A Football Fatality
A smaller than normal crowd turned out on Saturday afternoon, November 14, 1896 at McCook Field to watch KU’s football team take on the boys from Nebraska’s Doane College.
It was, according to the Kansas University Weekly, “an ideal foot ball day,” but as the small college from Nebraska was a decided underdog, many students apparently passed their afternoon in more promising diversions. Doane played a solid game, however, and Kansas “had a much harder time … than was anticipated.” Nonetheless, with less than a minute remaining, the home team led the game and was driving for a final score.
With Kansas just inside Doane’s 40-yard line (and with roughly 40 seconds remaining in the game), a KU back took the ball around the left end and broke free. He was met “within one foot of the goal line” by Doane’s quarterback/safety, Bert Serf, who made the goal line tackle, but was knocked unconscious by the collision. In two previous games that season for Doane, Serf had suffered similar concussions, and in fact, had been “rendered insensible … for over five minutes” in the first half of the game against Kansas. (After his first injury of this game, KU had asked the visitors to remove him from their lineup, but Doane had instead “given [him] an easier place and kept [him] in.”)
Great care was taken to revive Serf on the field after his goal-line stop, but, according to the Lawrence Evening Tribune, “it was not possible to bring him to.” He was subsequently carried to the Eldridge House – the hotel where he and his teammates were staying – so that physicians could attend him. Back at McCook Field, the game continued with Kansas scoring a touchdown that made the final result 16-4. The Kansas University Weekly later reported that Serf’s “removal from the field was sufficient cause to dampen the victory,” and so as the fans “filed silently away with apprehensive faces not a single ‘Rock Chalk’ could be heard.”
After the game, players from both teams, as well as concerned faculty members and students, gathered at the Eldridge to wait for news regarding the injured player. When no news of any sort was forthcoming as the evening wore on, the crowd began to scatter. However, shortly before midnight, word spread throughout Lawrence that Serf had passed away. Those members of the student body “that had waited anxiously for good news earlier in the evening” regrouped to console one another.
The son of a Lutheran minister, Serf had been a sophomore at Doane, and, according to contemporary accounts, the 18-year-old had been “a very popular student.” The physicians had notified his parents of their son’s injury shortly after he had been carried to the Eldridge, but of course, his mother and father could not have arrived in time to be with their son during his final hours. (If the Lawrence Evening Tribune’s claim was true that “moans could be heard coming from the boy who seemed to be suffering intense pain from the injuries he had received,” then perhaps it was best that his parents did not witness their son’s inglorious end.)
The following morning, many of the city’s ministers “touched on the fatal football accident of Saturday evening” in their sermons. That Sunday afternoon, members of both football teams as well as University faculty members sat through a funeral service in the Eldridge conducted by Rev. G.W. Banker, pastor of Lawrence’s First Presbyterian Church. After the service, members of the Kansas team acted as pallbearers and escorted Serf’s body to a hearse which in turn led a cortege of several hundred Kansas students to the Union Pacific train station. Three members of the University’s Athletic Association accompanied Serf’s remains to his hometown of Hastings, Nebraska to convey their sympathy to his family. Five days later, KU Chancellor Francis Snow drafted a letter of condolence to Serf’s parents on behalf of the entire University.
Despite Serf’s unfortunate death, little criticism of football arose at this time. The Kansas University Weekly did acknowledge that “it would be better to abolish the game entirely” than to allow “the lesson which this young man’s death has set before us … to go unlearned.” The paper also advised the Western Inter-State University Foot Ball Association (to which KU belonged) to require that all teams conduct mandatory physicals of their players before the start of the season. This procedure, contended the Weekly, would prevent unfit students (such as Serf) from participating. It did not suggest requiring protective equipment such as helmets, or initiating rules to decrease the general brutality of the game.
Within a decade after Serf’s death, the sport had attracted more than its fair share of detractors. The demise of college football’s amateurism and a revulsion at its violence combined to bring about an attempt to reform the game in the first decade of the twentieth century. Following the football season of 1905, in which 18 college players from around the country had died from injuries sustained in games and more than 150 were hurt seriously, cries for football’s abolition echoed from every quarter of the United States.
The formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which would become the National Collegiate Athletic Association, temporarily stemmed the mid-decade calls for the elimination of the sport by embracing some sweeping rules changes. But criticism of football mounted again throughout the country as the decade wore to a close. In 1910 the University of Kansas (and the Missouri Valley Conference to which it belonged) came precipitously close to doing away with the sport altogether and replacing it with rugby.
Ultimately, the Kansas Board of Regents permitted the game to remain at the University, but critics of college football would continue to periodically voice their concerns for the remainder of the twentieth century.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas