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The Tragic True Story Of Denny Clark - The Goat of 1905 Michigan

Another history video.

This one is not a pleasant story, to be honest, but it tells the story of one of the biggest goats of all time.

Summary:

The story details the tragic life of William Dennison “Denny” Clark, a football player for the University of Michigan, who became infamous for a critical mistake during the 1905 game against the University of Chicago, which was hyped as the “first greatest game of the century.” Coming into the game, Michigan was on a 56-game unbeaten streak, having dominated their opponents with a score of 495 to 0 for that season. The game against Chicago, led by legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and all-American quarterback Walt Eckersall, was highly anticipated, drawing a crowd of 27,000 people due to the massive demand for tickets.

The game was intense and remained scoreless for the first half. A crucial moment came in the second half when Clark, in an attempt to make a game-winning play, decided to run the ball out of the end zone instead of downing it for a safe start at the 25-yard line. This resulted in a safety when he was tackled inside his own end zone, marking the only points scored in the game and leading to Michigan’s defeat by a score of 2-0. This mistake haunted Clark, leading to widespread criticism and personal despair, despite later attempts to defend his actions and clarify that the loss was not mentioned in his final letter before his suicide in 1932.

Clark’s life after the game was difficult, marked by financial distress, separation from his wife, and heavy drinking. In his suicide note, Clark expressed hope that his final act would provide for his family, showing no direct reference to the 1905 game, contrary to popular belief. The story challenges the narrative that Clark’s suicide was directly linked to his football blunder, instead highlighting his broader personal struggles. The recounting of this tale serves as a reminder of the intense pressures athletes can face and the lasting impact of sports on individual lives.

Complete Transcript

It was dubbed the first greatest game of the century, Michigan versus Chicago in 1905. It was such a huge game that the player who cost Michigan the victory would later take his own life because of it. This is the tragic story of William Dennison “Denny” Clark.

And I’m going to tell you right up front that this story contains a discussion of suicide. If that’s a difficult subject for you, I recommend you please go watch a different video. Led by coach Fielding Yost, Michigan was coming into the game with Chicago on a 56-game unbeaten streak. They’d been undefeated for four years, and in 1905, they’d outscored their first 12 opponents 495 to 0 by the time the last game of the year was rolling around. It was against Nemesis Chicago, coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg and led by All-American quarterback Walt Echorsaw. Chicago was also undefeated with a 10-0 record. The Maroons had only given up five points all season, and that was in a single game against Indiana.

The game was as huge as you would expect from any game billed “game of the century.” The stands at Marshall Field in Chicago were enlarged to accommodate 27,000 people. There was such a high demand for tickets that scalpers were everywhere. Chicago wanted to clean up the ticket scalping problem, so the mayor ordered the police to arrest all scalpers, including students.

How bad was the scalping? From the Chicago Tribune, November 25th, 1905, we see an article where a scalper was arrested on the charge of scalping because that’s what they do, and he was arraigned and fined the cost. And as the article states, on leaving the court, he was besieged by attorneys, court attachés, and spectators at his trial asking if he had any tickets to the game left. The game was for the Western Championship. Neither of these teams would have been deemed national champions at the time because all the power was concentrated in the east with Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Penn.

Walter Camp, the father of American football, was in attendance.

The first half of the game ended in a scoreless tie. It became a punting duel. Walt Eckersall of Chicago punted 12 times, and John Garrels of Michigan punted 10 times. The Maroons had crossed midfield three times, Michigan only once. At halftime, University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper had a message hand-delivered to Stagg pleading with the Maroons to win for the dying president’s sake. Harper would die of cancer just two months later on January 10th, 1906.

It was clear in the second half that some kind of mistake or mishap would have to happen for one of the teams to win the game, and that’s exactly what happened.

Toward the end of the second half, Chicago was forced to punt, and the punt carried over the end line. It was caught by Denny Clark, who could have downed the ball and had it placed at the 25-yard line. Instead, he tried to bring it out of the end zone, hoping that he could break free and score the touchdown that his team desperately needed to win the game.

