Despite all the clichés–“that’s one for the books!”—sports history books are pretty rare, and don’t get read much. Even with a subject as popular as the Tennessee Vols, you could fit all the published pages about that team’s deep pre-TV-era history into one very slim volume.
Hence, today’s Vol fans might not know that a couple of young men have given their lives, or a big part of them, in service to the Big Orange.
I’ve seen only a couple of books that even mention the Vol martyrs. Hence, even if you’re a Vol fan, and an especially smart one, there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of Herbie Tade.
We’re hearing more and more about the dangers of America’s most popular contact sport, especially in the region of head injuries and brain damage. It’s something fans have tried hard not to think about, for more than a century.
A long time ago I wrote a story about Bennett Jared. Sports trivia champions know that name, that of the only Vol ever to die as a result of a football game. In 1915, during a Vanderbilt game at Nashville’s Dudley Field, the 20-year-old substitute halfback from Buffalo Valley, Tenn., found himself on the wrong side of a pileup. Everyone got up but Jared. He was paralyzed for life. He died at home, 21 months later. I don’t know whether he would have cared whether he would be remembered as the Vols’ first martyr.
But it turns out that he’s not the only one. Recently, looking for accounts of a vaudeville extravaganza at the Tennessee Theatre, I found one more name I’d never heard.
The 1935 season was one of the odd seasons when the head coach, Major Neyland, was called away for army duty. For years, there had been rumors of senators intervening, contacting President Roosevelt to be sure that Major Neyland, a West Point grad and career army officer, wouldn’t be assigned to some post far from Knoxville. In recent years, he’d been formally stationed in Nashville, while coaching the Vols with an incredible winning record. But in 1935, the Vols’ luck ran out. Neyland got orders to pick up and move to the U.S. base in Panama. Sportswriters called it “the Neyland Situation.” Taking over for him at Shields-Watkins Field was assistant coach Bill Britton.
It was obvious early on that 1935 wasn’t going to be a great year for the Vols. UNC beat them 38-13, the Vols’ worst drubbing since a run-in with Vandy 12 years earlier. Alabama beat them 25 to nothing. When they went to Lexington to play the Wildcats there on Thanksgiving Day, the Vols were 4-4, and trying to salvage a winning season off an off year. Word was that Major Neyland might be back for the 1936 season, and even Coach Britton likely greeted that rumor with hope.
In 1935, the Vols were more casual about Thanksgiving and also about Shields-Watkins Field. With the Vols away, their turf was going to be the battlefield for the high-school championship of Knoxville, before 10,000 fans, between the Knoxville High Trojans and the Central High Bobcats. It got almost as much pre-game attention as the Kentucky game.
Herbie Tade was a junior center from Paducah, playing his second year with the varsity squad. A dark-eyed, serious-looking kid with a big mop of dark hair, Tade could have passed for a young swing bandleader. He was, they said, “one of the best-liked boys on the Hill.” Today, students expect money from home. In Knoxville, Tade lived in Humes Hall and worked odd jobs to send some money back to Mom and Dad in Paducah.
He wasn’t very big for a center, 186 pounds, and though some described him as “tall,” he doesn’t look tall in team pictures. But his teammates talked about his “guts.” He’d been written off once before. In 1934, doctors told him he’d never play again, after a seriously broken shoulder bone. Through sheer grit, he got past that and rejoined his teammates.
He played both offense and defense, and was known as a “60-minute man.” Borrowing the Ida Cox blues term that referred to something altogether different, in football a 60-minute man was a player who was out there for every play of an entire game.
Tade didn’t always start that season, but he was due to start in the Kentucky game. He was popular with his teammates, who said he was the likely captain in the 1936 season.
Some sportswriters were predicting a close game at Lexington’s Stoll Field. Coach Britton was wary of Coach Chet Wynne’s Wildcats. Some Vols were out with injuries, including captain Toby Palmer–and the Blue and White was motivated. “Kentucky has been pointing for this game nearly all season,” he said. “Those Wildcats should be hard for us to handle.”
Britton’s fears were well-founded. Kentucky dominated the game. The Vols never scored, in fact never got past the Kentucky 28 yard line. Late in the fourth quarter, Kentucky led by three unanswered touchdowns and seemed on the verge of scoring a fourth. It was third down, goal to go on the two, and Tade, at center, faced a rush led by fullback “Suitcase” Simpson, who reportedly “hits the line like a stone crusher.”
