By Joel Alderman
It should have been just another exciting meeting in the Yale Bowl in the grand and glorious series of Army-Yale football games. Cadets paraded on the field, the Army band played inspiring martial music, brilliant autumn colors were on display, and the 75,000 near capacity crowd had the benefit of a pleasant and mild October afternoon. They were there in 1931 to watch the Bulldog’s homegrown captain, Albie Booth, and the Cadets’ star, Ray Stecker, lead their teams on the gridiron.
Before the day was over, though, there occurred what still must be regarded as the saddest and most tragic moment in the now 100 year history of that historic stadium in New Haven.
When Army and Yale meet in the Bowl for the first time in 26 years, few of the players on either team would be expected to have much, if any, knowledge of the catastrophic game between their respective institutions in 1931. That is when Richard (Dick) Sheridan of Army died two days after suffering a broken neck on the same hallowed grounds on which the current Army and Yale teams will be playing on September 27th.
It would be appropriate, when West Point pays its first football visit to New Haven in 26 years, that there be a brief tribute to help perpetuate the fading memory of a fallen athlete and potential officer of the United States military.
Yale and Army are traditional football rivals. They started playing each other in 1893, starting a streak of meeting in 20 consecutive seasons. After 1912 there was an eight year hiatus before they resumed in 1921 for another 15 straight years.
The 1931 game was the 31st time they would play each other. All but the 1930 contest had been on Yale’s home grounds.
On the Friday before the game, Army’s team and personnel spent the night in Cheshire, about 10 miles from the excitement of the Yale campus. They stayed at The Roxbury School, which six years later was to change to its present name of Cheshire Academy.
One of the West Point players was Richard (Dick) Sheridan, of Atlanta, Ga. He had taken the annual competitive examinations and was admitted to the Academy without benefit of a congressional nomination. He was in his third year at the Point, and a member of what is referred to as the second class.
In the fourth quarter of the game at the Yale Bowl on October 24, 1931, Army kicked off to Yale following a Yale (correct) touchdown. Sheridan, Army’s 21-year old right end, went after Bob Lassiter, the Yale ball carrier, was rendered permanently unconscious. He was carried off the field on a stretcher and taken to New Haven Hospital (now known as Yale-New Haven Hospital). That night, still unconscious, he was administered the last rites of the Catholic Church.
Sheridan had a fracture of the fourth cervical vertebra, and was being kept alive by a respirator. He was given the best of medical attention, thanks in part to the presence of several brain and nerve specialists from around the country, who were attending a surgeons’ congress at Yale. They included Dr. Harvey Cushing of Boston, later known as the father of modern neurosurgery.
Dr. Cushing, along with Yale’s Dr. Samuel Harvey, the chief of staff at New Haven Hospital, and Dr. W. F. DeWitt of West Point, made, what The New York Times described as “an effort almost without precedent in surgical annals to save the life of the stricken athlete.”
He was pronounced dead less than 48 hours after he was brought to the hospital. Had they been able to keep him alive, Sheridan would still have been permanently paralyzed.
The fatal game was broadcast on two radio networks by Graham McNamme and Ted Husing
The game was nationally important enough to be carried by radio over two networks and broadcast by two of the top sports announcers of the day, Graham McNamme and Ted Husing. McNamme was on NBC and Husing was heard coast to coast on CBS. Although television had not yet been fully developed, there was a synchronized play-by-play on what was the experimental “visual station” W2XAB in New York, which supplemented its pictures with Husing’s voice descriptions.
The fateful last quarter
Army broke a scoreless tie on the second play of the fourth quarter. Stecker, who was playing with an injured eye, went over from the 2-yard line to give the Cadets a 6-0 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Yale’s Bud Parker, from Greenwich, Conn., made an 88-yard touchdown return which, at the time, was a Yale Bowl record. The extra point attempt was wide and the score held at 6-6.
The most tragic decision in college football
In a strategy move which has turned out to be, perhaps, the most tragic decision in the history of college football, the Army coach had his team give the ball back to Yale, although the Bulldogs had just scored.
In his newly published book, A Bowl Full of Memories 100 Years of Football at The Yale Bowl, Rich Marazzi, the author ,who is also a rules expert, explains it this way:
“The rule for many years in college football was that the team scored on had the option of kicking off or receiving the kick. Army elected to kick off after Yale scored, apparently thinking they would subsequently grab good field position.”
Then, as seen by the legendary sports writer Grantland Rice,
“. . . Army kicked off and (Bob) Lassiter, the fast, hard running back, took the ball. In the swirl of blocking and tackling that followed, Sheridan made a dive at Lassiter, just as another Army tackler left his feet on the same play. It was not until Lassiter was hauled down that the crowd suddenly saw that young Sheridan was stretched out on the turf.
“His trainer came out and, without any waste of time, had a stretcher brought out. That was the first sign that Sheridan had been badly hurt. It was noticed a moment later that the coach, Major Ralph Sasse, left the Army bench and hurried away.”
Rice wrote that the coach returned “a few minutes later, but it could be seen that he was walking nervously up and down, apparently paying no attention to one of the exciting final quarters of football.”
