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Army player’s death once caused Army-Navy game to be canceled

Army cadet Eugene Byrne, left, runs toward a pile-up in which he would sustain fatal injuries during a college football game against Harvard in 1909. (Screenshot/Twitter)
December 09, 2022

The beloved tradition of the Army-Navy football game skipped a year in 1909, when Army canceled the remainder of its season after its left tackle died from injuries sustained during a game against Harvard.

There were 10 minutes left in the game on Oct. 30, 1909 when Army cadet Eugene Byrne was buried beneath a pile-up of Harvard players, paralyzing him. 

The Associated Press’ report painted a vivid image of the aftermath: “His neck was twisted and broken by the weight of the crushing pile above him, and he was picked up with every nerve of his body except those of his head and face helpless to perform their function.”

The moment just before the incident was captured in a photograph published in the Los Angeles Herald, which described it as “one of the most remarkable football photographs ever made.” The newspaper drew an “X” over Byrne, who appears to be running toward a mass of players while beginning to fall.

The New York Times reported that Byrnes’ father left the stands to be by his son, who was laid on a coat on the field with blue lips and “practically no sign of life.” The paper filled an entire front-page column with a detailed report about doctors’ efforts to revive the cadet.

Doctors helped him for hours to artificially breathe, and he gained consciousness that night. But it wasn’t enough to keep Byrne from passing away at 6:35 a.m. the following morning, according to the Daily Beast.

According to AP’s report, an X-rays done after Byrne’s death showed a dislocation between the first and second cervical vertebrae, which caused the first vertebra to press against and disable the medulla oblongata, which controls respiratory muscles.

The incident not only ended Army’s season, but reportedly had people at the time worried about a broader crackdown on football. Byrnes’ death apparently came two weeks after a Navy player fractured a vertebra, generating “a feeling of uneasiness among the cadets that the Government may take some action to curtail football,” the Times reported.