“He wouldn’t stand for it,” a Knoxville sportswriter wrote that night. “The Wildcat ball-toter was stopped on the Tennessee six-inch line—by a mass of Vols.”
The goal-line stand left a pileup of exhausted players. They all got up except for Herbie Tade. A teammate asked him, “Did they knock the wind out of you?”
Remarkably, he responded. “No,” Tade said. “My head hurts.” It may have been one of his last full sentences. His teammates carried him off the field. Just as he reached the bench, Kentucky, on fourth down, scored its fourth touchdown. By that time, they said, Tade didn’t know what was going on.
Most of the 15,000 fans didn’t know how seriously hurt he was, but his coaches could tell it was very bad. They took him to Lexington’s Good Samaritan Hospital. There, doctors observed that Tade’s skull was fractured in front, just above his eyes.
Doctors didn’t offer much hope. They described a fractured skull with cerebral hemorrhage, plus spinal injuries.
They called Tade’s parents in Paducah–they hadn’t been able to make it to the game—and told them their son might not survive until dawn.
Word got out that Tade was unconscious on the operating table but “swinging his arms as if making tackles.”
The Knoxville Journal rarely ran big football headlines on the front page, but the next morning’s paper ran the big black banner headline, TADE NEAR DEATH; VOLS LOSE 27-0.
“Herbie Tade may die,” wrote a Journal reporter, “but that’s not among his delirious worries. He’s still playing football for Tennessee, and when he was helped off the field, Tennessee hadn’t lost.”
Back in Knoxville, where as Tade lay perhaps dying, Knoxvillians packed the Tennessee Theatre for a midnight show, the Oo-la-la Contintental, featuring 55 scantily clad beauties, including “40 French Models.”
A cadre of Knoxville’s wealthiest, including Charlie Lindsay, flour mogul J. Allen Smith’s son Powell, Robert S. Young, and Alfred Sanford, pledged their help. “Ascertain which doctors in the country can be of the best help in assuring Tade’s recovery,” they demanded, “and bring them to Lexington at the quickest possible moment. We’ll stand all expenses.”
Maybe one or more of them remembered another on-the-road loss, 20 years before. Tade’s fate seemed an alarming echo of the Bennett Jared story. Then, too, there was no astonishing feat, no individual collision that made fans cringe. Just one young man at the bottom of a pile who didn’t get up, and who never got up again.
Emergency surgery, with repeated spinal taps, saved Tade’s life, if not all of it. He spent some time in the UT infirmary, the “hospital” in Weston Fulton’s old house. (For the moment, that early 20th-century house still stands on Volunteer Boulevard, but despite several years of community pleas to save it, it’s soon to be demolished for the expansive new student center.)
Tade’s case evaporated from the sports pages, but in 1936 became an issue in political races. One politician in particular, Ernest Britton Cross, a state representative from Knox County, demanded that UT pay for Tade’s injuries. “If the university can pay $12,500 for a football coach, it can afford to take care of that boy,” Cross said. The figure he cited, considered exorbitant by many, was Neyland’s rumored salary. (Adjusted for inflation, it would be over $200,000, and many considered that an absurd salary for a college football coach.) Cross cited $50,000 as a likely compensation for a permanently injured player.
Back then, a university’s responsibility in that regard was unclear. Cross’s campaign on Tade’s behalf prompted editorial columns across the nation. Tade’s fate, and who would pay for it, became a subject of debate.
After seeing a specialist in New York, with no encouraging word, Tade ended up back home in Paducah, under his parents’ care. In Knoxville, his name disappeared from the press.
Tade was partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, unable to speak or reliably recognize friends. He died at the age of 56, of pneumonia, a hazard for paraplegics, a few days short of the 35th anniversary of his injury.
That update on his condition got only slight attention in Knoxville’s sports pages in 1970.
Tade’s death happened to coincide almost exactly with the death Zora Clevenger, the Vols’ first successful coach, who died that week at the age of almost 89, and dominated both dailies’ sports pages’ limited space for reminiscence. Also competing for space was the announcement of the Heisman Trophy, won that year by Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, who bested the Southern favorite, Archie Manning.
The brief final updates on Tade’s condition, 35 years after the heroic goal-line stand, offered little information on how the Vol hero’s long retirement, except that he could hardly speak, but had enough comprehension to follow the fortunes of the Tennessee Vols.
Today, it’s hard to find information about Herbie Tade. There’s no file on him at the library. It’s hard to find anyone who’s ever heard of him. He was one for the books, maybe. But nobody reads the books, and in fact, nobody writes them.