I’m willing to bet that very few reading this have ever heard of Robert Layfield. There are no buildings named for him and no monument to his accomplishments. He wasn’t wealthy, he made no mark in academia, and he died at the age of eighteen, during his freshman year at Johns Hopkins. But he holds a sad distinction that no other student would wish to claim. Robert Layfield remains the only Hopkins athlete to die as a result of injuries sustained during competition.

On Saturday, October 31, 1914, the Johns Hopkins football team was playing Lehigh, in Bethlehem, PA. It was the fourth game of the season and Hopkins was 2-1. Although a freshman, Layfield was in the starting lineup, a 125-pound quarterback. In those days, players worked both sides of the ball, and Layfield was no exception. Lehigh had the ball, driving toward the Hopkins goal, and the Lehigh halfback had just one man to beat. With a flying tackle, Layfield brought down his opponent short of the goal line, but landed beneath him. The Lehigh player, considerably larger than the defender, got up quickly. Layfield did not. He lay on the field, paralyzed, and was taken to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with major spinal injuries. Placed in a full-body cast and transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital, physicians debated what to do next.

Upon hearing that his teammates wanted to cancel the remainder of the season, Layfield urged them to keep playing, in a scene that could have come from Knute Rockne All-American. While his teammates played out the season, they had little enthusiasm and finished with two wins, five losses, and a tie. Layfield stayed in contact with the team and assured everyone that he would not only recover, but would play again. His injury was too severe, however, and in January 1915 Hopkins surgeons performed a “last resort” operation, without success. He died on March 2, 1915, at home in Wilmington, Delaware. His funeral was attended by presidents Henry Drinker of Lehigh, Frank Goodnow of Hopkins, and many of his fellow students and athletes.

The 1915 Hullabaloo contains a four-page tribute to Layfield, remarkable because yearbooks focused on seniors, not freshmen. His classmates and the university vowed to create a memorial, but this was delayed since the university was moving to the new Homewood Campus. In March 1917, in front of Gilman Hall, two flagpoles were erected, flanking the main entrance, bearing plaques from the administration and students. For unknown reasons, these poles were cut off in the late 1930s, leaving two six-foot “stumps.” In 2008, a major renovation of Gilman Hall began, and the memorial was removed entirely.

If you follow Hopkins sports, when Coach Margraff leads the team on the field for the 2013 football season, take a moment and remember young Mr. Layfield. You won’t find his name in any record book, but no player gave more of himself to the game.


4 thoughts on “Robert Layfield, 1897-1915

  1. Greetings! I am the sister of Robert L Smith II, and great niece of Robert Layfield. I was named for Robert Layfield’s sister, Martha Layfield (Smith)(Winder). I have researched the plight of my Great Uncle for a few years and have great interest in info and stories regarding him. In fact, I began a dialogue with Mr Stimpert and with The Friend’s School to this regards over 5 years ago while collecting information. Could I please have a contact email of Carol Seiken? I would be very appreciative! I am anxious to continue to preserve my great Uncle’s story. (MarthaWilson@USA.com)

  2. Dear Mr. Smith:

    I have been alerted to your response to my blog post concerning your great uncle. I’m sure you are aware by now that an article is forthcoming in the Wilmington newspaper as the centennial of his tragic injury comes around. I just spoke to the reporter a little while ago who is writing the story, and I’m looking forward to seeing it; he said he would send me a link.

    From 1917 until sometime in the 1930s, two tall flagpoles in front of Gilman Hall served as a memorial to Robert Layfield. For reasons now unknown, those flagpoles were cut off and the stumps remained as a memorial, with a small plaque on each one. One plaque was from his fellow students and the other from the administration, is my understanding. In 2008, when they began gutting Gilman Hall for a major rebuilding, the stumps were removed and apparently discarded. The plaques were preserved and one has just recently been placed on a new flagpole adjacent to Homewood Field.

    If you would be interested in the four-page article on Layfield from the 1915 Hullabaloo (our yearbook), I’d be happy to send you a PDF or a paper copy if that would be preferable. As I said in the blog post, Layfield remains the only Hopkins athlete to die as a result of injuries suffered during competition, in any sport. This incident came to my attention a few years ago and it has continued to be a source of interest for me. A sad distinction, certainly. If I can be of any assistance, please let me know. Best wishes.

    James Stimpert
    Senior Reference Archivist
    Special Collections
    Sheridan Libraries
    Johns Hopkins University

    Mail: MSE Library
    3400 North Charles Street
    Baltimore MD 21218
    Phone: 410-516-8323 | Fax: 410-516-7202

  3. Very interesting information on my Great Uncle. I would like to learn more and find the two flagpole bases. Robert Layfield Smith II

  4. THANK YOU JIM FOR THIS BLOG POST!! I AM THRILLED TO KNOW THAT MY EFFORTS HAVE NOT GONE UNNOTICED….IN FACT THERE WILL BE A NEWS ARTICLE COMING OUT IN WILMINGTON, ROBERT’S HOME TOWN, FOR THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS INJURY. THIS STORY IS JUST GETTING STARTED, AND OUR HERO IS ABOUT TO BE KNOWN TO MANY MORE PEOPLE A CENTURY AFTER HE MADE THE GREATEST SACRIFICE A FRESHMAN FOOTBALL PLAYER HAS EVER MADE!

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