Major Sasse went to the hospital with his near death player even though, as implied by another esteemed sports writer, Allison Danzig of the New York Times, the game had not ended.
Three Yale physicians and one from West Point, along with the Army chaplain, also accompanied the stricken Sheridan.
Marazzi explains in his book that Sheridan was trying to “bust through Yale’s flying wedge,” that infamous “V-shaped formation which had its origins as a military tactic” and which was “still permitted on kickoffs.” It is now completely banned in football.
Army’s cancelled its post-game plans
Following the game, Army’s squad arrived in New York while the coach remained in New Haven. In view of the critical injury to their teammate, the team cancelled its plans to attend a Broadway performance of the “Ziegfeld Follies.” It returned to West Point the next morning, the players doubtless still in a state of shock.
Richard Sheridan’s mother and brother made a “race against death”
News of the calamity was quickly sent to Sheridan’s parents. Although his father was said to be too ill to travel, his mother and brother, Gerald, hurriedly boarded a train the next day, in what was termed “a race against death.” After an overnight trip, they were met Monday morning at Penn Station in New York, and then whisked by car through cities and towns. Although this was several years before there was a direct highway, they still made it to New Haven in 1 hour and 50 minutes, aided by police escorts.
When they arrived at the hospital on Monday, Mrs. Sheridan and Gerald first were taken to the office of Dr. Harvey, then brought to the room where the West Point cadet lay in an iron lung, or respirator. Three hours later he took his last breath.
Booth was at Sheridan’s bedside when he died
Among those who were at Sheridan’s bedside when he died was Yale captain Albie Booth. Just two years previous, on a happier day, he had led Yale to a 21-13 win over Army, scoring all of the Bulldogs’ points on three touchdowns and three extra points by drop kicks.
As the sad news that Richard Sheridan had expired reached West Point, the evening meal was interrupted and the commandant of cadets, Col. Robert C. Richardson, Jr., stood up in the balcony and delivered these words to the 1,260 students in the mess hall:
“Gentlemen, it is my sad duty to announce the death of Cadet Richard Brinsely Sheridan, Jr. this afternoon.”
More than just a football player at the Point
Dick Sheridan was elected President of the second year class, in which he ranked eighth academically. He was first in history, second in tactics, fourth in English and seventh in French.
He was a member of the choir, and qualified as a pistol sharpshooter and rifle expert.
His death inspired many formal statements.
General Douglas MacArthur
Among the hundreds of messages of condolence sent to the military academy, one was from General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. Army chief of staff. He wrote: “Please convey to the corps of cadets my deepest sympathy as well as that of the secretary of war for the loss of their young comrade, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Jr. We both share their great grief and common sorrow.”
Yale Athletic Board of Control
The Board of Control of the Yale Athletic Association adopted the following resolution:
“The Yale Athletic Association records with a deep sense of sorrow the death of Cadet Richard Brinsley Sheridan and extends to the United States Military Academy, to his associates and family, the fullest expression of its sympathy in their grief.”
U.S. Military Academy
Walter K. Wilson, acting superintendent of the military academy, said
“The accident to Cadet Sheridan was unavoidable, and not the slightest blame in connection therewith is attached to any member of the opposing team. We appreciate that the faculty and student body of Yale University join with us in our sorrow.”
Harvard’s football captain
The tragedy transcended Yale and Army. The week before their ill-fated game, the Cadets were defeated by Harvard. When Barry Wood, the Harvard captain, learned what happened in the Yale Bowl, he sent this message to John Price, his counterpart at Army:
“The death of Cadet Sheridan comes as a blow to the Harvard football team and to the entire university. We wish to express our deepest sympathy to the West Point football team and the Military Academy for the loss of such a sportsman.”
Harvard’s football coach
Harvard’s coach, Eddie Casey, said “The death of Cadet Richard B. Sheridan has left the Harvard players and coaches stunned.”
The Naval Academy’s regimental commander
A telegram from Midshipman Lou J. Bryan, the regimental commander of the Naval Academy, said, “The regiment of midshipmen extends its deepest sympathy to the corps of cadets for its great loss.”
University of Notre Dame
At South Bend, Ind., a mass for the repose of the soul of Richard Sheridan was celebrated in the Notre Dame Chapel the next morning. It was at the request of Captain Tom Yarr and members of the Notre Dame football team.
14 members of the Yale football team
The following resolution was signed by 14 of the Yale players, including Captain Albie Booth and Bob Lassiter, Jr.
“Whereas, It has pleased Almighty God in His infinite goodness and mercy to take Richard B. Sheridan, unknown to us in daily life, but made kindred by ties of admiration and respect:
“Resolved, That we, his last friendly rivals in the game to which in life he was so devoted, do hereby express our deepest sympathy for his family and friends in their bereavement. . . .”
Sheridan’s final trip to West Point
A decision, with Mrs. Sheridan’s approval, was almost immediately made that her young son be given the military funeral of a soldier, and be buried at West Point.
