Houston: Death on a Football Afternoon

The good old days of early pro football in Houston weren't always so bright - and the darkest of these was October 9, 1960, long before even the guys in this picture were around.

The good old days of early pro football weren’t always so bright – and the darkest of these was October 9, 1960, involving the death of a New York Titans lineman in an AFL game in Houston, long before even the guys in this picture were around to play against them as the first Houston Oilers.

Today the University of Houston announced that senior quarterback David Piland was being dropped from the Cougars football team because two concussions had left him vulnerable to the imminent possibility of serious illness, injury, or even death, if he continued to play. UH didn’t use that specific language in describing the potential dangers to Piland, should he continue to play and take hard hits on the field, but that’s what they meant and we all know it.

“It was not easy to hear that I can no longer play the game that I love,” said Piland, “but I know our medical staff has my best interests in mind.”

How times have changed. We only have to go back in time fifty-three years to the same physical place were young David Piland took many of his hits, if not the career-ending ones, to find the identity of the only man officially recorded as the solely diagnosed player ever killed directly in major level professional football from a game injury. His name was Howard Glenn, a 26-year old offensive guard who played for the New York Titans of the American Football League. The Titans were in town to play a game with the Houston Oilers on a Sunday, but let’s allow an eyewitness to start our story about that day. Tom Hunter, then an 8th grade student in Pearland, Texas  and a future graduate of UH, saw it all unfold before him. Now a longtime resident of Denver, Hunter has never forgotten that fated afternoon when death rode into the mix of heat, humidity, and rules-prescribed violence to stop Howard Glenn at the toll booth.

“On Sunday, October 9, 1960, I sat near midfield in the front row of the east stands at Jeppesen Stadium for a football game between the Houston Oilers and the visiting New York Titans and saw Titans offensive guard Howard Glenn–who had been injured on a play–come out of the game and sit on the bench directly below me. His bare head lolled from side to side until two trainers came over and aided him as he walked off the field under his own power just before halftime. Later that night I learned that he had died at Hermann Hospital. He was twenty-six years old. Nowadays when a player is seriously injured on the field, he is immobilized, placed on a cart, and taken for medical evaluation. Whenever I see this, I am haunted by the memory of number “66” with his arms around the shoulders of two trainers walking towards the Jeppesen Fieldhouse locker rooms. R.I.P.” – Robert Thomas Hunter, Denver, Colorado.

As many of you know, “Jeppesen” was the name that formerly identified the old WPA constructed football stadium on Cullen at the UH campus that was later changed to “Robertson”. It was torn down after the end of the UH 2013 football season to be replaced by a modern playing facility that will open for UH in 2014. Back in 1960, it was the original home of the Houston Oilers. Their New York Titan opponents would soon enough be renamed the “Jets”, and that new nickname would stick as the lasting identity of that original AL club.

Unlike today, football clubs played variable to light to no attention to the possibility of life-threatening injury during games in 1960. The local Oilers had a couple of physicians, but the Jets traveled to Houston with no doctors to help them with in-game diagnosis and treatment of critical injuries or game-induced illnesses. And remember too. These were the days when coaches and trainers prescribed salt tablets, limited water, and no rest for fatigue on the field. Players were expected to simply suck it up and be men by playing through minor pain, injury, and fatigue.

Real men were the last men standing. – Men who took themselves out of games due to injury, pain, or nausea were simply wimps. Nothing more.

Sunday, October 9, 1960 was one of those Houston fall days that felt more like the jungle of a southeast Texas August. Temperatures reached into the 90’s and the humidity was so high that players were soaking wet in their heavier-than-these-days uniforms and helmets of that even more primitive era. It had to have been tough on everyone, but especially for the New York players. Unlike the Oiler guys, the Titans had not been in town long enough to have developed the secondary breathing gills that Houstonians needed for summer-survival in the days prior to ubiquitous air-conditioning.

As in baseball, if not even more so, because of the even lesser employment opportunities, football players put up with it. A top star like future Hall of Fame pass-catching ace Don Maynard may have made something under $10,000 a season, tops, while also working the off-seasons as a master plumber, a teacher of high school math, or a salesman of cars – or whatever.

In 1960, it was a different day and more of a plantation mode for player thought. “”You just show up when you’re supposed to play and do what you’re supposed to,” said Don Maynard. “That’s the business.”

On October 9, 1960, the football culture of bad medicine, no medicine, player dedication to pain denial, the absence of proper hydration and game rest, inferior protective equipment, and the basic violence of the game came together to kill a man who probably could have been saved in 2013. And it happened in Houston, at Jeppesen (later Robertson) Stadium, to a young fellow named Howard Glenn,  a New York Titan lineman who would not live to see his other aspirations as an artist ever develop as they might have.

Ernie Barnes described the decline of Howard Glenn quite graphically in an article by Sandy Pawde for the March 17, 1967 edition of the Sarasota Evening  Journal. Shortly after kick off on this hot sweaty day, Glenn began to say, “I don’t think I can make it.” He was greeted with butt -slap support and “suck it up” words by his teammates. Teammate Barnes, lined up next to Glenn, says he began to notice a putrid smell coming from Glenn. It wasn’t normal and it just got worse as the game wore on.

