEATH KNELL OF FOOTBALL.” The Georgia Senate followed with a vote outlawing football on November 18; it passed 31-4. The bill only needed the signature of Georgia governor William Y. Atkinson to become law, and end football in the state.
It was at this point that Von Gammon’s mother - Rosalind Burns Gammon - intervened. She knew about the movement to abolish football, and despite her grief at her son’s death, did not want the sport outlawed. She penned a letter to her local representative, which said:
“It would be the greatest favor to the family of Von Gammon if your influence could prevent his death being used for an argument detrimental to the athletic cause and its advancement at the University. His love for his college and his interest in all manly sports, without which he deemed the highest type of manhood impossible, is well known by his classmates and friends, and it would be inexpressibly sad to have the cause he held so dear injured by his sacrifice. Grant me the right to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life. Dr. Herty’s article in the Constitution of Nov. 2d is timely, and the authorities of the University can be trusted to make all needed changes for all possible consideration pertaining to the welfare of its students, if they are given the means and the confidence their loyalty and high sense of duty should deserve.”
When Governor Atkinson was made aware of her letter and her feelings, he vetoed the resolution on December 7, and the movement to ban football in Georgia ended. Mrs. Gammon is now revered in Georgia lore as the woman who saved college football in Georgia. In 1921, surviving members of the University of Virginia football team presented a plaque to the University of Georgia in honor of Von Gammon and his mother.
John F. Stegeman, The Ghosts of Herty Field, University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp 37-44.
John F. Stegeman and Robert Willingham, Jr., Touchdown: A Pictorial History of the Georgia Bulldogs, Agee Publishers, Inc., 1983, pp. 10-12.