- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

By the afternoon of Dec.5, 1954, the Washington Redskins were inured to defeat. A 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns at Griffith Stadium that day dropped their record to 2-9 in a season in which they had been outscored by 242 points.

At least, some players might have reasoned, they hadn’t been destroyed as in an earlier 62-3 rout by the Browns. With only one game left, against the equally inept Chicago Cardinals, surely the worst was over.

Except it wasn’t.

About three hours later, two-way tackle Dave Sparks was having dinner at the home of a friend in Arlington when he complained of chest pains. Leaving the table, he took two Empirin tablets, went into the living room and sat down. Moments later, he complained of being unable to breathe, the Washington Evening Star reported, and fell to the floor.

His friend, Lt. Domenick Colella, called the Arlington Rescue Squad, but Sparks was dead when help arrived. His body was taken to Arlington Hospital, and an autopsy was scheduled for the next day.

Sparks was one of the first NFL players to die in the line of duty, a macabre list that grew when San Francisco 49ers lineman Thomas Herrion died after a game Aug.20. Since the death of Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer following a practice in 2001, many coaches have shortened practices, allowed more water breaks and taken other steps to protect their athletes. Yet every time a player dies — at any level — it serves as a reminder of just how brutal and potentially dangerous football can be.

Although Sparks was largely anonymous then and now — most books about the Redskins’ history don’t even mention him — he was one of the better players on one of the worst Redskins teams ever. He played most of the game against the Browns, recovering a Cleveland fumble on Washington’s 18-yard line in the fourth quarter to thwart a scoring threat. Escaping from a pileup on the play, he complained of a bruised hip but nothing else.

In the Redskins’ cramped locker room after the game, Sparks appeared and acted normal. As he dressed, coach Joe Kuharich came over, patted his head and said, “You did a good job for us out there today, Dave.” Then Sparks drove across the 14th Street Bridge into Northern Virginia and headed for Arlington.

If Sparks’ death was tragic, so was the manner in which his widowed father learned of it in his hometown of Lorain, Ohio. Walter Sparks, a 49-year-old construction engineer, had gathered with friends at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Brainerd to watch the game, which was televised back to the Cleveland area.

“Afterward we all started preparing dinner,” Mrs. Brainerd told The Washington Post. “Walter Winchell was on the TV, and we heard him say Dave had died. It didn’t sink in at first — Dave’s dad just sat there like he was stunned. Then he went all to pieces.”

Redskins general manager Dick McCann had tried to notify the player’s father before the news was made public but failed to reach him at home. And so Walter Sparks learned of his son’s death in the most shocking way imaginable.

Sparks, a star guard at South Carolina, played for the San Francisco 49ers in 1951 before serving two years in the Army at Fort Lee, Va. The 49ers cut him late in training camp, and the Redskins picked him up shortly before the start of the 1954 season. At 26 years of age and 238 pounds, he appeared in superb health when he ran onto the field to face the Browns in early December. But he wasn’t.

An autopsy conducted by Arlington County coroner Williamson Welborn revealed Sparks had suffered a minor heart seizure less than 24 hours before the game. Said Dr. Welborn: “If he had gone to a doctor, he would be alive today. The real tragedy is that the boy would have recovered completely in three or four months if the condition had been diagnosed.”

However, the doctor added, even an electrocardiogram taken 48 hours before the game might not have not shown a thing. “You just don’t expect a young man to have a heart condition like that,” he said.

Understandably, everyone connected with the Redskins was stunned by Sparks’ death.

“Dave was a football player of the real pro breed — reckless,” Kuharich said. “He gave it 100 percent at all times. After the game, he went over to [assistant coach] Mike Nixon and apologized for not playing better on defense. He was that kind of a boy.”

And how would the Redskins deal with the tragedy?

“We’ll just have to get ready for next week’s game,” Kuharich said. “I feel that’s the way Dave would have wanted it. He was all competitor.”

Kuharich said he reached Sparks’ father late Sunday night and tried to console him. “But he’s all alone, and he was looking forward to having Dave home for Christmas,” the coach said.

George Preston Marshall, the Redskins’ customarily bombastic owner, put it this way: “It’s a terrible thing. The loss of Sparks is a great loss to our team and next year’s team, too. The way it’s been explained to me, playing in the game had nothing to do with Sparks’ death. With the heart condition, he could have gone as suddenly whether he was playing or in bed.”

Marshall said Sparks already had agreed to terms on contract for 1955 “for a pretty good raise.” The owner added, “I talked to him after the game, and he said he was a little sore in the back but otherwise OK. [Team physician George] Resta examined him too and found nothing wrong. That’s why this is such a terrible shock.”

By all accounts, Sparks was one of the best-liked players on the team. When his funeral was held in Lorain four days after his death, six teammates served as pallbearers: his roommate, Bob Morgan; Nick Aducci; Vic Janowicz; Casimir “Slug” Witucki; Chet Ostrowski; and Dick Alban. Then, with many tears and many prayers, Dave Sparks was laid to rest long before his time.

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