NEW YORK—College football in the early 1900s was a different game without much competition from the National Football League. College football was king and Ivy League schools such as Yale, Harvard, and Cornell, dominated. Fordham University, located in the Bronx, was also a powerhouse.
Football was not the modern game played now, but a primitive, often violent version. Leather helmets and thin padding were all that protected the young men from each other’s wrath. Serious injury was not uncommon and every year football claimed the lives of the players who entertained the masses.
The 1931 season was one of the deadliest on record, with 22 football-related deaths, 7 of which were at the college level, according to an archived New York Times article.
On Nov. 21, 1931, the Fordham Rams put their undefeated record on the line, taking on Bucknell at the Polo Grounds in the Bronx.
The Rams lost the thrilling 14-13 game when a last-minute kick was blocked. In addition to losing the game, three Fordham players were carted off the field—Paul Howell, John Szymanski, and Cornelius “Connie” Murphy. Szymanski, who had come in to relieve Murphy after his injury, left the field unconscious.
Szymanski was the one that people were worried about and Murphy seemed to recover fine. But on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1931, a blood vessel suddenly ruptured at the base of Murphy’s brain and he passed away. The death sent shockwaves through the campus and changed generations in the Murphy family forever.
Kerry Cornelius Murphy, the great nephew of Connie Murphy, was not alive when his great uncle passed, but speaks about it with fresh sorrow.
“It turns out the person they thought wasn’t going to make it made a good recovery and my (great) uncle ended up dying,” said Kerry Murphy. “It was very devastating to the family because he was the first one to make it beyond the blue collar life.”
A Dec. 10, 1931, news clipping from “The Ram,” Fordham’s weekly newspaper, described a solemn tribute mass for Connie that included many students and even football players from nearby New York University, Columbia University, and Manhattan College.
Connie was the first in his family to go to college and was hugely popular on campus, excelling athletically and academically.
“Fordham honors Connie, not for his football fame. For such glory is transient and each year’s star is lost to memory in the brilliance of the following season’s favorite. It is the gentleman, gallant, courageous, clean, that brings to his acquaintances, a sense of loss, to his intimates, a deep-rooted grief,” student Francis J. Bauer wrote in The Ram, which was later reprinted in the Fordham Alumni Magazine.
Gone but not Forgotten
Kerry Murphy never met his great uncle Connie, but his memory has been passed down. A plaque given to his family by Fordham University honoring Connie hung in the house he grew up in and now sits over Kerry’s fireplace.
In early April, Kerry, who had never visited Fordham, made a trip to New York with his mother Patricia, and met up with Fordham Sports Information Director Joe DiBari for a tour. In addition to seeing the historic campus buildings such as King Hall and Edward Hall, DiBari showed the Murphys where Connie had practiced and Rose Hill Gym where he likely had a locker.
The highlight of the trip for Kerry was seeing Murphy Field and the memorial bust of his great uncle, which was dedicated before the 1932 season.
“Fordham has not forgotten about him. It sort of warms your heart a little bit,” Kerry Murphy said.
DiBari said recent renovations have made the bust more prominent, “It was perfect timing for him to come now because they cleaned it all up and really did a great job making the bust stand out. Before, it was there, but it wasn’t as obvious as it is now. As soon as you come in the gate it is there.”
With no children of his own to pass on Connie’s story, Kerry is hopefully a new generation of students at Fordham will not forget.
“You want to try and keep the spirit of the person alive, and Fordham has done a great job of that. It is nice,” said Kerry.