Touchdowns And Tragedy
He was KU’s first truly great athlete and has been dubbed “the Original KU Legend” by institutional historians.
As starting quarterback for three years, he led his team to a record of 23-2-1; as a basketball player, he was honored as the University’s first All-American on the hardwood. He died a year after his last football game for the University of Kansas having left a legacy as impressive as any subsequent KU athlete. In 1920 KU Director of Athletics “Phog” Allen recognized the accomplishments of his former basketball teammate when he briefly considered naming Memorial Stadium after him. At a ceremony honoring him in 1935, flags flew at half-mast and former teammates reminisced about his greatness.
His name was Tommy Johnson and on this day in 1909 in a football game against Nebraska, he made a run that transformed him from an excellent quarterback into an institutional icon.
Johnson had first joined the KU football team – then known as the Jayhawkers – in 1908. The 5 foot 11 inch, 160-pound quarterback promptly led them to an undefeated season, only the second in the school’s history. Consequently, KU fans cherished similarly high expectations for the 1909 season, and by mid-October, they had not been disappointed.
Indeed, a Lawrence Daily Journal article on October 18, 1909, about KU’s defeat of the Kansas State Agricultural College Aggies was headlined simply “Ever Victorious.” According to the article, Johnson had provided the only score for his team when he returned a fumble for a touchdown. His play had enabled the men from Mt. Oread to escape Manhattan with a 5-3 win despite the fact that they had been “clearly outplayed.” (At the time, a touchdown was worth five rather than six points.) The triumph over Kansas State was KU’s 13th consecutive victory and extended the already impressive winning streak of the Jayhawks, who had not lost a game since November 16, 1907.
The following day, Lawrence’s evening paper began looking ahead to a game against Nebraska that was still nearly three weeks away despite the fact that Kansas had to play both Washington University (St. Louis) and Washburn University in the interim. The paper recognized what most fans of the Missouri Valley Conference already realized – that the Jayhawker-Cornhusker game would be the year’s most important conference game. Interestingly, however, the article included the comments of an “Ann Arbor man who [had] played football” at the University of Michigan, and who had watched the Jayhawks’ game against the Aggies. The former Wolverine criticized KU’s team for being slow, lacking cohesion, and depending too heavily on its star. He further predicted, “When a team puts on a good defense” against Johnson, KU would prove unable to “win the game.”
After throttling Washington University and Washburn by a combined score of 40-0, the Kansas team began its preparations for Nebraska. Supporters of both schools could hardly have been more excited. By the Thursday before the big game, students on Mt. Oread had already clad themselves in crimson and blue and begun a push to send as many KU fans to the game as was humanly possible. For those fans that could not make it to Lincoln, the Kansan had decided to provide regularly updated reports of the game at the chapel.
“Heretofore,” the student paper advertised, “no free reports of the big games have been given on the hill.” Nonetheless, so important was the game to the University that despite the “considerable expense” it entailed, the Kansan thought it vital to host such an event. On Friday afternoon the University held a mass meeting at which Chancellor Frank Strong, football coach Bert Kennedy, Dr. James Naismith, and others detailed “how and why [KU] must beat Nebraska.” After the meeting, the University’s gridiron representatives prepared for their trip.
The football team arrived in Lincoln late Friday night having somehow neglected to load the trunks that held their uniforms onto the train. Conveniently, a Union Pacific passenger train was scheduled to leave for Lincoln from Lawrence the following morning and proved willing to carry the team’s outfits north. Shortly before 2:00 p.m., a crowd began to assemble at the University of Nebraska’s new athletic field. It was a spectacular day for football with cool temperatures and clear skies and by 2:30, roughly 6,000 fans had turned out to watch the highly anticipated match-up.
The first half amounted to a punting duel as the teams combined for a total of three first downs. The only excitement occurred when Johnson turned the corner around left end and scampered 27 yards for an apparent touchdown. As the “Kansas rooters [went] wild,” the officials held a conference that culminated in a decision to penalize KU for holding. Predictably, as the Lawrence Daily World pointed out, the “Nebraska rooters [went] crazy at this decision,” while Jayhawk fans became “correspondingly quiet.” (After the game, the referee reportedly concluded that he had made the wrong call and, maintaining that the touchdown should have counted, apologized to the team from Lawrence for his error.) Shortly after the touchdown was called back, the teams mutually agreed to call a timeout, “as the men were suffering from running down so many punts.” Play resumed after a few minutes but the breather accomplished little in terms of injecting energy into the game.
At halftime, the teams remained deadlocked 0-0. While some of the older alumni and former players made their way to their respective teams to offer words of encouragement and inspiration, the rest of the crowd seized the opportunity to release their pent-up energy. Fans of both schools “paraded the field with the two bands leading” them as they sang school songs and shouted the yells of the university they supported.
When play resumed, it looked as though the crowd was in for another half of punting that would finally end in a game knotted at zero. The tone of the game changed when, with time winding down, Kansas forced the Cornhuskers to punt the ball yet again. This time, however, as Johnson received the ball on his own 30-yard line he began the run that would transform him into a legend. Following his blockers, he wound his way into the open field where he had proven over his career to be virtually unstoppable. Rising to their feet, the “Kansas rooters [went] wild in a veritable delirium of joy” as Johnson eluded would-be tacklers and dashed 70-yards for a score. The quarterback’s touchdown, followed by his team’s extra point, gave the Jayhawks a 6-0 advantage. Three possessions later, time expired and the game was over. Ecstatic KU fans scrambled down from the bleachers and carried the game’s hero off the field on their shoulders.
