God Bless Mother Gammon

Imagine having no college football games to attend in the fall. In the South, that would mean the Apocalypse had occurred. Southern college football almost came to end after the Georgia-Virginia game in Atlanta on October 3, 1897. If not for the love of a mother for her son, Southern people would have other activities planned for fall Saturdays.

Von Gammon played fullback and linebacker for Georgia and Coach Charles McCarthy during the 1897 season. The very athletic Gammon had also starred at quarterback the previous two seasons under legendary coach Pop Warner. During the middle of the second half of the Virginia game, the Cavaliers called a play that sent a mass of blockers and a ball carrier to the right side of the line. Gammon dove under the blockers to tackle the ball carrier. He could not get up after the play. Coach McCarthy and Captain Billy Kent carried Gammon to the bench, where he lost consciousness. He died in a hospital later that night.

Shock and disgust resonated throughout the South upon news of Gammon’s death.  For most Southern schools football had existed for less than five years, but injuries had occurred so frequently that even before Gammon’s death many influential Southern college administrators and politicians believed the violent sport should be abolished. With Gammon’s death, the sport’s fate seemed assured.

In a lopsided decision (the House result was 91 to 3 and the Senate vote 31 to 4), the Georgia Legislature voted to abolish college football soon after Gammon’s death. If Governor W. Y. Atkinson signed the bill, more Southern states would surely follow.

Rosalind Gammon, Von’s mother, loved football because Von had loved football. She wrote letters to the Georgia Legislature and to Atkinson pleading for the continuation of the game. Her letters did not persuade the Legislature to change its position but the letter to Atkinson struck a chord with the governor. This passage from Ms. Gammon’s letter to Atkinson persuaded the governor to veto the bill:

“You are confronted with the proposition whether the game is of such character as should
be prohibited by law in the interest of society. To this I answer, it unquestionably is not.
In the first place the conditions necessary to its highest development are total abstinence
from intoxicating and stimulating drink—alcoholic and otherwise—as well from
cigarettes and tobacco of any form; strict regard for proper and healthiest diet and for all
of the laws of health; persistent regularity in the hours of going to bed and absolute
purity of life.”

The governor’s veto saved football in Georgia and throughout the South. Indeed, mothers know best, and Southern football fans owe Mother Gammon many thanks for the existence of fall’s favorite pastime.

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