Haunted by an Error in First 'Game of the Century,' a Michigan Wolverines' Star Took His Own Life
By Mark Schipper
Alone in a hotel a continent away from his estranged wife and three children, tortured by the belief he wore a scarlet letter for a mistake made almost three decades earlier playing football for the University of Michigan, Dennison Clark shot himself through the heart and ended his life. He was forty-six-years-old.
In the days following Clark's sad demise, which occurred May 30, 1932, the newspapers published death notices that appeared eager to confirm his paranoid self-loathing was in fact the truth. The petty maliciousness of the valedictories are a marvel of media indifference to inflicting pain, written as if it were gospel that Clark was some kind of timeless avatar for screwups.
The headline in the Chicago Tribune read, in part, that “the man who lost in ’05 to Chicago” was dead by suicide. The Los Angeles Times noted Clark had been “pictured in sports pages for years as ‘the goat’ of the famous Michigan-Chicago game,” as if a sports page was something separate from what they'd just put out.
The woeful headlines and dispatches back in 1905 had been almost identical in tone. It was like Clark had been picked to participate in a time-freezing experiment in which he became his worst public moment forever, and the papers were sworn to carry the test into perpetuity.
The bullet that ended Clark’s life was the sad finale to a twenty-seven-years haunting. It had come both from within and without, as hauntings always do. Within himself Clark was trapped in the loop of a fifteen-second nightmare. The sequence showed the gutsy play he had tried at a critical moment in the 1905 Western Championship against the University of Chicago, which failed in conspicuous fashion and led to a safety for the Maroons, the difference in a 2-0 defeat.
From without, a hard, cynical sporting press had branded Clark as a failure, rather than extending him the respect due a college athlete, and a young man, who had competed bravely at an elite level for the entertainment of crowds. His doomed effort in a monumental game became his identity, with the papers branding him as Denny Clark, the guy who blew the championship for Michigan, with a sense of cruelty that is hard to believe.
If success in life is the product of moving from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm, Clark had gone to the locker room that day a beaten man and never fully recovered.
In his youth, Clark had been something very fine. He came from good stock with traditions of leadership on both sides. His grandfather on his mother’s side, William Dennison, Jr., had been both governor of Ohio and postmaster general to Abraham Lincoln, organizing the nation’s mail as the Union Army battled four calamitous years to victory in the Civil War. The grandson Clark was passed down the name Dennison as a mark of distinction and family honor.
His father, Rufus Wheelwright Clark, was a reverend in the Episcopal church, and rector—the man in charge—at St. Paul’s Church in Detroit. Young Denny had been born and grew up in Detroit, eventually proving himself talented enough to play for the hometown Victors Valiant during one of the great runs in college football's long and storied history.
Clark was a heralded player and starter on Fielding Yost’s powerful “Point-a-Minute” Wolverine teams. He was a major contributor at multiple positions—one of Yost’s most versatile athletes—on three of the greatest squads to ever compete in the sport. These were the days—1903 through 1905 for Clark—when eleven iron men from each sideline occupied the field and met in the middle, attacking back and forth and up and down the gridiron for sixty minutes, bloodied, battered, and heroic at games end.
Lettermen at this time were the forward envoys of their university abroad, the gallant representatives of their student body, faculty, and their school’s competitive ethos on the field of battle. Their job was to bring home honor, glory, and, increasingly, loot, for the revelry and expenditure of the school's administration.
Clark had slugged honorably in the middle of the storm through three fall campaigns—scoring touchdowns, blocking kicks, and launching into cracking tackles—as the Wolverines pushed their unbeaten streak to fifty-six games—unbowed since Yost arrived in 1901 and tied only once. This romp included a blow-out victory at the first ever Rose Bowl Game in 1902, and four consecutive Western Conference and national championship crowns to end the season. After the loss at Chicago in o-five the Wolverines were 55-1-1 in their last fifty-seven games.
