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The University of Arizona and city of Tucson has unfortunately experienced a few times now the grief of a fallen young athlete in the Wildcat program before the sudden passing of Arizona offensive lineman Zach Hemmila earlier this week.
All of the athletes were revered by their teammates and coaches and most garnered the admiration of fans throughout the city, adding to their legacy in Arizona lore.
The most renowned of the inspirational fallen athletes is football player John “Button” Salmon. He brought both monumental pride and tremendous sorrow to the campus in 1926.
Before Salmon passed following an automobile accident, the untimely death of Leo Frederick Cloud stirred emotions in Tucson in 1915. Cloud was a multi-sport athlete who captained Arizona’s basketball team in 1914-15 and was a tennis champion. He died tragically in his junior year of accidental electrocution on campus on March 6, 1915.
Salmon passed away 11 years later. Before his last breath, as the story goes, Salmon uttered those famous words to coach J.F. “Pop” McKale, “Tell them … tell the team to bear down”, before Arizona’s game at New Mexico State.
Cloud, an electrical engineering student, met his fate while painting the water tower on campus. He fell back on to a high-voltage electric wire and was electrocuted.
Also captain of the Cadet battalion on campus, Cloud was given a military-style funeral. As a result of Cloud’s death, the Arizona state legislature appropriated funds to give the university a proper electrical system.
Other noted Arizona athletes who died while attending school include softball player Julie Reitan in 1997, women’s basketball player Shawntinice Polk in 2005 and football players Damon Terrell in 1995 and McCollins Umeh in 2004.
Their ages — Hemmila 22, Salmon 22, Cloud 21, Reitan 21, Polk 22, Terrell 21 and Umeh 18. All gone much too soon.
Reitan passed away from hypoglycemia. A diabetic, she died in her sleep.
Polk died from a pulmonary blood clot.
Terrell and Umeh each passed after collapsing in workouts. Umeh died the same day from an enlarged heart. Terrell passed away a month later. An autopsy determined an air bubble that formed during the removal of a dialysis catheter blocked the flow of blood to Terrell’s heart.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez notified the media Monday that Hemmila died in his sleep Sunday night. The cause for death has not been announced.
The following are reports of how the university and community responded after each heartbreaking death of Arizona athletes in their prime:
Leo Cloud (1894-1915)
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Arizona Daily Star, March 7, 1915: “News of Cloud’s death came to the student body just before dinner. Cloud was beloved by all. Everyone was his friend. Little was consumed for that meal. Scarcely a word was spoken where so much banter and joking is usually the custom. …”
“The ‘A’ society, an organization of men who have made more than one letter in the athletic departments of the university will give a large wreath of blue violets with the letter “A” designed in red carnations in the center. The military department, in which Cloud was captain of Company A, will give a large American flag made with red, white and blue flowers. The student body will give an immense wreath of white roses.”
Classes on the day of Cloud’s funeral were cancelled.
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John Button Salmon (1904-1926)
October 19, 1926, Arizona Republic clipping announcing death of John “Button” Salmon
Arizona Republic, October 23, 1926: “Whereas, John B. Salmon, being the president of the student body thereof, and having won distinction and everlasting glory as a football and baseball player, on the athletic teams, representing the University of Arizona. He was able to inspire friendship and high respect among all those who knew him at the University of Arizona, and it being by no means limited to the university. … ”
“The University of Arizona and its alumni have sustained in the death of John B. Salmon that they have sustained a personal loss in the death of a very intimate friend, that the University of Arizona has lost one of its beloved sons.”
On the day of his funeral, all classes at Arizona and all the schools in the Tucson area were cancelled for the day. Employers and employees city wide left their jobs to attend his funeral service which was held on the University of Arizona’s campus at the auditorium. Afterward, the almost mile-long line of Ford Model T’s, Model A’s, citizens on horseback and driving horse drawn wagons, every taxi in town that was running, and various other cars of the era slowly made their way from the Arizona campus through downtown Tucson and up to the Evergreen Cemetery off Oracle Road.
Damon Terrell (1974-1995)
Arizona Republic clipping published on Sept. 17, 1995, showing the tribute of Arizona’s players for fallen teammate Damon Terrell.
Tucson News Now, Aug. 8, 2016: “Arizona lined up for the opening kickoff at Illinois … and promptly called timeout. It was September 1995. The Wildcats had practiced a special alignment for just this situation. Two groups of players moved on to the field, gathering at each 40-yard line. The first group took a knee in unison, forming the letter ‘D’ and raising their helmets with one arm toward the heavens. The second group did the same, except those players formed the letter ‘T.’ Defensive back Shawn Parnell stood alone, holding up his best friend’s No. 80 jersey. Head coach Dick Tomey didn’t see the tribute. He was in Los Angeles, attending the funeral of senior tight end Damon Terrell.” …
“Those 1995 Wildcats wore patches on their uniforms and ’80’ decals on the backs of their helmets as small ways to preserve Terrell’s memory. At a two-hour memorial service at McKale Center, they shared stories and vowed to be inspired to tell their teammates how much they cared about each other. ‘Like the counselors told us the other day,’ (Dick) Tomey said at that memorial service, ‘we need to take something that Damon was and use that to make us better.'”
