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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

NY Jets #66 - Howard Glenn

Two years ago, I wrote about the late Ernie Barnes #55 - football player and artist - who played briefly for the New York Titans in 1960, a team that he referred to as a "circus of ineptitude." We all know that the Titans were the most ragtag of the new AFL teams. Many Titan players like Ernie Barnes, who had previously played in the NFL, were shocked at how poorly organized the team was. His most severe criticism of the team, however, was related to the death of his teammate and friend on the Titans, Howard Glenn #66, one of the very few players to die as a direct result of events within a specific football game. To read Howard Glenn's story is to know how expendable football players really were back then.

Howard Glenn #66
The photograph to the right is taken from Howard Glenn's last game, the week five away matchup at Jeppesen Stadium against the Houston Oilers on October 9, 1960. Hours later, he was dead.

The official cause was apparently a broken neck, however it's unclear as to whether or not the worst of the damage to his neck was sustained in Houston. The official report suggested that an injury he sustained the week before in Dallas against the Texans was the main cause of his eventual death. Perhaps a hit he took in the Oilers game was the fatal blow, but there are differing opinions among eyewitnesses as to when this hit actually occurred. Yet another player opens up questions of heatstroke.

The confusion itself is a product of many years that have passed since Howard Glenn died and of what little information can be gleaned out of the fledgling league's first year. But it's also obvious how little Howard Glenn's death meant to the business world of football and to the media of 1960. Just consider the magnitude of a player's death in the modern era. Instead, Ernie Barnes insists Howard Glenn died "a lonely death." For his family, it must have been devastating, while many of his teammates were left traumatized by it.  

***

Information on Howard Glenn is sparse. He came from the Pacific Northwest, then played high school football in Louisville, Kentucky and then played at Linfield College in Oregon. He played a season with the CFL Hamilton Tiger-Cats and then joined the Titans in 1960.

One of the things that drew Ernie Barnes to make friends with his teammate Howard Glenn was Glenn's interest in art and drawing. Barnes was already a practiced artist, and the two shared their work with one another; it was an uncommon mutual pursuit in a violent game. Titans defensive back Eddie Bell #25, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, came to know Howard Glenn as his roommate on the road in Dallas and in Houston, two cities where African-American players like Barnes, Glenn and himself were expected to lodge together, apart from their white teammates. Also, Don Maynard, one of the original Titans who played in Super Bowl III, insists that he knew Glenn when he practiced or perhaps even played for the Giants, as Maynard did, before going to the Titans. 

A little over two weeks before the Titans played the Oilers in Houston, Howard Glenn turned 26 years old. 

***

What exactly happened in the Oilers game, and when it happened, can sometimes seem unclear. One thing that several eyewitnesses mention about that day was the extreme heat. The temperature was somewhere in the 90's with terrible humidity. In his own description of the events that day, Ernie Barnes says that he was so covered in sweat that his pads kept slipping out of position.

In his 2010 article in the Houston Chronicle Jerome Solomon talked with Don Maynard about Howard Glenn's death. Maynard also mentions the pernicious heat that day. He also says that "toward the end of the game, Howard had been complaining about not feeling well." He recalls that a trainer told the him and other players that "too much heat and too much football were to blame" for Glenn's needing to be taken to the locker room. In his article, Solomon says that "Glenn was believed to be injured from a collision with two Oilers just before halftime, (and he) staggered off the field holding on to a teammate," yet Head Coach Sammy Baugh told him to go back in.

Todd Tobias also wrote about Glenn's death at the great Remember the AFL site. Tobias writes that as a guard, Glenn would fill in for players who were in need of a timeout or were injured. He was playing that day for Bob Mischack #67. Tobias says several players remember Glenn complaining of feeling poorly during the game, saying, "I don't think I'm going to make it." 

The question is when he actually began complaining. Tobias writes that Glenn was injured the week before, against the Texans, and was claiming to be in pain even before the Oilers game:

The week before, in Dallas, Glenn had suffered what was considered to be a minor injury that took more than the usual time to revive him.  The following week while practicing in Houston, Glenn had complained of headaches, but everyone figured that it had more to do with the Houston climate than anything else. Still, Glenn was ready to play against the Oilers on Sunday.  Back in these days, if you walked, you played.  No one complained about injury and medical attention was nearly non-existent.

What was the "minor injury" in Dallas? According to several accounts, this was the broken neck that apparently contributed to Glenn's death a week later. This is corroborated in William Ryczek's Crash of the Titans. Ryczek says that after the Dallas injury, and "throughout the next week, although not normally a complainer, (Glenn) was quiet and moody and spoke of frequent headaches." According to Ryczek, the Titans did not use x-rays for gametime injuries. The Dallas injury might have been interpreted at the time as a concussion, but Titans personnel, like many such teams in 1960, would likely have given little attention to it. 

