Tragic Deaths of the Past

Feb 23, 2016

As most of you know, I have been working on a book about early (1887-1917) Notre Dame Football.

My original goal was to correct some errors from the Football Media Guide and to find out who scored all of our points in that period.  When I was a student assistant in ND’s Sports Publicity Office, I first noticed that the records of ND Football were not as strong in our early years than later.  Today, because of on-line data bases and old newspapers on microfilm, it is possible to recover some information and correct these records.  It’s been great fun for me.

As I delved into the project, I drifted off point and wandered into some tangential areas, among which are the games played; games started; FULL games played; post-playing careers; degrees earned; academic major; other colleges attended; and other sports played at ND, among a long list.

Recently, I decided to add an “encyclopedia” dimension by tracking down the birth and death dates & locations for each player.  While doing this, I stumbled into causes of death.  Here are some tragic ones, only two of which are readily known by most ND fans:

Ed Coady-1890

QB Ed Coady was one of three brothers, from Pana, Illinois, who played for the Irish.  Ed’s sister married his teammate Dezera Cartier, the younger brother of the man who donated Notre Dame’s first football playing field.  Like many of our students at that time, the Coady brothers were first generation American.  Their dad was born in Ireland and their mother was born in Germany.  Ed died on campus, from a sudden illness, described as “la grippe”.

James Doar-1905

Doar left ND, in 1903, with an Engineering Certificate.  He died two years later, of a ruptured appendix, at the age of 22.  Here is what the SCHOLASTIC writer said about him---remembering that Jimmy’s memory was still fresh on campus:  He died as he had lived, with an unsoiled name and unsullied honor. Up to the very moment when his God kissed him and he fell asleep he was ever the brotherly Christian, the manly and devout Catholic.

Nace Gillen-1906

Apparently, a colorful fellow, it was reported that he said “I may not be an after-dinner speaker; but I am always after dinner”.  He played Guard for Notre Dame for two years, enrolling at the tender age of 26.  A few years after leaving ND, he and another man were murdered in Chicago, apparently by a couple of drunken hoodlums.

Ed Littig-1906

Ed played for the Irish for a year before heading off to Harvard, from which he graduated.  He returned to his home in Davenport, Iowa, running a flower shop.  After a heated football game between rival high schools, Davenport and Rock Island, IL, Ed was riding on the platform of a street car through the crowded main street.  The fans were quite animated, after the 0-0 tie.  This was 1906.  A horse and buggy, with a couple of opposing fans in it, rode alongside the street car and one of the men struck some of the Davenport fans with his whip.  Ed jumped off the street car and attempted to stop the buggy.  This spooked the horse, who took off.  Ed’s foot was stuck in the wheel of the buggy and he was dragged to his death.  Yikes.  Did I mention this was a high school game?  Did I mention this was 1906?

Mike Powers-1909

Michael “Doc” Powers transferred to Notre Dame from Holy Cross College.  He immediately became a leader on campus.  He played half back on the 1897 team before starring as Catcher on our 1898 and 1899 teams, serving as Captain.  After graduating from Notre Dame, he attended medical school in Louisville and became a physician.  He played ten years of Major League Baseball.  During one of his 1905 games, he caught Doc Newton, for the only “all medical” battery in MLB history.  Spending most of his MLB career with the Philadelphia Athletics, he was the favorite catcher of Hall of Famer Eddie Plank.  Doc was the catcher in the first game ever played in Shibe Park.  Chasing a foul ball, he crashed against the dugout railing, suffering an injury to his internal organs.  He died a couple weeks later.  Some have hypothesized that he was the first fatality “from” a Major League Game, even though he was not killed during the game.  He was so revered on campus that these words were spoken about him:  We claim him as a typical example of what all our athletes should be. There is room for men of his stamp in the athletic department of every college in the country, and the more faithfully our own representatives follow his example the higher will be our standard.

Tom Spalding-1917

Tom was an engineering student at ND, home on Christmas break, when he was one of 49 (perhaps 51) people who died in the “Shepherdsville Train Wreck”, the largest train wreck in Kentucky history and one of the largest in the country’s history.

Clarence Corry-1918 

After receiving a Commercial Diploma from Notre Dame, Clarence transferred to the Colorado School of Mines.  He played football for both colleges and worked as a mining engineer.  He died during the pandemic Spanish Flu, in 1918.  Between 50 and 100 million people (3-5% of the world’s population) died during a two year period.  The numbers are uncertain because many countries hid them because of the harm it would do to morale of countries fighting in the way.

Curly Nowers-1919

Paul “Curly” Nowers was a two year sub for ND.  Despite scoring two TD’s, he never earned an ND Monogram. Like a lot of ND players from this period, he served in WWWI.  Sadly, he did not return.  He was killed in action, in Tours, France.