Tuesday, the morning after he died, his body was taken from New Haven to the plains above the Hudson. The hearse moved slowly, escorted by a car in which the graduate manager of Army athletics, Major Philip B. Fleming, and the football team’s end coach, Lieutenant Charles E. Born, were riding. As the vehicles entered the Academy’s gates, the U.S. flag was lowered.
A funeral befitting a military hero
The detailed account to follow has been largely forgotten by many who may have already heard about it, or is completely unknown to later generations. For everybody, it bears telling as a tribute to the past and a symbol for the present.
At 10:30 on the morning of Oct. 25th, the body of Cadet Sheridan was taken to the small Catholic chapel, and a 24-member honor guard, in full dress uniform and under arms, was posted, with four on duty at a time.
Then at 11 AM, the Catholic chaplain of the Post celebrated a solemn requiem mass. The capacity of the chapel was only 300, and attendance had to be restricted to those in the corps who were Roman Catholic.
The funeral took place in the same chapel at 4 o’clock. Sheridan’s father and his sister, Mrs. J. L. Herman, had arrived from Augusta to join Mrs. Sheridan and Richard’s brother Gerald. Also in attendance were the members of his junior (second year) class, the football team and senior officers of the Post. The rest of the corps stood in formation outside the chapel.
Representing Yale were Captain Booth, coach Mal Stevens, Prof. Selden Rose, chairman of the athletic board, and John Cates, director of athletics.
On behalf of Harvard was its Athletic Director, William (Bill) Bingham.
Three cadets, each with a lighted candle at the sides of a golden cross, stood at the foot of the casket. A cadet in the choir loft sang a litany. Sheridan’s mother asked that the casket be sealed so that, according to an Associated Press report, the corps and his parents might remember him as he was in life.
Among the eight pallbearers, all cadets, five were members of the football squad, including its captain, John Price. They placed the casket on a field artillery caisson, and the procession to the West Point Military Cemetery began. It was led by the academy’s band, playing the hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Those cadets, not included in other groups, were behind the band, followed by the clergy, the caisson and a black draped riderless horse with Sheridan’s boots placed backwards in the stirrups.
Next were family members, the cadets in Sheridan’s second (junior) year class, his football teammates, officers of the Post, and others who were there to pay respects.
They went up a small hillside to a place under the shadows of Crowe’s Nest Mountain. It is where past army heroes were buried, such as General George Custer (of “Custer’s Last Stand”), Gen Winfield Scott (Commander of American forces in the Mexican War), Major Robert (“Fighting Bob”) Anderson (who fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumpter), and Major General George Gothals (civil engineer and builder of the Panama Canal).
Three volleys were fired by Sheridan’s Company I.
West Point cadet and football star Richard Sheridan was laid to rest.
An Associated Press report by Edward J. Neil said that it was “a military burial that for dignity, impressiveness and depth of feeling has never been surpassed in West Point history.” He concluded his account by writing that “the band was playing a song to Sheridan as they marched away and the words of ‘The Corps’ raced through every mind.”
These are the concluding lines to “The Corps,” which is still generally regarded by the cadets as the most cherished song at the U.S. Military Academy:
Grip hands with us now though we see not,
As the long line stiffens and straightens
With the thrill that your presence imparts.
Grip hands tho’ it be from the shadows.
While we swear, as you did of yore.
Or living, or dying, to honor,
The Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.
The West Point Glee Club performed this poignant song for ESPN in 2009. It may be seen and heard on You Tube by clicking the following link:
Football seasons continued at Yale and Army
Both Yale and Army decided soon after the tragedy, and even before the funeral, to continue their seasons. Army canceled a soccer match with the University of Delaware and a plebe football game against Allentown Prep of Pennsylvania. Both had been scheduled for the day of the funeral.
Playing out the season was contrary to what Army did 21 years earlier under similar circumstances. The Academy at that time cancelled its remaining games when Eugene A. Byrne also died of a broken neck in a football game against Harvard.
Campus feelings at Yale
The day before Sheridan was buried, the Yale Daily News printed an editorial that undoubtedly expressed the feelings of the student body. It said, in part,
“And so ends one of the greatest tragedies in all college football. Yale, which knew him not personally, mourns the passing of the embodiment of a spirit of high ideals and sportsmanship. The more intimate and devastating grief must be borne by his parents.
“The entire Yale family, undergraduates, alumni, faculty and friends, takes this opportunity to offer its sincere condolences to his family in their bereavement and to express its high regard for the life that has been lost.”
The same morning that the requiem mass was celebrated at West Point, another religious service in memory of Cadet Sheridan was taking place in New Haven at Yale’s Battell Chapel.
The game in perspective mattered little
The game itself, naturally, diminished in significance. For the record, it ended in a tie, Yale 6 and Army 6. There was no victory for either team. However, there was a huge loss for both, as well as for the game of college football.
That moment on October 24, 1931, remains the darkest and saddest in the entire 100 years of football at the Yale Bowl. The cadet who lost his life as a result of the tragedy, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Jr., was considered to be one of the countless number of West Point’s heroes. His story should be told and retold for at least as long as young men are playing the game of football, the game in which he sacrificed his life.
And our prayer is that such a terrible event will never occur again.