Another note in Tobias' article comes from the now late Dr. James Nicholas, who was not yet the franchise physician. Nicholas says that Howard Glenn had a "history of heat exhaustion." Nicholas did not travel with the team to Houston that week, and he suggests in Tobias' article that he might have been able to prevent Glenn's death knowing what he knew about him.

Tobias also mentions a hit in the Oilers game that took Glenn out, but he says that it came in the third quarter, not just before halftime as both Solomon and Ryczek report. In Andy Piascik's oral history Gridiron Gauntlet: The Men Who Integrated Pro Football, Glenn's roommate Eddie Bell also affirms that Howard "suffered a head and neck injury during the (Oilers') game," but he doesn't say when. 

Ernie Barnes' painting "To Know Defeat"
The most vivid account of the game comes through Ernie Barnes in an article by Sandy Pawde, dated March 17, 1967 in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Barnes expresses regret at how, during the game, he and everyone around Glenn urged him to keep playing, to tough it out, even as Glenn kept saying, "I'm sick, I gotta go out." 

Strangely though, Barnes adds the detail that during the game Glenn was emitting a terrible odor from his mouth. "There were flecks of foam in the corners of his mouth, and there was the faint smell...almost like sewage." He says that the smell became so pervasive in the heat that it "made it cling all about us." 

Barnes does not mention the hit that took Glenn out of the game, though he saw Glenn back again in the locker room after the game. Though he does not mention it, according to Ryczek in Crash of the Titans, Glenn also behaved erratically, even belligerently toward everyone in the locker room. Regardless, both mention what happened next. Barnes says Glenn became barely conscious, sitting in a metal chair

"We backed away, looking at his body twitch. He was straining to breathe and that odor was still with him. He still clutched the towel to his chest. 'Why in hell don't you get a doctor to him?' (Art) Powell shouted at the trainer."

Barnes says that Glenn coughed up a "smelly, yellow-green mucus" and was then taken away to a Houston hospital, where he was eventually pronounced dead. At the end of the article, Barnes says the official pronouncement from the hospital that it was "a broken neck suffered in the game with Dallas the week before," but he questions this. In his online biography Barnes insists that he and several of his teammates believed Howard Glenn simply died of heatstroke. 

Again, an Internet-trolling layman can see that Glenn's symptoms also resemble those of heatstroke, but the mystery of the smell surrounding Glenn throughout the game and his condition in the locker room afterwards raises other questions that one can only be answered by actually taking a look at the postmortem report performed on him in Houston. According to Ryczek, the examining physician in Houston said that, despite Glenn's complaints the week leading up to the Houston game, the symptoms of his severe injury were not instantaneous. However, Glenn's neck fracture had gradually cut through his spinal column.

***

Howard Glenn's death haunted Ernie Barnes and his fellow players, particularly his African-American teammates on the club, who found out about the news just after boarding their plane back to New York. Barnes said, "The news shook my heart. He was dead. I felt nervous tremors racing up my spine and tears streaming down my face. Next to me, Art (Powell) covered his face in his hands and turned his head toward the window."

According to Ryczek, the Titans took measures for safety in the wake the tragedy that would today seem rudimentary. X-rays were to be available for every game. Dr. Nicholas was engaged as the permanent physician. But it's clear that Glenn's death was absolutely preventable, even by the standards of the time.

The death of Howard Glenn embittered Ernie Barnes toward the Titans of New York and, increasingly, toward the game of football. Barnes asked to be released from the team two days after Houston. He went on to play in the 60's for San Diego, Denver, and in Canada, and then went on to a very successful career as an artist.


In Ernie Barnes' own obituary in the Los Angeles Times, it's said that Barnes believed that art had the capacity to educate. As an artist, he would return to images of football in his painting again and again, often depicting it as a murderous exercise, as it is in the above work which is also found on the cover of his published collection, Pads to Palette. The players are gladiators who punish one another as a hapless referee and a distant audience of spectators both look on in what looks like a Roman arena.

I was pleased to see that only a few months ago on the Jets' web site fan forum, several fans also mentioned Howard Glenn's death and suggested that the Jets should put him in the Ring of Honor. The Vikings retired Korey Stringer's number when he died in training camp from heatstroke in 2001. The Chiefs retired Stone Johnson's number after he fractured his vertebrae in a preseason game and died 10 days later in 1963. They did the same for Mack Lee Hill, who died from an embolism in the midst of surgery to repair a ligament he damaged in a 1965 game. I don't necessarily see the Jets agreeing to that, but at the very least, Howard Glenn's place in the Ring of Honor would be a reminder that this team has a larger legacy that needs to be commemorated, player by player. 

So I agree with the forum's suggestion. By putting Glenn in the Ring of Honor, the Jets organization would also play some part in acknowledging the enormous risks players endured back in the early days of the AFL, when men took the field for practically nothing, went largely unprotected, and played in near-empty stadiums to little acclaim. Those players are the foundation for multi-billion dollar industry and a modern sport that this country has now adopted as its own.

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