Ninety-six years ago, Sept. 27 marked one of the darkest days in the history of UConn athletics.
Before being known as the University of Connecticut Huskies, UConn was known as the Connecticut Agricultural College Aggies. After taking a hiatus from playing football due to World War I, the Aggies would take on the University of New Hampshire in their 1919 season opener in Durham, New Hampshire.
It was in that game that the Aggies and Connecticut Agricultural College lost Gardner Dow, a 20-year-old from New Haven, Connecticut. According to an Oct. 3, 1919 article from The Hartford Courant, Dow suffered severe head trauma when his head hit the knee of a New Hampshire player as Dow made an open-field tackle in the fourth quarter.
Dow was removed from the field and looked after at a nearby fraternity house, where his condition rapidly deteriorated and died at 7 p.m. After surviving World War I as a member of the Navy, the CAC junior died playing the game that he loved.
In a sad state of events, Dow was not even originally supposed to suit up for the Aggies that sad September day. According to the 85th anniversary article on Dow’s death from the UConn Advance, The Advance stated that The Connecticut Campus (now known as The Daily Campus) originally ruled that Dow would not play due to an ankle injury.
Following Dow’s death, students and faculty of CAC met at Hawley Armory to mourn the loss of one of their own. Days later, the Athletic Association voted to name school’s athletic field to Gardner Dow Field. The field was dedicated on May 22, 1920, with a plaque attached to one of the arches at Hawley Armory. These arches were taken down around 1950, but the plaque honoring Dow can still be found today on the rear wall of the Armory, facing where the field named after him once was.
Gardner Dow Field served the CAC and UConn athletic teams in the center of campus up until the 1970’s, when the Homer Babbidge Library and the old Co-op were built on the site. Now old Dow Field is the site of Oak Hall, the library, the Information Technology Engineering (ITE) building, and the School of Business.
Dow is just one of many college football players to have perished on the football field, especially in the early 20th century, when football was just starting to resemble the game we love today. So many players suffered traumatic injuries of all sorts, largely due to a lack of quality protections. Players in those days wore leather helmets, which offered little protection.
What is amazing to me is that nearly 100 years later, progress has been made, but not much. Yes, protection has improved. People wear hard helmets, pads, and mouth guards. They are no longer “leatherheads.” Less players have died on the field, but these debilitating brain injuries are still evident throughout football.
Instead of suffering instant head trauma, players these days are slowly crippled over time by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better know as CTE. A recent Boston University study found that 87 of 91 deceased NFL players tested had evidence of CTE, which can lead to memory loss, depression, and dementia.
It seems like football is as violent as ever, just in a different way. We live in a time where technology is evolving faster than ever, and saving lives along the way in other aspects of life. It’s time to do the same for football.
If these players are risking their lives for our enjoyment, it is our responsibility to try and make the game they play as safe for them as possible, without taking away what makes football great. Will that ever truly happen? I am not quite sure.
At the end of the day, Dow’s legacy is important for a multitude of reasons. He is one of many examples of the dangers of football, and what needs to be done to make this game better for everyone involved. The less traumatic injuries this sport (and any for that matter), the better. As serious as football can get, it is a game. People should not have their life cut short from effects of playing a game.
But most importantly, Gardner Dow was one of us. He was a student at what is now the University of Connecticut, just like the people that are reading this likely are or were. He embodied what it meant to be a Husky before it even existed.
CAC faculty member Henry Monteith summed up Dow’s legacy best on the one-year anniversary of his death during a ceremony at Hawley Armory on Sept. 27, 1920.
“The most glorious death is on the field of battle in the service of home, country, or college,” Monteith said. “For it is met while mind and body still work to the last minute in perfect accord."
Dow gave his all for his country serving in World War I and survived, only to die representing his school and home state in the highest regards on the gridiron. As more time passes, it is important to UConn and to its students remember his legacy as an extraordinary member of this university whose life was taken much too soon playing a game he loved.