The Western championship game in which Clark believed fate had picked against him was a complete novelty, and the product of multiple ballooning forces in college football. It was the first Game of the Century, where the burgeoning entertainment elements attached to the sport created a feeling that life on earth was hanging in the balance. First there was the mock-epic newspaper and magazine hype, where the game and those playing in it were built up into more than they ever could be. That hype helped fuel the shark-infested scalper's market, in which limited seats at the wooden ballparks of the era sold for a pot of gold a piece. And in this case there was the special date for the game, a Thanksgiving Day showdown, and the bacchanalian campus and spectator atmospheres that came to life around it.
Just ten days before the game administrators at the University of Chicago said they were swamped by new requests for fifty-thousand tickets. At that point the game had been sold out for weeks. In the end they found a way to jam twenty-seven-thousand souls into the already outdated ballpark, which set the record until the new stadium was built almost a decade later.
Even the game’s heavy branding, the Championship of the West, which would make its winner the mythical national champion alongside the best team in the East, was newly invented. There was no such championship game, though the teams were playing, by coincidence, for first place in the so-called Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives—nicknamed the Western Conference—a first of its kind organization that would become the Big Ten just a few years down the road.
But everything beyond the football field was dreamed up and brought to life by the sporting press, where the hype sold newspapers and for the schools sold tickets and concessions, the revenue from which they were beginning to covet as a yearly rake, using the liquid wealth to fund their athletic teams and pay for building projects across their campuses.
But this particular matchup was, in fairness to the historical moment, an almost Platonic Ideal of a championship game. The Point-a-Minute Wolverines versus the Monsters of the Midway.
It was the young rogue Yost, the cocky and aggressive captain of a nascent football power out West. His teams were not just great, but spectacular, operating out of what should be seen as a proto-Blur Offense, a new kind of ultra-fast-moving machine that appeared impossible to jam up and slow down. By November of 1905 Yost was marching his squad into battle on the crest of a winning streak that went back four full seasons.
Dug in at Hyde Park and waiting for the fight were Amos Alonzo Stagg and his undefeated Maroons, the sport's number-one contenders, led by a coach described as both the Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison of football for his many innovations. Chicago was led by their All-American quarterback Walter Eckersall, a supremely talented athlete and lethal sprinter, who was regarded as the best individual player in America.
These universities had become ferocious rivals over the preceding four years, ending each season against each other in the atmosphere of a tournament game. Yost's teams had won the first four, but the Maroons had made the Wolverines several of their only real battles during the winning streak. The students at Chicago began judging the success of a season on the Michigan game that ended it.
The game in 1905 was played in epic conditions, in the frosty, overcast cold of a late November day, with snow flurries falling and blowing over the crowd packed into the teeming grandstands, the men and women stylish in their heavy overcoats and furs, covered with blankets and nipping from flasks to stay warm. While both teams had spent the autumn blasting their opponents from the field, it became apparent quickly they were evenly matched and coached. The contest settled into a thudding defensive exchange and field-position game, with Clark critically blocking a field goal to keep Chicago off the board, and scoreless at the end of the first half.
Chicago president William Rainey Harper, the man who'd made football under Stagg the publicity arm of his new university, had elaborate plans to watch the game from a residence hall window across the street—a kind of Wrigley Field set up seven-years before that ballpark was built. But Harper, who was dying of an aggressive cancer, realized on game day he was too sick to do even that. Instead of watching, he put his nurse on a telephone with a man at the stadium, ordering that man to appoint another man to watch the game and relay everything that happened. The first live radio broadcast of a college football game was sixteen years in the future and the president would not live to hear it.
At the half, with president Harper all wrought up with tension and further damaging his health, he dispatched the nurse to coach Stagg with an urgent, simple message: “You must win this game!”
Stagg knew it would take everything in the arsenal to get the victory, so he fired off the message at his team: ‘Your president is up there dying, boys,' Stagg said. 'But he's listening to every play and he needs you to win this one for him! Send him out with a victory!'
It was the first half-time Win One for the Gipper speech, presaged in the words of a dying school president twenty-three years before the more famous original.
