Bret Smith was built like a comic book hero.
He was smart, articulate, senior class president, team captain, a virtual Mr. Everything, according to his many loyal classmates.
So when the Westfield senior collapsed on a football field Sept. 28, 1975 and died three days later, it was almost unimaginable.
“He was great in everything,” said Tim Smith, the team’s quarterback, and no relation to Bret. “Truly if there was a person you couldn’t say something bad about, it was Bret.”
The boys had been teammates since midget football. Tim Smith went on to a military career, retiring from the Army in 2001 after 20 years of service.
Today he lives in Westfield where he and his neighbors eight miles down Main Street have been forced to deal with the death of another one of their young sons, Brocton junior Damon Janes, who died Sept. 16 after collapsing on the field in a game at Portville.
Smith and Janes are two of six players who have died of football-related injuries in Western New York high school football history. All six were running backs or fullbacks, although two died while playing defense.
Thousands of boys have played high school football since Jamestown, the oldest program in Western New York, fielded its first team in 1893. To lose one player in 120 seasons is too many, but their losses does not mean football is unsafe. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the odds of dying in a high school or college football game are 1 in 59 million.
For the WNY friends and family who’ve had to endure the heartache, it’s not just the loss of a life that is mourned, but a loss of potential.
“I remember that day like it happened yesterday, and I can see John as if he were standing right in front of us,” said Tom Hersey, who was the coach at Cardinal Dougherty when John Rittling died 48 years ago.
Here are the stories of the six players who lost their lives:
Bret Smith, Westfield (17 years old, 1975, brain aneurysm)
In the early minutes of the fourth quarter in a game against Gowanda, Smith reportedly ran from the playing field following a play on defense and collapsed as he neared the team bench. After being taken to Westfield Memorial Hospital, he was transferred to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Erie, Pa. where he was operated on to relieve pressure on his brain. He died four days later of a brain aneurysm.
“After the game we went to see him in the hospital and had no idea at that point he was basically dead,” said Tim Smith. “He was basically dead when he collapsed on the field.”
Smith’s father, Robert, who was a mailman in town, told the Dunkirk Evening Observer his son had been complaining of headaches, and thinks he may have been injured in Westfield’s 33-6 loss to Falconer on Sept. 19, 1975. Two Falconer players had hit the 175-pound fullback simultaneously.
While Westfield/Brocton cancelled the rest of its 2013 season out of respect for Janes, the Westfield team played on in 1975. The Wolverines returned to the field six days after Smith’s death, playing at Randolph on a Monday. Smith’s brother, Brian, took his place in the backfield. The game ended in a 0-0 tie as the teams combined for 12 fumbles. Westfield’s coach at the time, Mike Cluchey, told the Dunkirk Observer that having to play a Monday game after burying Smith on Saturday was “horrible,” and that the kids couldn’t handle it.
“You couldn’t stop thinking about it, you lacked focus in everything,” said Tim Smith. “We never thought about quitting the season, we played on, but it was hard to focus on anything, let alone football. I’ve made my peace with what happened. Over time you sort of remember him for what he was and what a great person he was.”
Mike Dwyer, Olean Walsh (17, 1977, head injury)
Joe Dwyer is an attorney in Olean. In all his years of practice, he searches for answers, fights for justice. But how does one make sense of losing a son on a football field in 1977?
Mike Dwyer was a 5-foot-5, 145-pound senior halfback who was fatally injured after he was hit hard, but routinely, by two players from Elk Center (Pa.) Christian High School after receiving a kickoff in a Saturday afternoon game at Olean’s Bradner Stadium.
After the play he walked to the Walsh huddle where he turned to teammate Brion Neary and reportedly said: “I don’t think I can make it.” And he fell to his knees.
Dwyer was taken to Olean General Hospital and was immediately transferred to Buffalo’s Meyer Memorial Hospital where he died the following Wednesday.
Coach Ed McGuire delivered the devastating news to his team.
“We were at practice Wednesday when we got the news, around 4:30 or 4:45,” the coach told the Olean Times Herald. “The first thing we did was pray. And then we talked to the squad, myself and the captains. The team is handling it very well. It’s strange, but yesterday, we felt like he was with the team, almost as if he was running with us. We felt his presence. Mike lives on in the squad.”
Teammates called Dwyer their “sparkplug.”
Olean Walsh played the remainder of their season with the blessing of Dwyer’s parents who said it’s what their son would have wanted.
An autopsy revealed he died of a subdural hemorrhage and cerebral contusion.
