2013/09/05

John Bernard Christian Eckstorm (1899-1901)


Prior to 1899, Ohio State had enjoyed just one winning season in their nine years of playing collegiate football. That was about to change, however, with the hiring of former Dartmouth captain, "Jack" Eckstorm. Coach Eckstorm would quickly become the first Ohio State coach adored by fans, alumni, and the residents of Columbus, despite coaching at the school only three seasons.

On October 22, 1873, John Bernard Christian Eckstorm and his fraternal twin Paul Frederick were born in Madelia, Minnesota. The family would migrate to Chicago very early in their lives, and a few years later, John B.C. Eckstorm would star on the Lake View High School football squad.

John, often referred to as Jack, went on to Dartmouth College and captained the football team and was honorable mention for Walter Camp's All-American team in 1897. Following his graduation, Eckstorm made his way to Ohio to coach Kenyon College, an Episcopal school in Gambier, Ohio. It was during that season he caught the eye of Ohio State officials by leading his squad to a 4-3 record against a brutal schedule, but more noticeably, a 29-0 triumph over the Buckeyes.

Ohio State came calling after the 1898 season and they believed they finally found stability with Eckstorm's hiring at the head coaching position.

It didn't take long for Coach Eckstorm to make his mark in the state's capital. His squad won their first two games by a combined 58-0 score. After tying Case, 5-5, the Buckeyes would win the remaining seven games by a combined 121-0. It would be the first undefeated season at 9-0-1 and the first championship of the Ohio colleges in Ohio State history. The team recorded nine shutouts during his first season, a record that still stands today and will be difficult to duplicate.

The enthusiasm for Ohio State football reached heights never seen before in 1899. Following the season, Coach Eckstorm became the first coach in OSU history to sign a multi-year contract when he was signed through the 1901 season.

The 1900 season started off much like the previous year as the Buckeyes won their first six games by a combined 160-0 margin. OSU moved to 7-0 with a 24-10 win over Case, but would soon taste defeat for the first time in the Jack Eckstorm era. Ohio Medical, now a part of the Ohio State University, came away with an 11-6 win over the Buckeyes the following Saturday. Ohio State would rebound from their loss to finish 8-1-1 including a 0-0 tie with Michigan, a rarity in the early years of the greatest rivalry in college football.

The Michigan Wolverines owned the first 15 games in the series, tying two games and winning 13 including an 86-0 victory over Perry Hale's Buckeyes in 1902. Ohio State wouldn't defeat the Wolverines for the first time until Chic Harley led them to a victory nearly two decades later in 1919.

The 1901 season kicked off with a scoreless tie against Otterbein College. OSU would shutout Wittenberg, Ohio, and Marietta in succession, before Western Reserve came to town. The Buckeyes won 6-5, but it came at a heavy price and nearly led to Ohio State scrapping football at the school.

In the second half with Ohio State on defense, the two teams collided in what appeared more like a rugby scrum. The bodies stacked up with senior nose guard John Sigrist at the bottom of the pile. The Columbus Citizen described the horrific scene in one simple sentence: "John Sigrist failed to rise from the ground."

Sigrist was carried off the field and rushed to Grant Hospital. He suffered a fractured vertebrae and a crushed spinal cord, leading to partial paralysis. Surgery was discussed and there was some optimism for a full recovery, but 48 hours later, John Sigrist passed away at the young age of 27.

To this day, he remains the only Ohio State football player to die from injuries sustained during a game.

The following week's game with Ohio Wesleyan was immediately cancelled and talk of the sport being inhumane quickly put the future of football at Ohio State in question. It very well may have, if not for Charles F. Sigrist, the younger brother of the deceased, whose voice was loud in favor of the sport.

On November 4, Professor N. W. Lord offered a resolution to cancel the remainder of the season, but it was defeated by a vote among the Athletic Association and members of the football team, 18 to 8.

Ohio State resumed their schedule on November 9th, but emotionally it proved difficult. They'd lose their next three games to Michigan, Oberlin, and Indiana, respectively. They'd close the season with an 11-6 victory over Kenyon on Thanksgiving Day.

