The Ohio State Football Program Was Nearly Shut Down When a Buckeyes Player Tragically Died From Injuries Sustained in a Game

The Ohio State Buckeyes have long been one of the premier college football programs in the country. Boasting eight national titles (which could be nine if they can beat the Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday night), Ohio State has a long history of success and has produced some of the greatest players the college game has ever seen, some of which have gone on to Hall of Fame careers in the NFL.

Now just think what the college football world would look like if the Ohio State Buckeyes weren’t a part of it. We know the Michigan Wolverines would like it, that’s for sure. But in all seriousness, there was a time more than a century ago that the Ohio State football program was nearly shut down when defensive star Jon Sigrist died from injuries sustained in a game just a few days prior.

The 1901 Ohio State Buckeyes were the first team to generate a profit for the university

The Ohio State Buckeyes football program began in 1890 but it took some time for the team to gather support and it wasn’t until 1901 that the program actually generated a profit for the athletic department, which was struggling in general.

The Buckeyes were coming off their two best seasons in the young history of the program (9-0-1 in 1899, 8-1-1 in 1900) and got off to another hot start in 1901. After battling Otterbein to a 0-0 tie to open the ’01 campaign, Ohio State reeled off three consecutive shutout victories heading into their fifth game of the year, an in-state battle with Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve University) in Columbus on October 26.

Buckeyes defensive star John Sigrist died just days after breaking his neck during the game against Western Reserve

John Sigrist was one of the defensive stars for the Ohio State Buckeyes on that 1901 squad and was part of a solid defensive line that also included his younger brother, Charles. Just think if the Bosa brothers had actually played together — that was the Sigrist brothers.

In what was quite the defensive battle, Western Reserve rushed up the middle for a two-yard gain early in the second half and John Sigrist was determined to not let that happen again. On the very next snap, Sigrist lowered his head more than usual as he came off the line and ran his head right into a Western offensive lineman.

A pileup ensued but when the dust settled, Sigrist remained on the ground with fractured vertebrae in which bone had crushed his spinal cord. He was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital and while Ohio State won the game, 6-5, the Buckeyes’ focus was on their fallen star.

Two days later, on October 28, 1901, John Sigrist died from his injuries. The ensuing autopsy report said that “from the moment of the accident the young man was doomed.” To this day, he’s the only Ohio State Buckeyes football player in history to pass away due to injuries sustained in a game.

Ohio State contemplated shutting down the football program following Sigrist’s death

Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State Buckeyes football helmets | Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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In the days that followed Sigrist’s injury and subsequent death, there were calls to completely abolish the Ohio State Buckeyes football program. John Sigrist certainly wasn’t the first college football player to die from an injury on the field and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. So it wasn’t just the Ohio State program that came under fire that week but the sport of football itself.

Then-OSU President William Oxley Thompson had already canceled the Buckeyes’ next game against Ohio Wesleyan and he and the Athletic Board had to seriously contemplate shutting down the remainder of the season. But not only that, there were talks of abolishing the football program altogether and an even more drastic measure was considered in which the entire athletic department would be shut down.

In the end, however, the Athletic Board left the decision to the Ohio State players themselves. And the one that led the charge to continue playing was none other than Charles Sigrist, who gave a passionate speech to his teammates saying that the best way to honor his older brother was to play on, which is just what the Buckeyes did and have continued to do ever since.