Harry C. Finnegan, South Park (16, 1926, broken back)
The death of the 16-year-old junior may have been a precursor to the construction of All High Stadium. An article published in the Courier-Express on Nov. 30, 1926 demanded the city provide “a suitable, proper and safe field upon which to play their games.”
Finnegan suffered a broken back in the fourth quarter of a game Nov. 20, 1926 against Canisius Prep. The game was played at Canisius Villa, home of Canisius College.
The Buffalo Evening News provided details of the tragic event. The Canisius prepsters had South Park backed up in the shadow of its own goal post. Finnegan was playing secondary defense behind the line of scrimmage. A Canisius halfback had broken through the South Park forward wall. Finnegan made a flying tackle at the oncoming runner. Onlookers said Finnegan’s head struck his right thigh. The collision felled the halfback and left Finnegan unconscious.
He was rushed to Sister’s Hospital where X-rays revealed he had fractured his vertebrae between the seventh and eighth rib. Doctors declared his recovery virtually impossible. He died the next day. South Park cancelled its final contest of the season against Masten.
The fallout from the tragedy was swift with calls coming to abolish city football.
City teams had been playing at Bison Stadium, a baseball diamond that was rented by the city from the Buffalo Baseball Club for Harvard Cup games. The field lacked proper drainage and conditions deteriorated quickly with the fall rains.
It wasn’t long before a proposal that the city construct a football, baseball and running games facility at the rear of Bennett High School. The proposed steel and concrete structure would accommodate 20,000 persons at an estimated cost of $300,000. Lewis J. Bennett had donated the land to the city to be used as a field for school sports. The building was built and received a Memorial Day dedication on May 29, 1929.
Norman Panzarella, Grover Cleveland (18, 1933, broken neck)
Grover Cleveland abandoned high school football following the death of Panzarella, who died one day after being found unconscious after an early-season practice played at The Front. It would have been the team’s first year of competition in the Harvard Cup series.
“I think that out of due respect for the memory of the boy, Grover Cleveland should do away with football for the rest of the season,” school principal Charles Kennedy told The Buffalo Evening News in an article published Oct. 5, 1933. “The entire school is grieved at the loss of one of its outstanding athletes.”
Panzarella was given first aid on the field and was rushed to Millard Fillmore Hospital where an X-ray revealed a broken neck. He was completely paralyzed below the chest and attendants entertained little hope for his recovery.
Panzarella was one of the school’s most popular athletes. As a member of the track team, he captured many honors on the cinder paths.
John D. Rittling, Cardinal Dougherty (17, 1965, broken neck)
Rittling’s teammates served as pallbearers after the 17-year-old fullback died of a broken neck two days after a scrimmage game at Nichols.
Rittling’s parents were at the scrimmage and his two brothers were on the team and saw the accident. Rittling had just caught a pass and was running after the catch when he was tackled by several Nichols players.
“He ran out for a pass in the flat. Not a very big kid came up, and as he turned, it was a helmet-to-helmet contact on the back of his head,” said Hersey, who at the time was a 23-year-old coach in his third season at Dougherty. “From the back there are really no muscles … so it snapped his neck. It couldn’t have been more devastating. The parents were unbelievable. They were very religious. They understand the whole thing and that the game was a game of contact. They knew it was a freak accident that happened. It couldn’t have been more devastating.”
At the end of the play Rittling complained that his neck hurt and he could not move his hands or fingers. He was taken to Kenmore Mercy where he later died. A spokesman for the school said Rittling was not hit that hard, but he was jarred by a helmet worn by one of the players.
A medical examiner said the 182-pound fullback suffered fractures and dislocations of two neck vertebrae. He was one of 12 children.
“Johnny was a very special person,” said Hersey. “He was a good-looking kid, bright, a good student, a big, strong kid, he would have gone on to play college football. If you had to pick an All-American boy, he would have been it.”
Damon Janes, Westfield/Brocton (16, 2013, cause not released)
A community continues to mourn the loss of Janes, who died three days after suffering a hit in a game against Portville on Sept. 13. An autopsy was done on Janes by the Erie County Coroners’s office to determine the cause of death. Because Janes was under 18, it’s up to his parents if they want to release the information.
Janet Reid is a 1976 Westfield graduate who lived through the death of her close friend and classmate Bret Smith. She has been among the many local volunteers who have offered to help and support the Janes family in any way possible.
“The one thing that the WACS Class of 1976 got as a gift out of Bret’s death was that it bonded us for life,” she said. “We have wonderful, well-attended reunions where Bret is almost always talked about. He, and other classmates that we’ve lost, are always included in our prayer before our dinner. I told some of Damon’s friends whom we met with – that as bad as this is – that is the ‘gift’ that he left them with and they would never forget him.”