Benjamin H Rich: A Fatal Football Game

The memorial marking the plot where Benjamin H. Rich rests, Unionville

I passed through the small community of Unionville, in Centre County, and headed toward Oak Ridge Cemetery on the southwestern side of town. Had I not known where to turn for the cemetery, I would have easily passed by it – the sign marking the entrance was set a distance from Alternate 220, which is also known locally as South Eagle Valley Road. Turning onto the dirt road, I followed it through the patch of trees which soon opened to a cemetery which hugged the hillside. I took the first right and drove to the maintenance shed and parked.

Stepping from my vehicle, I scanned the garden of stone. I knew I had two graves I wished to visit on this trip. I started my visit by heading up the hillside and taking a right at the next intersection. I scanned the stones on the upper side of the roadway as I walked, knowing the gentleman I had come to remember rested along the road. I soon saw the stone which marked the plot where the young man eternally slumbers. The name Benjamin H. Rich may not grace the pages of sports history, but his death would capture the attention of the nation in the final months of 1897. Note: In some genealogical sites, it is listed that Rich is buried in the Unionville Cemetery in Chester County. This is an error – he is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Unionville, Centre County.

Born January 1, 1876, in Unionville, Centre County, Benjamin was the only son of J. Gillingham and Annie Rich. When he was a young man, Rich lost his father in a lumbering accident, leaving him to care for his mother and sister.

Rich attended the Bellefonte Academy, where he played football for the school and worked for local pharmacists. After graduation, he moved to Tyrone with his widowed mother and sister where he worked as a clerk and superintendent for J. S. Smith, a pharmacy located on Logan Avenue, in Tyrone. He was described as a well-liked young man with a friendly, out-going personality. Rich resided in Tyrone for almost a year before tragedy would strike.

In the early years of football, it was common for many towns to have their own club. Tyrone was no different; they too had a football club that played against the surrounding communities. Having a love for the game, Rich joined the Tyrone football club.

On October 16, 1897, Tyrone’s football club traveled to Bellwood for an afternoon game and Rich was among those who made the short journey. According to the October 18, 1897 edition of the Altoona Mirror (Altoona, Pa), before leaving to visit friends and relatives near Pittsburgh, Rich’s mother pled with him not to play football that day. Despite his mother’s wishes, Rich joined his teammates on the train to Bellwood.

Exactly when the deadly accident happened is murky. The report in the Tyrone Daily Herald (Tyrone, Pa), was the version that would appear in national papers. It stated the deadly accident happened thirteen minutes into the second half of the game. The Altoona Mirror stated it happened near the end of the first half.

The Bellwood team had the ball and the ball was snapped. The Tyrone team pushed through the Bellwood line and Rich came from the right side of the line and tackled Right Tackle J. H. Miller. The two men fell to the ground with Miller landing on top of Rich. Note: In some articles, it is listed that Bellwood’s Right Tackle was G. H. Miller instead of J. H. Miller.

Both men got to their feet, but before the ball was snapped, Rich complained he was dizzy and was having a hard time seeing. He was taken to the sidelines, where he was attended to by a couple of the team substitutes. While there, he lapsed into unconsciousness and was taken to the nearby Bell House – it was while they were taking him there that Rich passed. Note: in some newspapers, it is reported that Rich initially collapsed on the field, before being helped to the sideline, but most just state he was helped to the team bench.

Despite knowing one of the players was having a serious health issue, the game continued, ending around six that evening. Tyrone lost the game 22-0.

When he was examined, the only injuries noted on Rich’s body was a bruise on his back located between his shoulders and a scar on his face. One of the immediate rumors was Miller had broken Rich’s spine when he landed on him, but the attending doctors said this was not the case. The doctors also eliminated that possibly Rich’s death had been the result of being kicked in the head. The cause of death was listed as a brain hemorrhage caused by “over exertion and a fall while tackling J. H. Miller, and striking his head on the ground or on a stone. Death was purely accidental.”

Rich’s remains were taken by train to Unionville and buried on the hillside on the western side of the community. The funeral was one of the largest ever held in Unionville with residents of the region, along with members of Tyrone’s football club, remembering the life of the young man. Rich was only twenty-one at the time of his death.

As I stood remembering the young man, I had to wonder if this had not happened, would he have continued playing football or would he have settled down into the life of a pharmacist? Did he have a condition that would still have claimed his life had he not been playing football, or was this completely brought on by striking his head on the ground? The answer is not clear and will never be known.

I finished paying my respects to the young man whose life was cut short and left the plot where he eternally slumbers. I crossed the roadway as I continued to examine the memorials to regional residents who rest silently on the grassy hillside.

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