He was hit hard after crossing the goal line by Art Badenok and then was tackled inside his own end zone by Mark Kaitlin for a safety, and that turned out to be the only score of the game. Clark would later say the officials did not hear him called down. In those days, the play was dead when the player cried down or called themselves down, or when any portion of his person except his hands or feet was touching the ground while in the grasp of an opponent.

So, Clark could have called himself down, but he says the official didn’t hear it. It’s much different than it is for us today. The rest of the game, the two teams would continue their punting duel. Chicago would win two to zero, breaking Michigan’s streak and winning the Western Championship.

After the game, as pandemonium, 2,500 students and alumni of Chicago form a parade and march to President Harper’s house, where they sing the alma mater. Then they followed that with nine roars for him. Harper is too ill to make an appearance, but his eldest son Samuel read a statement of thanks from his father. There were bonfires, reportedly one as large as a house, and there was a nightshirt parade and a war dance.

A nightshirt parade.

There would be no such celebration from Clark, who was quoted after the game stating, “This is horrible. I shall kill myself because I am in disgrace.” It’s rumored that he left the team after the game with plans to kill himself. He pushes back on the stories about suicide, stating they are in absurdity.

He is battered in the press.

Headlines blame him for the loss, stating he exercised poor judgment, and Walter Camp goes so far as to state, “Michigan’s defeat was due entirely to a blunder, a rank blunder on the part of Clark when he ran the ball out from behind his own goal line and was thrown back across the goal line for a safety by Kaitlyn.” There’s a cartoon showing a despondent Clark while a man claps him on the back, stating, “Never mind Clark, it took Michigan to beat Michigan.”

Clark owns his mistake for the rest of his life, and it’s clear from newspaper articles and coaches that it’s not forgotten by anyone.

In the Nashville banner on December 6, 1925, right around the 20th anniversary of the game, there’s an article about Fielding Yost and how he meets with some former players, including Clark, who laments that no one will ever forget the game. Yost states, “Denny, Michigan had scored 495 points up to that game. The two-point Chicago scored on that safety lost the game and the championship. It is only because we lost under those circumstances no one will ever forget. It was only a matter of inches, just inches. You were just unlucky. That’s why people remember.”

And later Yost says of Clark, “He was only a substitute halfback and had done fine work, and we have long since forgiven him. We remember the game, of course, but because we cannot forget it, but only Denny still feels the pain of it. And that is one of the unfortunate aspects of football, perhaps the only one. Sometimes we take it just a little too seriously and forget it is only a game to play and to enjoy, win or lose.”

Another article on November 9, 1925, from the San Francisco Bulletin is also around the 20th-year anniversary that says they still talk of Denny Clark’s error back at Ann Arbor. In 1926, Clark writes to the Saturday Evening Post to state that for 21 years he has been asked by followers of football, “Oh, are you the Denny Clark that lost that game to Chicago in 1905?” Mr. Clark says that he has always answered that question in the affirmative and has vouchsafed no explanation.

But he did refute an Amos Alonzo Stagg article in the Saturday Evening Post that stated, “Both he and the university felt it so intensely that Ann Arbor became intolerable to him. He vanished overnight not to be heard of again for many months.” Basically, Stagg says that Michigan was so terrible to him that Clark had to disappear for months. Now, it’s clear from newspaper articles that Stagg is completely wrong about his assessment of the situation.

But it’s also clear that Clark is still defending himself and Michigan, and nobody is forgetting this game. And then January 3, 1929, we see an article in the Chicago Tribune with the headline, “Eckie recalls grid goats of long ago. Denny Clark’s play is often discussed.”

