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#111 Two Campus Football Tragedies Sparked Major Change

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, This Week in History

In 1907 and 1913, the Norwich community experienced a pair of back-to-back tragedies that highlighted a national trend: the dangers of football.

Leonard Clarkson

Leonard Clarkson

In September 1907, Norwich senior and team manager Leonard Clarkson was playing in a game against Dartmouth when he suffered a blow to the abdomen. It aggravated an existing intestinal condition and resulted in his death two days later at the hospital in Hanover. He had apparently been warned by his personal physician to give up football, but couldn’t bear to sit out his senior year season.

His teammates, fraternity brothers, and the campus community were all deeply shaken by the loss. The following year, President Spooner saw to it that the university employed a physician for the first time, and in 1916, the original Ainsworth Infirmary opened as a direct result of Clarkson’s death. His 1908 classmates saw to it that a room in the building was named in his memory.

Verner Stanley "Jim" Belyea

Verner Stanley “Jim” Belyea

Just six years after Clarkson’s death, Verner Stanley “Jim” Belyea, a junior, was badly injured in the first football game of the season against Holy Cross and died the next day. In a twist of fate, Belyea had been one of the students who contracted smallpox, but survived, during a small outbreak the previous year. Numerous friends and colleagues made the trip to Greenfield, Massachusetts for his funeral. Among them were University President Charles Spooner and football captain Ray Kimball.

While he was alive, much was written in the Norwich newspapers about Belyea’s prowess in football and baseball as a freshman and sophomore. The cover story in the September 1913 issue of the Record, published just before the fateful Holy Cross game, declared that “Belyea, all in all, in the writer’s opinion, is probably the best football player that ever donned a Norwich uniform and will be a wonder this year.” The November 1913 issue of the Reveille featured a moving tribute and account of the cadets’ trip to Greenfield for the funeral.

1912 football team

1912 football team

As these episodes illustrate, football was a dangerous sport in the early 20th century. When Norwich formed a football team in 1892, the game was still similar to rugby, with almost no protective gear and no passing game, which meant a lot of tackles and injuries. In 1905, at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, 62 colleges and universities codified a set of safer rules of play, forming an association that would eventually become the NCAA. Unfortunately for Leonard Clarkson and Verner Belyea, the changes did not come soon enough.

The Index to Norwich University Newspapers maintained by the Norwich University Archives can point you toward many fascinating stories about Clarkson, Belyea, the Ainsworth Infirmary, and the history of Norwich football.