The tight, even battle held fast in a scoreless tie deep into the second half, and that was where Clark, the cold-blooded competitor, took a daring risk to propel his team toward another championship. The Maroon’s Eckersall—who would be named a backfield starter on college football’s first All-Century Team in 1969—drove a punt hard and low and straight up the middle of the field, right between Clark and Michigan’s second return man.
Clark sprinted back after the ball, collecting it behind the goal line where, instead of taking a knee for a touchback, he chose to run it out. He had fought free of two Chicago players and cleared the end-line when first one, and then a second Maroon coverage player popped him, grabbed hold of his sweater and threw him back over the line into a heap.
The great irony is that by modern rules Michigan would have had the ball at the one-yard-line, where Clark’s forward progress was stopped. But in nineteen-ought-five a man was down where he hit the ground, and Clark had landed in the end zone. It was two-points for Chicago, who then chose to play defense and punt the rest of the way, bleeding out the clock and taking down the championship, in the process chopping the head off Michigan’s nearly five-year run. It would be the first of Stagg’s two national titles with the Maroons. The finality of it for Michigan must have been a shock, almost like a goal in sudden-death overtime. Just like that, it was over.
The celebrations around Chicago’s campus were spontaneous and immense. The Michigan contingent, including three-thousand souls who had made the trip from Ann Arbor, packed up for the railroad station and left Hyde Park in the midst of a rollicking celebration. More than twenty-five-hundred Chicago students and fans were parading through campus in the early dark of late autumn—with the orange glow of several bonfires throwing strange flickering light on the Gothic buildings across campus.
The boiling mass of humanity collected below the window of their stricken president and sung the alma mater for the man who loved football as much as they. The revelry would go on four days, with the official school rally held Monday night on campus, as Stagg fulfilled his destiny and his band of Maroons staked their flag on the summit of the sport.
But for Dennison Clark the long journey into night had just begun. In the immediate aftermath of the sudden end to Michigan’s glory, the newspapers in Chicago and Michigan took a clear position on the game. It had been a magnificent battle between two machine-like teams, and only a blundering human error—Clark’s—had made the difference.
The headline in the Detroit Free Press read: “Measly safety was the undoing of the Gladiators from the University of Michigan.”
The story went into more detail.
“It was the irony of fate that Michigan should finish her season with more points to her credit and less against her than any team in the country, and yet, on the two points that were made, she should lose the sectional title.”
“The smallness of the figures, and the fact that the defeat came through a mistake at a critical time, take none of the sting from the defeat . . . . The fact that the two points made could as easily as not have been avoided, adds to, rather than detracts from, the force of the blow.”
Other newspapers described Clark’s failed gambit as a “wretched blunder,” and a “lapse of brain work,” while the Chicago American quoted someone who had overheard Clark talking of suicide in the desolation immediately after the game. It was like Clark conceived of himself as a warrior living by a Bushido Code of Honor, and believed with all his soul he had permanently disgraced himself.
But Denny, as his teammates called him, rallied, and spoke two days later with the Free Press from his parent’s home in Detroit, with his father the reverend Rufus at his side. Under the headline, “Denny Clark Very Much Alive,” the young athlete denied being suicidal, but his words could not belie the fact the game and his play in it were becoming monstrous things inside his head.
“Of course I felt bad about losing the game at Chi. Anybody would. Why, great Scott, think of it. Michigan hasn’t lost a game in five years. But wait till next season,” he said.
“Everybody has been good to me, telling me it wasn’t my fault, and I haven’t any excuses to make. It was a mistake for me to run out with that ball and I shouldn’t have done it,” Clark told the reporter.
“I wish people would blame me. If they were only mad at me, because I lost the game, that would give me a chance to get mad, too, and I could relieve my feelings,” he said.
A second article abutting the first opened the wound again, stating explicitly that while Denny, and, preposterously, nobody else in a sixty-minutes scoreless performance from the most prolific offense in the sport, was to blame for the loss. But he ought not to be an object for wrath and anger from the Michigan community any longer. Instead, he was simply pitiful.