Walt Eckersaw, the man who punted the ball to Denny Clark, went on to become a famous sports writer and a famous football official. This all comes to an end in 1932 when Clark shoots himself through the heart in a hotel in Oregon. It’s clear that he’s down on his luck. Articles state that he had been heavily drinking at the time, which is never good. He is separated from his wife, and he is in financial distress. An article states that he owed four days’ hotel rent and had slightly in excess of five dollars on his person when he was found. Now here’s the key point in this story.

If you go out and read stories on the internet about William Dennison Clark, it states that he leaves a reference in his suicide note to his wife that he hopes his final play, quote-unquote, will atone for the mistakes he’s made, implicating that his blunder at Chicago in 1905 is still on his mind as he ends his life.

In the next few minutes, I will be discussing Clark’s suicide, including his full final letter to his wife. This bothers you, please skip ahead or go watch something else because this is hard stuff. From looking at newspaper articles, it is not true that he mentions the Chicago 1905 game in his final letter. From the Capitol Journal of Salem, Oregon, on June 1st, 1932,

Clark committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart in order that a family which he admitted in any suicide letter to his wife might benefit by his final play. Note those are the paper’s words, not Clark’s. His entire final letter is in the paper. The article also states suicide was not committed on the spur of the moment but had been contemplated for at least six weeks. It became evident from a perusal of letters left.

His possessions included photographs of his family, including his three children, a photo of the 1905 Michigan football team, and military orders, including his commission as captain in the air service in 1917. The newspaper printed his final letter, and I am going to include it in full to refute the commonly told story about Denny Clark.

“My dear Mary, I have said several times in my letters that you and the children would be cared for. By now, you know that I have made that possible by the last means of my command. I have tried everything else desperately and without success. I hope you and the kids can understand it is not cowardice, far from it, because it is the very hardest thing I ever did. If only the money resulting from my act relieves you of all that strain for which I am been responsible, I am fully repaid regardless of what the future holds for me.

There are several things I wish you to know. First, while my spirit has been willing, evidently the flesh has been weak, and it is for this reason I have not provided as I should have done. I hope this sacrifice, if it can be called that, will partially offset my delinquency. I am simply physically and mentally unable to write to the children individually. It is my everlasting love for them which prompts this act. I realize they will be shocked, but only if they know their dad is doing the thing he considers right, the best for their welfare, I shall rest content. I could not answer the last letter I received in Los Angeles from Barbara.

There was nothing to say except that I love her.

Bill has been there for the past week busy with polo. I do hope he will not think I felt neglected because he could not be with me more. I understood perfectly. As for Betty, I cannot express the feelings I have for her fortitude and generousness. All I can say is that they are three children to be proud of in every way, and may the God who I am sure exists guard them and bless them.

They, all three, are my only contribution to this world, and any pride I may feel in this is equally if not more so yours.

As for you, my dear, may God bless you, keep you, and smooth your path through these years left to you.

I am closing a statement of my affairs if they can be so called. I regret exceedingly that it seems necessary to call upon Dan for this task, but I have not been able to think of any other way. I know you will reimburse him fully from my insurance. To you, Mary, to Betty, Bill, and baby, God’s blessing.”

What you really see is a guy who is down on his luck, he’s been drinking a lot, he’s not been successful, he’s financially unable to support his wife, they’re separated, and things are bad. This is apparently his way out of the situation, which is very sad. I’ll leave it to all of you to decide or comment on the life of Denny Clark.

Now, this is not the story I expected to tell. I expected to find a note to his wife that actually made a reference to the Chicago game, and it apparently does not exist.

And I’m finding this to be the case more and more. The licensing, certain licensing, seems to be taken in our football stories about history.

Some of them quite exaggerated. I considered throwing this entire piece away, but then I thought, you know, I did the research. It contradicts what’s commonly known about this person.

I don’t know how people are going to react to it, but I guess I’m going to find out.

Let me know what you think of this video in the comments.

The story of Denny Clark is certainly not the most uplifting story, but there are a lot more stories to come.

This is Jon Johnston for Hardcore College Football History.