The tragic story of Charlie Mohr
The thing about
That was the first time
Fifty years after Mohr took a punch that sheared a blood vessel in his brain and eventually killed him, spelling the end for NCAA-sanctioned college boxing, this is how nearly everyone remembers him. By his senior year, he had become a hero in Madison, one of the most popular athletes in town. He worked as a houseboy at St. Paul's church and as a waiter at Paisan's restaurant. People invited him to their homes to speak. A nine-year-old boy named
But even then, even as a campus idol, Mohr was wracked with worry. If anyone was too sweet for his own good, it was Charlie. The brutality of the sport, its primal nature, had never come naturally to him; Spanakos saw the way he'd dominate an opponent, and then back away before he could finish him off. The longtime coach at Wisconsin,
By the time Wisconsin prepared to host the NCAA championships in 1960, Mohr was thinking of quitting boxing. His heart wasn't in it anymore. His memory was spotty. He had trouble deciding on the simplest things: When to eat lunch, when to study, when to work out. He had lost his desire to fight in the Olympics and the Pan-American Games. His teammate,
"Do you really want to do this?" DeRose asked Mohr.
"No," he said. But he felt obligated to his coaches, to the men who had given him a scholarship.
On April 9, Mohr stepped into the ring against San Jose State's
The truth about what happened that night has been obscured both by the passage of time and and by the collective will of a number of once-powerful men. For many years, no one -- including Doherty, who attended Wisconsin with Mohr and who wrote a definitive profile about him for
Eventually, a newspaper columnist named
Mohr walked back to the dressing room and apologized to his teammates. He was experiencing what's known as a "lucid interval"; inside his head, the damage had already been done. He lay down, complaining of a headache, and then he fell into convulsions. Outside the locker room,
"I'm sorry I hurt your friend," he said.
Mohr was taken to the hospital and he was operated on by a neurosurgeon named
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,
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 (
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."