The summers get hot in Southern Illinois. Its nickname is Little Egypt for a reason. Throughout its history residents of the region have said they’ve come close to almost being ‘burned off the map’. Temperatures have been recorded as high as 115 degrees, with consecutive weeks throughout June, July, and August soaring over the century mark.
The mercury regularly reaches 90 as late in the year as September, when the holidays are over, schools start to return, and the American psyche returns to its first love: Football.
It was a day like this on September 9, 1924 in Marion, Illinois, that 27 year-old Sidney ‘Sunshine’ Gepford, the former professional gridiron star and freshly minted Athletic Director of Marion High, locked the door to his room and shot himself with the school’s starting pistol.
Despite placing the bullet below his ear, he’d marked his chest with a target, circling his heart and drawing two long lines across the center. He’d also laid out five sealed letters, addressed in turn to a fraternity brother; a collegiate football teammate; a former high school sweetheart; his sister, and finally, his mother. A sixth letter lay open on the dresser. It was noted as being ‘penned hurriedly on scratch paper’ and addressed to another former teammate, Chester Cox. Chester, or Chet, had played with Gepford at Millikin University and now ran the hardware store in Marion.
They’d seen each other that morning, when Sid, on his way back from the school to his boarding house, had stopped by to purchase the very bullets he used to kill himself. Chet described him as being in ‘good spirits’, as he often was. His letter read:
Please mail these letters if this is successful and I think it will be. Give my athletic notes to Mr. Brown [the assistant coach at Marion].
The athletic teams under Mr. Brown will be successful the rest of the year. I had a mighty fine bunch of boys and liked them all. Everyone in Marion has been very kind to me.
History worries me to death, and Chet, this seems to be the only solution.
Death was underlined, and as a result, the newspapers that carried the story over the next few days pointed to the overwhelming pressure of teaching and coaching as the cause of his suicide.
But his family and friends, who were all said to be ‘mystified’, didn’t agree.
On Saturday, October 20, 1923, West Virginia’s Bethany College traveled to Irwin Field to play Butler College of Indiana. The two teams were powerhouses in their conferences, and seats were in high demand. Tickets went between a buck in the back of the stands and $2.50 for those reserved at center-field. Over 12,000 were sold, proof, were it needed, that football was big business.
On the day itself, a further 3,000 turned up to the game. Non-paying fans took to campus rooftops, light poles, and other vantage points, no matter how impractical, just to get the chance to see these collegiate stars duke it out. Neither college had strict rules on eligibility, both offering food, board, and degrees to those with professional caps.
One of those former pros was lining up for Bethany. Sidney Gepford, the diminutive quarterback now in his fifth season of college football. Gepford had started his career at Millikin University in 1916, a part of the ‘Little Nineteen’ Illinois colleges, before they ousted him three years later for turning out for the Decatur Staleys, the semi-professional precursor to the Chicago Bears. He joined Bethany a year later and by 1923 was playing his final season for the Bison, where he was a two-sport star.
Because, despite his professional football turn, Sid’s real talent was basketball. He had captained and run point for every team he’d played for, and was named All-Conference multiple times. Crucially, on the court, he never missed a game. The same couldn’t be said for football, where his diminutive size, he was listed at 5’6” and a generous 150lbs, led to regular injuries. But Gepford was a fierce competitor and a sporting obsessive, so he was determined to make himself available every fall, regardless of the risk.
On the gridiron, his flair made up for his size. His prowess with the still-nascent forward pass made him a trick play specialist and fan favorite, he took his passing and handling skills from the paint to the field with ease and was an early example of a gadget player with a knack for the big play. And Bethany would certainly need Gepford’s speed and skill against Butler. It hadn’t rained for weeks, and the ‘hard and dry gridiron’ was set to favor the lighter Butler team vs the heavyweights of Bethany.
For the first three quarters, neither team scored. But the tens of thousands who were spilling out of the sides of Irwin Field weren’t too disappointed as the tired teams exchanged heavyweight blows of suffocating defense throughout. Then, late in the third quarter, things changed. Gepford, playing both ways as a defensive back on defense, as all players did in that era, collided with a teammate trying to prevent a long touchdown. His knee slammed into the base of Sid’s skull, knocking him unconscious and sending him to the sun-hardened turf. But he was helped to his feet, and although ‘barely conscious’, continued on throughout the quarter, where he was knocked out at least once more.
The recap described the Bethany team as ‘tired’ and in ‘poor physical condition’, having to take multiple time outs throughout the half. They eventually lost the game, with Butler scoring two touchdowns, a PAT and a field goal in the fourth quarter to win 16-0. This would prove to be Sidney Gepford’s last ever football game. As his mother recounted:
‘Last fall, in one of the great football games played between Bethany College and Butler College of Indianapolis, in the presence of more than 12,000 people, one of the closest games that had been played during that season, in making a hard tackle, Sidney Gepford and one of his own team accidentally ran together and Sidney sustained a severe and lasting injury to the base of his brain.’
The Bethany yearbook later said of the event:
‘The game that "Gep" played at Butler this year may be taken as an example of his grit and spirit on the gridiron. He was knocked out twice but still, he played for all that was in him to the finish of the game. "Sid" possesses in full measure those qualities necessary to a successful quarterback - a thorough knowledge of the game and an ability to direct.’
But his grit and spirit didn’t save him. Six months after those words were published Gepford shot himself. His family directly made the connection in his obituary:
‘He complained many times of the pains that he suffered on that account, and his mind at times was greatly disturbed on account of that injury. The mental collapse caused by the injury no doubt was the producing cause of his death. The injury brought disorder to the mind, and this condition produced death.’
It’s not unusual for loved ones to say that an act of suicide is out of character. Mental illness is invisible. It’s impossible to imagine, and the distancing of the act from the person assuages the guilt that signs might have been ignored, that calls for help were unanswered. But, here are just a selection of the adjectives used by teammates throughout the years to describe Sid: ‘Good-natured’, ‘heart-throbbing good’, ‘carefree’, ‘wistful’, ‘happy’. One friend called him the ‘hero that all the less-gifted youngsters dreamed of emulating’.
His nickname wasn’t an ironic play on his mood, he was called Sunshine directly because he was red-haired and happy-go-lucky, because he always had a smile on his face. Not just that, but Gepford had a pedigree of persistence.
He was raised on the Macon County Poor Farm, a self-made country boy who had thrown himself, undersized and overlooked, among the privileged nucleus of the footballing establishment. In doing so he’d reached the highest level available to him at the time. To his own detriment, he had more grit than the entire state of Illinois put together.
So, for this beloved, positive, motivated, successful individual, a formidable tour-de-force in his chosen pursuits, to have taken his own life because of the pressure of teaching a history class, doesn’t, and didn’t, ring true to his character. But a decade of football had left him battered, bruised, and irrevocably broken. Both physically and mentally. By the time he graduated Bethany College and took on his short-lived post as a teacher in Marion, Sunshine was hiding a storm.
To many football is a religion, and this is the story of one of its first martyrs. The first victim of a disease that, at the time it took him, didn’t even have a name. This is the story of Sidney ‘Sunshine’ Gepford.
Sunshine: The Tragic True Story of the NFL’s First Suicide, is available on Gumroad and Amazon, and will be posted here throughout the next few months.
All money generated from sales of this book will be donated to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, to help the work they do supporting those affected by CTE.
You can get in touch with me on Twitter here: twitter.com/alexcass91