Glenn continued to say, “I don’t think I can make it,” adding, “I’m sick. I need to come out of the game.” All he got was more hang in there words and butt-slapping until the offensive drive stalled and the Titans kicked the ball away. Only then did  Howard Glenn leave the game with the rest of the offensive team. He was sweating profusely, gasping for breath, smelling awful, with a white foam building around his mouth, and about to fall. In spite of these worsening conditions, the Titans had no team doctor present to examine him – and New York Coach Sammy Baugh just kept sending him back into the game each time the offense again took the field.

Howard Glenn

Glenn finally collapsed and had to be lifted and walked (not stretchered) to the bench by two teammates. He spent most of the second half on the bench and walked to the locker room under his own power, just before the half. At game’s end, however, Howard Glenn collapsed as he returned to the locker room. The cry “get him a doctor” started, but was soon quieted by “just sit him on a stool. He’ll be all right. It’s just football and fatigue.” Sitting dazed and glassy eyed on a stool. Howard soon slumped to the floor, as a very drunken man might,  landing flat on his back, with his eyes still open, but only staring blindly at the ceiling. He began coughing up thick green mucous, which fellow players tried to clear from his mouth with their fingers as he seemed to be strangling on it. That reeking smell from Glenn’s body filled the room. Only then did New York officials call for help from the Oilers’ two stadium-present physicians. Some time was lost finding and retrieving medical help that could have been called when Glenn first was taken out of the game, but that was not the practice of this team in that era on a fateful Sunday.

It wasn’t rocket science medicine. The two Oiler doctors quickly determined that Howard Glenn needed to be immediately transported to Hermann Hospital in the nearby Texas Medical Center. The plan was this simple: Howard Glenn would stay in Houston for emergency and critical care treatment while the team flew back to New York after the Houston game. It would not take long for that last dire denial of the reality to be swept away by the darkest rider in all our lives, eventually.

Howard Glenn was taken to the hospital for treatment at 5:30 PM. He was pronounced dead at 6:10 PM, Sunday, October 9, 1960. The stunned New York players got the sad news at Hobby Airport, shortly after boarding their plane for home. All were shaken, but the death got little attention nationally and not much changed in the almost universal neglect of an adequate medical approach to football safety until more recent times.

The next day, Harris County Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk signed off on the loss of Howard Glenn as an “accidental death” that stemmed from a broken neck. It was subsequently first determined that Glenn had broken his neck the previous week in a game that New York played against the Dallas Texans. However, further opinion concluded that it was more likely that Glenn had suffered the broken neck in New York’s 27-21 loss to the Oilers in Houston.

Howard Glenn became the first and only, so far, man to die directly from an identified game injury. Two others, Stan Mauldin of the Chicago Cardinals (1948) and Dave Sparks of the Washington Redskins (1954), also died after games, but their deaths were due to heart attacks.

What a sad day in Houston sports history, but it brings clear attention to why football now has in place some new strong rules to protect players from concussions – and the kinds of tackling that often causes broken necks. And it is the reason that fine young men like David Piland of UH must now learn to deal with the fact that he can no longer play the game he loves.

The Pecan Park Eagle wishes to thank Tom Hunter of Denver for bringing to light the story and the research material that brought it to life, along with his open personal eye-witness comment, to the telling of this timely story.

Fifty-three years ago today, a good man lost his life playing football in Houston. His name was Howard Glenn. And he deserves to be remembered  as the man who lost his life playing football in the prehistoric era of sports medicine.

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6 Responses to “Houston: Death on a Football Afternoon”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    One correction, Bill. I graduated from UH, but in October of 1960, I was in the 8th grade at Pearland Junior High School. Thanks for the story on Howard Glenn.

  2. Anthony Cavender Says:

    Did anyone see last night’s “Frontline” documentary on the NFL and the rash of concussions suffered by many football players?

  3. Wayne Roberts Says:

    Great article Bill. As a passionate Longhorn fan I’m glad David Ash is sitting out the OU game this Saturday due to his continued concussed symptons. In 1994 my softball career ended due to an assault at home plate. I’ll spare the bang-bang events leading up to it but the result was a subdural hematoma the size of a golf ball at the center of my brain and a 4 inch crack at the base of my skull. I avoided surgery (drilling holes to relieve pressure) thanks to technology (CT Scans and the soon to be common MRI) but problems continued for several years (some, including your readers will say they remain) that were helped by cognitive testing and therapy. At the end of John Mackovic’s tenure as head coach at UT a player ran off the field and knocked him down and he whacked his head on the turf. After the game he admitted he couldn’t remember anything after being hit….he was unpopular then and the wags had their fun at his expense. I demurred. Closed head injuries are no joke. This issue will be huge problem for football–it must be addressed.

  4. NFL Deaths Reflect Inept Care and Record-Keeping | Four Walls Publishing Says:

    […] temperature topped 90 degrees with dense humidity for the 1 p.m. kickoff at Jeppesen Stadium, and early in the game Howard Glenn, an offensive guard […]

  5. Matt Chaney: NFL Deaths Reflect Inept Care and Record-Keeping | Independent Football Veterans Says:

    […] temperature topped 90 degrees with dense humidity for the 1 p.m. kickoff at Jeppesen Stadium, and early in the game Howard Glenn, an offensive guard […]

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