“Ann Arbor was disposed last night to criticize Denny Clark severely for his costly blunder Thursday, but now the pendulum has swing back and he is universally pitied,” the piece read.
And it continued.
“It was clearly he who lost the game and this fact cannot be forgotten, but the students are almost as sorry for Clark as for the loss of the western championship. When he returns to Ann Arbor he will be reproached by no one, and on the contrary will be universally greeted with a handshake and an admonition not to take the matter to heart”
Now ten days after the game, on ninth December, at a farewell pep rally for the team at University Hall in Ann Arbor, a crowd of thirty-five hundred-students, faculty, and dignitaries cheered Clark’s name three minutes when a speaker said he hoped Clark would score the first touchdown on Chicago next season. All then seemed to be in the past, but Clark, after finishing out that school year in Ann Arbor, transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his final year of college. He never played again for Yost and his Wolverines.
A little more than a decade after the game, in 1917 and 1918, Clark chose the most lethal occupation of World War I, serving as a captain while training to fly fighter planes in the United States Army Air Service. He was married during this time and had three children, two daughters and a son.
In 1925, now fully twenty years after the game, his old coach Fielding Yost published an article about a recent meeting he'd had with Clark. The coach wanted to learn about the life of his former player, what he had done since leaving Michigan, and what his plans were for the future, but Clark kept turning the conversation back to the big game on that cold Thanksgiving in 1905.
Yost, sounding personally hurt by the despair he witnessed in a well-loved former player, wrote that “only Dennis still feels the pain of it.”
Yost claimed that Clark had involved himself with Michigan alumni affairs out West and was well liked. It is intriguing to wonder how many of those encounters with old Michigan grads began with, “Clark, why aren’t you the fellow who . . . .?” before trailing awkwardly off. Or how many had the innocent temerity to flat out ask him, ‘What happened out there against Chicago, anyway, old boy?’
It is impossible to say how often others reminded Clark of his undeserved reputation, but what apparently became difficult for him was to recognize what character existed behind the reputation, and to remember which of the two truly mattered.
Clark became the Lord Jim of college football, haunted by a long ago mistake that anyone could have made. He had frozen himself in time at the moment he considered his fatal error of judgement. No one can know how often he thought back to that remorseless championship battle, and his growing belief he could not overcome it, but slowly he became estranged from his life and family, ending up on his own out on the West Coast, trying to get something going.
His father, who had sat by his side in the days after the game when young Denny told reporters he would return to fight another day, had died in nineteen-o-nine. His mother, whose father had served the great Lincoln and bequeathed to Denny his name, had passed in nineteen-hundred-and-twenty-eight.
Seven years after Yost wrote of his meeting with Clark, the former Wolverine's player, alone in a hotel room in Portland, extinguished his own flame with a bullet. Hotel staff told the snooping newspapers Clark had been drinking heavily in the preceding several months. Those same blood-thirsty papers, in publishing news of his suicide, unconscionably identified him as the one who had lost the championship to Chicago back in nineteen-o-five, twenty-seven years earlier, as if there had been nothing else.
In his hotel room Clark left a letter for his wife regarding his life insurance, and a suicide note. The skillful athlete who had been foremost on multiple great championship teams, the one who had bravely tried and failed to make something happen in the big game almost thirty years ago—the flyer of war birds during World War I—explained in his note it had not been cowardice that caused him to end his own life, but that it was the hardest thing he had ever done.
“I have tried everything else desperately and without success,” Clark wrote.
His final line was as simple and absurd as it was tragic. He hoped his “final play” on earth might atone for the error at Marshall Field in 1905. Only Denny still felt the pain of it.
Denny was not a natural, wrote Yost, but he became very good through long, hard, disciplined practice. He had been a versatile athlete who played both end and half-back for Yost’s great early teams.
“Those were the days when a man had to be good to play for Michigan and Clark fully qualified,” wrote Yost.
“When I think of Denny Clark I think of an intense, earnest young man, with a vivid, sparkling personality and deep-seated loyalties. His loss comes at a time when men with his qualities are at a premium.”