TNN columnist Anthony Gimino interviewed Brandon Sanders, a senior safety on the 1995 team, in attempt to gather insight on what this year’s team must do to cope with the passing of Hemmila.
“I don’t even know any advice I can give,” said Sanders, the current head football coach and athletic director at Pueblo High School. “We’re still dealing with it even to this day. It’s been 20-plus years and it still hits us guys on that team. It’s devastating to a team, a coach, parents. …
“It’s going to resonate all season with this team. For us, it resonated all the way to Senior Day, when they’re bringing out his jersey. All you can do is lean on each other. The kids need to lean on the coaches, and vice versa, to where you really feel like it is a family.”
Julie Reitan (1976-1997)
Arizona Daily Wildcat, July 2, 1997: “Teary-eyed teammates, family and friends joined together last night to mourn the death of Julie Reitan, and share memories of her loving and energetic personality that touched so many lives. ‘Her love of life brought out the best in people,’ said Krista Gomez, an assistant coach. ‘She taught me to be happy everyday.’ Reitan was found dead in her north side home Friday morning. She was 21.”
More than 1,200 people gathered at McKale Center for Reitan’s memorial. Friends, teammates, and hundreds of fans, many who never met Reitan, embraced her parents, brother and family. The memorial, which included a reading of scriptures underlined in Reitan’s Bible, exemplified the strong spirituality that served as a foundation in her life.
“She was the most popular player on the team,” said assistant coach Amy Chellevold, a former star player on the softball team. “She was a great jokester.”
Chellevold added that Reitan, a former Sahuaro High School star, liked to play a game called “Make Me Laugh” where the players took turns making funny faces at each other.
“She was more than just a player, she was the spiritual leader,” coach Mike Candrea is quoted as saying in the Daily Wildcat story.
McCollins Umeh (1986-2004)
Tucson Citizen, June 10, 2004: “Umeh, Arizona’s prize recruit, from Klein Forest High School in Houston, arrived Monday evening, had a physical at 9:30 Tuesday morning, had lunch and reported for his 1 p.m. workout with nine other UA players. … After a 911 call was made at 1:26, Tucson Fire Department paramedics and UA police officials arrived to find a trainer administering CPR.
‘I’ve spent my whole life in sports,’ Arizona coach Mike Stoops said yesterday in his first public comments regarding Umeh’s death. ‘You think you have experienced every emotion possible but until (Tuesday) that was not true. I experienced something that is very difficult. Any time you lose somebody who is part of the family it hurts immensely. I can’t tell you how devastating it is for our program to lose a player of his magnitude for so many reasons.
‘The dynamics of McCollins … I’ve had the opportunity to be around him in a number of different settings, in recruiting him, having him here (Tuesday) … seeing his smile, seeing his personality before he went out to work out was refreshing. To get a call 20-30 minutes later and hear this news is tragic. His spirit, his smile and his personality will be everlasting in this program. He was special.'”
Shawntinice Polk (1983-2005)
Shawntinice Polk was a three-time All-Pacific-10 Conference first-team selection in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Tucson Citizen, Sept. 28, 2005: “‘Everyone on the team was touched by Polkey,’ (Joan) Bonvicini said. “I am hopeful her inspiration will touch different people in different ways. I know we will all grow and some may grow quicker because of this. …
“‘Her laugh would echo through McKale Center. The hard part is, everyone thought they were Polkey’s best friend – and the truth is, they were. … You find out about your backbone when things get tough. We have a strong backbone here at UA.'”
ESPN.com writer Mechelle Voepel wrote this a few days after Polk’s death:
“We mourn all death, but we mourn untimely death, the passing of a young person, with our most agonizing and acute grief of all. Because when we lose those people, we lose all their potential. We lose what Polk would have achieved as a human being and an athlete for the many years we assume a 22-year-old should have left.
And yet, this young woman with her big smile did leave a lasting mark in the time she had. If nothing else, we can be grateful for that.”
Zach Hemmila (1993-2016)
Zach Hemmila touching the statue “Button” Salmon, two inspirational Arizona football players taken from us too soon (University of Arizona photo).
Tucson News Now, Aug. 10, 2016: When they return to Tucson on Thursday night, they will attend a viewing of Hemmila’s body that night (the public is invited to attend from 4-7 p.m. at St. Pius X Catholic Church on 1800 N. Camino Pio Decimo) and attend services for him Friday.
“I told the team, this is not in the coaching manual,” Rodriguez said.
“We will figure it out together. We have a tight group. I think the guys are close. We’re not shying away from talking about it. We’ll get through this as a team. That’s what you have to do.”
Hemmila’s locker remains untouched. The coaches will preserve his seat in the meeting room. If notes or instructions are distributed, Hemmila gets a copy, too, (Jacob) Alsadek said.
“We still feel like he’s here,” Alsadek said.
“Still can’t believe that it happened. I still feel like he’s going to walk into this room, smiling at me, or I’m going to walk into the locker room and see him sitting down, smiling.”
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.