Possibly the first major tragedy in the history of college sports occurred with the Purdue football team on Halloween, 1903.
Today marks the 109th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in the history of Purdue University. On what would have been the 101st birthday of benefactor John Purdue a train carrying members of the football team collided with a coal train near downtown Indianapolis as the team headed to play Indiana. A total of 17 people died, 14 of them players on the team.
It all started from a desire to have the Purdue-Indiana game at a neutral site. The Old Oaken Bucket was still more than 20 years away from being established, but Purdue and Indiana were already natural rivals on the football field. To that point Purdue and Indiana had played 10 times. Purdue won the first six contests by a combined score of 227-6, but Indiana's 17-5 win on November 30, 1899 finally made it a rivalry. It was the first of three straight wins for Indiana before Purdue won the second of two 1901 games in West Lafayette to take a 7-3 overall advantage.
To this point eight games had been played in West Lafayette and two in Bloomington, but organizers wanted to play the 11th edition on a neutral field at Washington Park in Indianapolis. Since this was in the days before automobile travel was popular, several hundred fans were interested in going to Indy for the game as a group. The University organized two special trains to carry more than 1,500 passengers from Lafayette to Indianapolis in addition to the team itself.
It was a festive atmosphere. Purdue was 4-2 on the season with a win over rival Wabash College, but losses to Chicago and Illinois. Unfortunately, a minor mistake would lead to a disaster. Special trains operated independent of the regular schedule, and that could cause havoc in areas where tracks needed to be switched to avoid collisions. A clerk up the line from Lafayette failed to inform the yardmaster near 18th Street in Indianapolis that the specials were coming.
The first special, carrying the team, rounded a corner and saw a coal train being pushed back on the tracks. The engineer immediately put the engine in reverse, hit the emergency brake, and bailed out. Unfortunately, no one else had time to do so. The engine slammed into the coal car, splintering apart the first few cars. The fans near the back of the train did not really know what happened, as they only felt a slight jolt before the train stopped.
Nearly 60 people were traveling as part of the team that day. A total of 17 people died, 14 of them players. Several more suffered crippling injuries that would last the rest of their lives, including future Indiana governor Harry G. Leslie. Leslie, the team captain, starting fullback, and student body president, was initially declared dead at the scene, but would later be upgraded to "alive" when he was found to have a faint pulse at the morgue.
Further tragedy was averted by several people who ran up the track to slow down the second special train that was approximately 10 minutes behind the first. Had they not thought to stop that train the death toll likely would have climbed into the hundreds.
Naturally, the game was cancelled, as was the remainder of Purdue's season. The Boilermakers would not take the field again until September 17, 1904 when it lost a game to a group of Purdue Alumni 6-2. The next game against Indiana was played in Indianapolis on November 12, 1904, which Purdue won 27-0. Since then, the Hoosiers and Boilermakers have alternated every game on their respective campuses and have not played a neutral site game since.
Purdue University still has several landmarks to the tragedy. Felix Haas Hall, formerly the Memorial Gymnasium, was built in 1909 to honor the victims. It has 17 steps leading to the front door, one for each victim. On the 100th anniversary of the tragedy in 2003 the tunnel that the team passes through on its way into Ross-Ade Stadium was dedicated to the victims. This occurred before the November 1, 2003 home 34-14 win over Northwestern.
There have been other terrible tragedies in sports. Evansville, Marshall, and Oklahoma State have each suffered plane crashes. Purdue's may have been the first mass loss of life in the history of college athletics, though. More than a century later effect is still remembered by the Boilermaker football program even though it occurred before most people's grandparents were born.
Charles H. Grube - Reserve, Butler, IN
Charles Furr - Guard, Veedersburg, IN
E.C. Robertson - Assistant coach and former team captain, Indianapolis, IN
Walter L. Roush - Reserve, Pittsburgh, PA
R.J. Powell - Reserve, Corpus Christi, TX
W.D. Hamilton - Center, Bridgetown, IL
Gabriel S. Drollinger - Reserve, Lafayette, IN
Samuel Squibb - Reserve, Lawrenceburg, IN
Jay Hamilton - Reserve, Huntington, IN
N.R. Howard - Booster and president of the Indiana Laundrymen's association
Patrick McClair - Assistant Coach, Chicago, IL
Samuel Truitt - Reserve, Noblesville, IN
G.L. Shaw - Indiana Harbor, IN
W.S. McMillen - Indianapolis, IN
J.C. Coats - Berwin, PA
Bert Price - Reserve, Spencer, IN
Walter Bailey - Reserve, New Richmond, IN
C.O. Tansman - Cincinnati, OH