The tragic story of Charlie Mohr (cont.)
Mohr was taken to the hospital and he was operated on by a neurosurgeon named Manucher Javid. There was nothing the doctor could really do except stabilize him; the blood vessel leading into Mohr's sagittal sinus had been detached by the force of the blow. For more than a week, Mohr remained in a coma, from which he never emerged. On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, he died.
All around Madison, there was anger and confusion. In a nearby church, a pastor announced the news and nine-year-old Tommy Moen burst into tears. "When you're that age, you don't know what death is," Moen says. "You just know this person you cared greatly about, and who cared about you, wasn't around anymore."
After operating, Javid informed another surgeon and prominent member of the medical school faculty, Dr. Anthony Curreri, who happened to be a former boxer and a supporter of the Wisconsin program. Curreri did not witness the operation, and Javid says he never mentioned an aneurysm. It came out anyway. There was a press conference, Javid recalls, and "it was absolutely nonsense."
Javid is certain Mohr suffered a subdural hematoma ("I remember everything about it," he says, "even though it was 50 years ago"), a collection of blood on the surface of the brain. But this was a time of great concern about the future of college boxing, about the notion of institutions of higher learning associating themselves directly with a sport that, at its highest levels, seemed increasingly unruly and barbaric (You Could Blame It On the Moms, read the headline on a 1959 SI story detailing those concerns). At Wisconsin, where thousands flocked to the campus fieldhouse for matches, where more than 10,000 had gathered to watch the NCAA Championships, men like John Walsh and Anthony Curreri had a vested interest in keeping it alive. And so the aneurysm story took hold.
Still, even this wasn't enough to save the program. The momentum against it was too strong. A group of Wisconsin professors rallied -- "The intelligentsia got together and decided boxing was too brutal a sport," DeRose says -- and just a couple of weeks after Mohr's death, the faculty voted to drop boxing altogether. Soon after, the NCAA announced it would do the same. There are still boxing clubs at schools across the country, but there are no scholarships, and the NCAA hasn't held an officially sanctioned championship since the day Charlie Mohr went down.
There are things we know about boxing that we didn't then -- about its cumulative impact, about its inherent dangers. For some, like Wally DeRose, or like Pete Spanakos -- who is working to start a boxing program at an intermediate school in the Bronx -- the benefits will forever outweigh the perils. "But when you get carried out of the ring," Spanakos says, "it's very dramatic."
And this is how Tommy Moen remembers it: Five decades later, just thinking about the first hero he ever had sinking to the canvas brings him close to tears. He's now a social worker at a housing project in Madison, and he has sons who play sports, and it terrifies him to imagine that his child might ever be as vulnerable as Charlie Mohr on the occasion of his final fight.
"To be honest," he says, "boxing kind of freaks me out now."
Michael Weinreb is a freelance writer and the author of The Kings of New York. His new book,Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete, will be published in August. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.