Following the season, Coach Eckstorm stunned the OSU Athletic Association, students, and rooters by resigning from his post to go coach at Ohio Medical University.

Although he was called the father of modern Ohio State football for the job he did there in those three seasons, many early football loyalists remembered him for the job he did for the Medics in 1902. That OMU eleven was dubbed the "strongest team that ever represented any college in Ohio." They had just one setback on the season, a hotly contested 6-5 loss to Notre Dame.

The first ever night game in Columbus was played during that season as the Medics pounded Ohio Wesleyan, 43-0. The game was played at Neil Park and the teams used a white ball so it was easier to see.

After graduating from OMU in 1903, Eckstorm would be lured back to Kenyon for two seasons before finishing out his coaching career back in Columbus for Medical.

Eckstorm was revered everywhere he coached because of the genuine care he had for his players and the job he did in turning them into winners. His life after football would prove to be just as accomplished, if not more, than his days on the gridiron-- and that is saying a lot.

He'd spend the next 30 years divided between sports, his private practice, and the military. Growing up in the rough part of Chicago, "Jack" found an appreciation for rough contact sports. Naturally, he found a fit as the physician for the Columbus Wrestling and Boxing Commission in 1926. He wouldn't miss a match in 30 years and entertained those around him as he squirmed with every move made by those on the mat or in the ring.

The military was also a huge part of his life. Dr. Eckstorm enlisted into the service on August 6, 1906. He was promoted multiple times including to a Major surgeon in 1916. A little more than a year later, he would be deployed to France where he'd serve in World War I from 1917 to 1919 with the 37th Division.

He'd remain as a Major in the Ohio National Guard until retirement in 1937, but not before another life-changing experience. On the night of April 21, 1930, a horrific fire broke out at the overcrowded Ohio State Penitentiary. Originally built to hold 1,500 inmates, 4,300 were living in the state pen at the time. The roof collapsed on the upper cells and approximately 160 prisoners burned to death.

Dr. Eckstorm and the Ohio National Guard's 166th Infantry were called to the scene to provide aid to the hundreds that were seriously injured. He spent the next 41 days in the prison, working night and day until he nearly collapsed. It was this moment where he'd find his next calling following his retirement from the service.

"When I first saw the terrible conditions under which those men suffered, my heart ached for them," he later recalled.

In 1940, Dr. Eckstorm became the Chief Medical Officer behind the walls of the state pen. He would accomplish a lot in the next nine years in that position.

He helped add a modern 150-bed hospital, equipped with a surgical center, X-ray clinic, and optical and dental departments as well. He put out ads for people to send in their broken eye glasses so they could be repaired for inmates who could not see. National attention was brought to the pen after he established the world "eye bank." More than any of those technological or medical advances though, the inmates, his "boys", found friendship and value from Dr. Eckstorm.

The following was an excerpt taken from a letter written by the inmates to Dr. Eckstorm upon his retirement at the pen:

"Somwhere along the long, hard road of life we sometimes meet a guy who strikes us as being a solid citizen-- a real guy-- every pore of him-- a guy who has always gone out of his way for his friends-- and the ones who are not all bad, but have erred in their journey along that same road. We have realized you are that kind of a guy, Doc."

Although automatic retirment age forced him to retire from the pen, he'd continue private practice until his health failed in 1961. He lived three more years before passing away at his daughter's house in Marysville, Ohio, on October 28, 1964. Ironically, it was 63 years to the day after his former player, John Sigrist, passed away from his football injuries.

Eckstorm lived six days past his 91st birthday and took advantage of every single day. Dr. John B. C. Eckstorm accomplished a lot in 91 years and made a positive impact on so many lives. He was beloved by anyone that came in contact with him.

An article that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch a couple days after his passing described Dr. John B. C. Eckstorm so accurately:

"Many may not realize that doctor means a teacher. Such was Dr. Eckstorm, for he taught others all his life from football players to convicts who could not read or write. He was my idea of a real Good Samaritan."

It's quite evident that Dr. John B. C. Eckstorm was much more than "the father of modern football at Ohio State."

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