Back in Lawrence, the 1,000 students who had crammed into the chapel to wait for game updates from The Kansan “like to tore down the building” when “the news came back from Lincoln of the Kansas victory.” Students hastily organized a bonfire for that evening in Lawrence’s Central Park. Merchants whose establishments were located downtown set empty, wooden boxes out along the street for the undergraduates to collect as firewood. “With each additional box that was taken to the park,” the Daily World reported, “another tribute was paid to those boys up in Lincoln and to ‘Tommy’ Johnson who had won the day.”
More than 2,000 people showed up for the nighttime celebration. Speakers took their turn atop a dry goods box that acted as a podium. At one point, Chancellor Strong stepped up onto the makeshift platform and led the crowd in a “Rock Chalk” chant before telling the students that he had a “secret announcement” to make at chapel on Monday morning. The students, realizing that he intended to cancel Monday’s classes, let out a roar of approval. The chancellor went on to prophesy that the 1909 team, like the 1908 version, would end the season “ever victorious.”
The following morning, the team itself returned to Lawrence, where an exuberant swarm of supporters waited to greet it. Johnson had not even stepped from the train to the platform before “a crowd of admirers … grabbed him up on their shoulders and carried him to the waiting tallyho [a four-in-hand carriage]” where his other teammates soon joined him.
Taking the place of four horses, a contingent of men from Mt. Oread proceeded to pull the team’s carriage to the Eldridge House Hotel where Lawrence Mayor Sam Bishop welcomed the team. (In an evidently popular gesture, Hizzoner promised to spring the players from jail should they ever get in any trouble.) The gala continued as members of the victorious squad addressed the crowd. Johnson, “a real modest hero” the Daily Journal commented, “merely bowed his thanks to the boys for their kind words.”
Team members had a few days off as no game had been scheduled for the following Saturday. Supporters spent the week rehashing the victory and predicting that Kansas would certainly finish the season undefeated. An “ever victorious” season, however, was not in the cards for the 1909 KU team. On Thanksgiving Day in Kansas City’s Association Park, KU’s hated rival, the Missouri Tigers, defeated the Jayhawk team for the first time since 1901.
Johnson suffered what was probably a concussion on a punt return in the first half and, although he remained in the game was unable to communicate intelligibly with his teammates or remember which plays he had called. At halftime, former KU player and current team physician Dr. John Outland asked Coach Kennedy to remove the star from game for his own safety. The assistant coach and the ex-players who had joined the team at the break concurred with the doctor, but Kennedy overruled them and asked Johnson to play in the second half.
Just as the Michigan player had predicted at the end of the Kansas State game, with their star injured, the KU team proved unable to win. The Kansas City Times suggested the loss was due in large measure to the fact that the “wobbly” Johnson had “failed to produce any of the startling runs which ha[d] set the Kansas rooters wild so many times.” (Despite his injury, the elusive quarterback had managed, at one point, a 40-yard punt return.) Unable to believe their good fortune, Missouri supporters swarmed over the field after the victory, which was only their team’s fourth win in 19 tries against KU. Tearing down a goal post, they found a luckless black hen (which was apparently the closest thing they could find to a Jayhawk), “crucified” it at the top of the post, and paraded around the field in a celebration that lasted for an hour.
That winter, having recovered from his concussion, Johnson led the Kansas basketball team to a conference title and a record of 18-1. The leading scorer on the team, his play earned for him All-American honors – the first such distinction bestowed upon a KU student. When the 1910 hardwood season ended, Johnson helped lead student opposition to an attempt by certain members of the Board of Regents to abolish football at KU and replace it with the more “civilized” game of rugby.
Both Johnson and football returned to the University for the fall semester of 1910 where he again led the team to an excellent record, although Nebraska beat KU that year. Thus, KU entered its finale against Missouri with a 6-1 record. In a game that ended in a 5-5 tie, Johnson once again suffered an injury, but this time it was more severe than a concussion.
Sandwiched between two Tiger defenders, Johnson re-aggravated a kidney condition that had plagued him as a youth. His injury rendered him unable to compete in the 1910-11-basketball season and over the course of the next year his health steadily deteriorated. On November 24, 1911, the most accomplished athlete the school had yet known died of kidney failure at a Kansas City hospital.
His alma mater did not quickly forget him. “Phog” Allen, who had been Johnson’s basketball teammate during the 1905-06 season, later claimed that his preference for the name of the stadium that replaced McCook Field (the home football field of Johnson’s era) would have been “Tommy Johnson Memorial Field” had the University not lost 130 students and alumni in the First World War. (In remembrance of those war dead, KU named the new sports venue Memorial Stadium.)
In 1935 the University of Kansas honored Johnson at halftime of the Homecoming game against Missouri. In front of a sold out crowd at Memorial Stadium, with flags flying at half-mast, former teammates celebrated him as the best athlete in KU history. Four years later, the University Daily Kansan, released a poll ranking the greatest KU athletes, Johnson had lost his crown, but was still in the running. The paper listed him third behind 1932 Olympic decathlon champion James Bausch and the great miler of the 1930s, Glenn Cunningham.
By the end of the century, however, memory had relegated Johnson to a more obscure corner of KU’s pantheon of athletic heroes. When in 1999 the Kansan ran a series of articles on the University’s leading sports stars, it did not rank Johnson even among the top 10 athletes of the past 100 years.
Given the fact that Kansas emerged as a basketball powerhouse, it is perhaps ironic that Johnson’s All-American honors for his abilities on the hardwood served, in his lifetime, as a mere footnote to his gridiron career. It may be equally unexpected that the man who earned the first nationally recognized individual athletic award in the University’s history and whom institutional historians have dubbed “the Original KU Legend” has not yet had his football or basketball jersey retired by the school at which he distinguished himself.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas