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Red Sanders
James Murray
August 25, 1958
A searching essay appraising the man and the football wizard whose sudden death shocked the sports world
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August 25, 1958

Red Sanders

A searching essay appraising the man and the football wizard whose sudden death shocked the sports world

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The next morning Sanders awoke late and went to his office for a coaches' staff luncheon. He left shortly after without saying where he was going.

At 4:30 p.m., the shocking news cracked over the radio and press teletypes. A man identified as Red Sanders had been found dead in a hotel room on Beverly Boulevard. The room was registered in the name of an acquaintance of Sanders, W. T. Grimes. Also present was a young woman named Ernestine Drake, who, she told police, did not even know that Sanders was a football coach.

Red, they said, had complained of the heat and humidity when he arrived in the unfashionable hotel room. He had removed his shirt and tie and dispatched Grimes for some refreshment—soft drinks, Grimes pointedly told police. While he was gone, Sanders suddenly began gasping for breath and clutching his chest. He fell to the floor. He was still there, dead, when the police ambulance arrived at the hotel one hour later.

No one knew Red Sanders had a bad heart—unless it was Red Sanders and some cardiologist sworn to secrecy. But anyone with a stethoscope and a degree would have been able to tell it. His heart was enlarged nearly twice normal. Scar tissue indicated long-standing coronary heart disease, an advanced case.

Death is never fortunate, but this was a particularly unfortunate way to die. For Red Sanders moved, most often, in a level of society a great deal more proper than the one in which death overtook him.

The plain fact about Red Sanders as a coach and as a human being was that he had always been good at what he did, but never lucky. The nadir of his professional career probably came, not with the PCC penalties, but in the 1956 Rose Bowl Game. Sanders took on one of the best football squads ever put together, the 1955 Michigan State Spartans. His outmanned athletes played brilliant chess football for almost four quarters, gave Michigan State ground in the middle of the field in order to stall them near the goal line.

With two minutes to play, UCLA had wrung a 14-14 tie, had just stopped Michigan State on their 20-yard line when a field goal, rushed by their line, had missed. They had the ball and two minutes to win, the passer to do it in Ronnie Knox.

What could have been Red's finest moment turned to dross. Assistant Coach Jim Myers unnecessarily signaled for the quarterback to pass. A visiting Big Ten official spotted him and called an unusual, and seldom invoked, penalty. A comedy of errors ensued and finally Sanders' team had to punt. The high punt soared too high and the UCLA captain ran into the receiver. Michigan State again had the ball near the 20. This time the field goal was good. What was to have been a monumental triumph was just another Pacific Coast defeat.

In the dressing room afterward, Red Sanders' face was a mask of tragedy. But he sought no sympathy. "Sometimes," he said, "no matter what you do, you're bound to lose. And when you do, you just have to face it."

And that may be as apt an epitaph as any.

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