You may have never heard of Richard Von Gammon. But, when he died one hundred and ten years ago today, football in Georgia was nearly forced out of existence by the bereaved legislature of this state. Throughout Georgia and across the nation, a congregation of ministers cried out for the abolition of this most violent and vicious game. Without the aid of Von Gammon's mother and Bulldog captain William B. Kent, football in Georgia may have ended, if only for a little while.
It was a typical fall day on the 30th day of October 1897. The bleachers and sidelines of Atlanta's Brisbine Park were crammed with spectators to see if the undefeated Georgia Bulldogs, inspired by a trouncing of Georgia Tech the week before, could defeat the powerful Cavaliers of Virginia in a contest for superiority of southern football. Georgia had just completed the team's first perfect season, albeit they only played four games and won them all.
Richard Van Gammon, a well-liked fraternity fellow and outstanding quarterback from Rome, Georgia, kicked off to Virginia to open the contest. In the second half with Virginia in command of the game, Van Gammon, playing defensive back, sprinted toward a Virginia runner. Before he could make the tackle, the helmetless Bulldog was overrun by a wall of blockers, said to have been joined in a flying wedge formation with arms locked and bearing down upon him with all the force of an equine stampede.
Van Gammon dove to tackle the Cavalier runner and struck the ground headfirst. The Virginians trampled over his motionless body. For several excruciating minutes, players and coaches vainly attempted to revive the fallen star. At first it appeared as if Von Gammon was completely paralyzed, his eyes gazing blindly into the autumn sky. Eventually he was revived and helped to the sidelines, where he was examined by physicians who were attending the game. The doctors decided to transport Von Gammon to Grady Hospital for further examination and diagnosis. After he arrived at the hospital, Richard's temperature soared up toward 109 degrees. With his brain swollen to intolerable limits, Von Gammon never regained consciousness and died.
Just days after the fallen footballer's funeral, mass hysteria swept throughout the Georgia legislature. Fueled by intense lobbying by a host of ministers and a nationwide cry against the barbaric deaths that football had caused across the country, the lawmakers adopted a near unanimous ban on football in the state. The bill was sent to Georgia governor W.Y. Atkinson for his signature.
It was then when Van Gammon's mother and Bulldog captain William Kent issued an appeal for the governor not to sign the ban. The people of Athens, most of the university's faculty and even some Georgia players thought it was best to put an end to football at Georgia forever. Mrs. Von Gammon wrote a letter to Governor Atkinson pleading to him not to allow her son's death to end the game he so dearly loved. Aided by a poignant and stern letter from renowned Georgia professor and the team's first coach, Dr. Charles Herty, who advocated the necessity of sports to promote physical health, and the persistence of Captain Kent, the governor never signed the bill. Though football ended for the 1897 season after three games - they only played four or five games anyway - the games would resume the following year.
William B. Kent was born in Montgomery County, Georgia on January 30, 1870. This son of William Kent and Martha Beckwith Kent entered Mercer University as a freshman at the ripe old age of twenty-three in 1893. After playing football at the Baptist college for a single season, Kent transferred to Athens for the 1894 season, where he played guard. In 1896, William was moved to right tackle by Georgia coach Pop Warner, who went on to iconic status as the coach of Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indians, as well as successful stints at Pittsburgh and Stanford. Kent, at five feet eleven inches in height and weighing in at 185 pounds, was one of the strongest men at the college. In his junior season at Georgia in 1896, Kent was named president of the Athletic Association and captain of the football team for his senior year. As president of the Athletic Association, Kent led the organization out of its bankrupt position onto solid financial ground.
Off the field Kent excelled as an editor of the Pandora, the university's yearbook, as well as serving with highest honor of the Demosthenian Literary Society and as a commissioned officer in the military department. Considered one of the most popular men on campus - there were very few, if any, women enrolled as students in those days - William was known to have been a man of high moral character and a leader in the Young Men's Christian Association and his Sunday school class at the Baptist Church in Athens. During his semesters at Georgia, Kent served as president of eight organizations.
Kent, a self-made man, studied law, literature and bookkeeping. To pay for his studies, he taught school and even sold lightning rods one summer.
While he was in Athens, William met and married Miss Senie Griffith, daughter of Clarke County state representative F.P. Griffeth. Following her death, Kent married Lallie Calhoun, a member of one of Montgomery County's oldest and most prominent families.
After his graduation from Georgia, Kent was admitted to the bar, beginning his practice in that portion of Montgomery County, which would later become Wheeler County in 1912. In addition to his duties as an attorney, Kent served as both solicitor and judge of the City Court of Mt. Vernon, a state court assigned to handle misdemeanor offenses and minor civil claims.
In 1910, Kent, the former football hero, was elected to represent Montgomery County in the Georgia legislature. While in the House of Representatives, Kent introduced a bill to carve out that portion of his county lying on the western side of the Oconee to form a new county, purportedly to be named Kent County, not in his own honor, but in honor of his father, an early settler of the area. The name of the new county was Wheeler instead, named in honor of Confederate cavalry general Joseph Wheeler. Kent was chosen to serve as the first judge of the Wheeler County Court of Ordinary, or as it is today known, the Probate Court.
William B. Kent died on November 21, 1949. He is buried in Oconee Cemetery in Athens, Georgia in a town where football is king on autumn Saturdays. Perhaps the epitaph on his tombstone should read, "here lies William B. Kent, the Savior of Georgia football."