Jeremiah Murphy-1919

Jeremiah Murphy was a sub on the 1916 Notre Dame team, but I have found no evidence that he ever appeared in a game, despite his inclusion in the Football Media Guide.  I am listing him in this essay because of the special nature of his death.  While serving in WWI, Captain Murphy was killed while carrying out a dangerous mission, in Verdun.  What makes his death more poignant, is that when his body was found, he had a crucifix in his hand………and his death had resulted from a direct hit, so he would not have had time to reach for it.

Dave Philbin-1919

Dave had just returned from WWI and was working as an attorney.  He was also playing football for the for the Multnomah (OR) Athletic Club.  He died from pneumonia, contracted from playing in bad weather conditions.  Sadly, the deaths of Philbin and Dimick eerily foreshadowed the death of George Gipp, by one year.  

Ralph Dimick (name erroneously listed with two “m’s”)-1919

Ralph was a star at Notre Dame.  Ralph was playing in an alumni game against Pacific College  (which he attended before ND) when a broken rib punctured his lung.  He contracted pneumonia.  While in a Portland hospital, he suffered from delirium and crashed through a second floor window, falling to his death.  He was a beloved student and star athlete at ND.  As a senior, in Walsh Hall, he told his dorm mates:  "Among the deepest inspirations of my life will be the thought that I have received my diploma from this grand old University."  The next year, when the sad news reached Notre Dame of his passing, it was written: “There was a very noticeable gloom everywhere. At once the different halls appointed committees to decide upon a suitable memorial, for the well-loved friend whom death called away thus early. A bronze memorial tablet was selected as the most appropriate expression of the students' affection.”  Showing the religious spirit of that time, it was also reported “It is a source of great consolation and joy to all of us that just before Ralph died he received the sacrament of baptism from one of the devoted sisters who nursed him.”

George Gipp-1920

Gipp eventually surpassed Louis “Red” Salmon as Notre Dame’s greatest player until that time, but in 1917 he was merely a four-game LHB starter (and occasional student).  He scored no points during this season (although the Football Media Guide incorrectly shows him with an interception for a TD against South Dakota).  The circumstances of his death, at the end of the 1920 season is well known………even though there are a couple different slants on the exact details.

Rupert Mills-1929

Rupe was one of only four ND men to earn four Monograms in the same year!  He graduated with a Law Degree and returned to his hometown of Newark, NJ, to be the only native to play for the Newark Team in the Federal League.  He signed a two–year contract with the team.  When the League folded, they told him he was out of luck.  Being an ND-trained attorney, he said that he didn’t sign with the League, he signed with the team.  They said, “We’re not paying you, since you’re not playing”.  He then showed up to the park every day.  After doing that for several weeks, the team surrendered to the legal expertise of Mr. Mills.  He was one of the ND leaders who hosted the Irish when Rockne took them to NYC to play Army.  Later, Rupe was a big political figure in Essex County, NJ, he served as the Undersheriff.  He was running for the job of Sheriff and expected to win.  While attending a summer outing on a lake, the boat he was in capsized.  His friend could not swim.  Rupe rescued him and swam to the shore line and passed his friend up to others…….and then sank himself.  His body was found later; death being caused by an apparent heart attack.  

Knute Rockne-1931

Rockne was a star end on our 1911-1913 teams.  He was a flop as the opening-game starting fullback for our 1910 team, never to play again that year.  The Media Guide incorrectly lists him as a back-up right end.  With Gus Dorais, his QB pal, Knute helped put the forward pass on the map, in ND’s seminal 1913 win over Army.  An oddity is that Knute scored only two TD’s in his four years playing for the Irish, while Dan McGinness, his back-up, in 1911 and 1912, scored four TD’s, despite not even earning a Notre Dame Monogram.  Everyone knows that Pat O’Brien died in a 1931 plane crash.  

Patrick Crawley-1938

Crawley was a one-game starter at end for ND.  He was one of a half dozen or so of our players who were foreign born.  He was from Ireland.  After leaving ND, he became a diocesan priest.  He was a Pastor in Lebanon and Marion, IN and Helena, MT, where he served more than 20 years.  In 1938, while visiting family, he was washed to sea and drowned as a result of a hurricane.

Howard Edwards-1944

According to the headline, in the “South Bend Tribune”, after he died, Cap Edwards was one of ND’s “All-Time greats”.  He was the Captain of ND’s 1909 team which won the biggest game in ND history, to that point, an 11-3 defeat of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.  Cap also played in the NFL, until 1924, making him one of the oldest players in the league.  He also coached for three years, in the early days of the NFL.  Later he became a prominent South Bend businessman as a division manager of Studebaker and President of the Edwards Iron Works.  Sadly, a traffic accident, in 1935, left him with serious injuries.  After years of bad health, he used a shotgun to take his own life, in 1944.

Al Feeney-1950

Feeney was a three-year Notre Dame starting lineman and teammates of Rockne.  In 1950, he was serving as Mayor of his hometown.  He was an ND Captain; a WWI-Lt; a teammate of Jim Thorpe in the NFL; and the Coach of Butler and Indianapolis Cathedral.  He died shortly after delivering a speech, on his 59th birthday, at the Communion Breakfast of the Daughters of Isabella.


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