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UT’s forgotten Olympians

Profiling two early Texas star athletes who are missing from the school’s list of all-time Olympians

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The 1927 Texas Longhorns track & field team. Ralph Hammonds, seated in the bottom row on the far left, was a Southwest Conference champion in the pole vault and also competed in wrestling at the 1928 Summer Olympics.
1928 Cactus yearbook

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, which ended just over seven weeks ago, had a sizeable Texas Longhorn presence. Among the more than 11,000 athletes who participated in the games were 28 current or former Texas Longhorns, along with a current high school senior swimmer who is committed to sign with Texas later this year.

Historically, UT ranks high among the American universities that have had the most success at the Olympic games; athletes from only four universities have won more Olympic medals than those from Texas. The list of “All-Time UT Olympians” maintained by UT Athletics, which was last updated well before the 2020 Olympics, includes 171 names.

At least one Longhorn has competed at every summer Olympics since the 1936 Berlin games, a streak that began when swimmer Adolph Kiefer (then a recent Illinois high school graduate who enrolled at Texas later that year) won the gold medal and set an Olympic record in the men’s 100 meter backstroke. Kiefer, a legend both in and out of the pool, was later inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor and the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and was the last surviving gold medalist from the 1936 Olympics when he died in 2017 at age 98.

Kiefer is the earliest entry on the most recently published list of all-time UT Olympians, but curiously missing from that list are two stars of Texas Longhorn athletic history who both preceded Kiefer as Olympic athletes: Semp Russ and Ralph Hammonds.

Neither of those names is likely to be familiar to casual Longhorn sports fans in the year 2021, and probably not even to a meaningful number of dedicated die-hard fans, but they’re not completely obscure. Both were multi-sport standouts, both played football for the Longhorns, and both have been inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor.

This post will attempt to give a history lesson on the two men who were most likely the first athletes to star for the Texas Longhorns and go on to compete at the Olympic Games, and who will hopefully be recognized as such whenever the UT sports information office updates its list of Longhorn Olympians.

Sempronius “Semp” Russ was born in Louisiana in 1878. His father died in 1890, only a month before his 12th birthday, and his family moved to San Antonio that same year. For his high school equivalent education he attended a pair of private or day schools in San Antonio, the McGruder’s School and the San Antonio Academy (also known as the Seeley School). He first took up football while at the latter school, and he later recalled playing against a team from the West Texas Military Academy (now called TMI Episcopal) in San Antonio that had future five-star Army general Douglas MacArthur at quarterback.

He began his college career at Tulane, but a broken ankle prevented him from playing football during his only year there. He then transferred to the University of Texas, where for three years he was a star on the football team and established himself as the state’s top tennis player.

Russ earned three letters in football from 1898 to 1900, playing the positions of end and quarterback. The game of football in the late 19th century barely resembled what it would become in the 20th and 21st centuries, and while quarterbacks at that time had the responsibility of calling offensive signals, their primary occupation after the ball was snapped was either blocking or running, not passing. The ball could be moved on lateral tosses, but the forward pass wasn’t legalized until 1906.

In Russ’s three seasons with the Longhorn football team, it had an overall record of 17-3 and allowed opponents to score only 41 total points. He was small even by the standards of his day; according to the roster for the 1900 football team that was included in the 1901 Cactus yearbook, Russ stood 5’7.5” and weighed just 145 pounds, making him easily the lightest player on that season’s varsity squad. But despite his small stature, he was among the best Longhorn players of his era. As an end, the Austin Statesman said in 1899 that Russ “has never had a superior on a Texas team.” As a quarterback, he was the standard for that position at Texas for many years after his time on the 40 Acres.

In 1912, the Houston Post sought to name the “all-time” football greats for Texas and Texas A&M. To pick the all-time “eleven” for Texas, the Post solicited the opinion of Richard West “R.W.” Franklin, a Houston lawyer and a prominent alum of UT who had been a member of the Longhorn football teams of 1898-99 and had followed the program closely in the years after his graduation. Franklin’s column naming his picks was published in December 1912. Of all the quarterbacks to play for the University of Texas in its 20 seasons of football up to that point, Franklin picked Russ for the first team, and said of his former teammate:

I do not think that any person will question the choice of the greatest of Texas quarters, when Semp Russ makes the position. Semp was little but he was fast and a wonder at running his team. At running the ball he was the equal of [Nelson] Puett [a quarterback/ halfback from Temple who earned letters at Texas in 1911 and 1912], while his generalship was far better. Russ played three seasons and grew better each year. He left a heavy handicap to the men that followed him. Every Texas quarter since his day has been measured by the Semp Russ model, and it has been hard to live up to.

Two years later, a sports writer for the Post made an attempt at naming an “All-Time, All-Texas” team comprised of the best players from colleges throughout Texas in the first two decades or so of intercollegiate football’s existence in the state. On this mythical team also, Russ was an easy choice for first team quarterback. Said the Post:

At quarter is placed Semp Russ of Texas, in the writer’s opinion the only really able quarterback from every standpoint that this State has ever produced. There was no weakness in Russ either as a field general or as an all-around player. He stands head and shoulders above the others.

Along with being one of the key football players at Texas in the late 1890s, Russ also had a long and decorated tennis career. While still in his teens he was part of a group that started the San Antonio Tennis Club in 1895. He won his first singles championship at the Texas state tennis tournament in 1899 while he was a UT law student, and continued to routinely win state championships into his late 30s.

A month and a half after the 1904 state tennis tournament, at which Semp Russ and fellow San Antonian Charles Cresson won the doubles title, Russ competed in the tennis singles and doubles tournaments at the 1904 Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri. The singles tournament began in late August and was organized as a single-elimination bracket that began with a “round of 64”, but of the 37 entrants only 27 actually competed, 26 of whom were Americans. (At that time, Olympic participants mostly competed as members of athletic clubs and not as representatives of specific countries, and there was not yet a limit on the number of competitors a country could enter in any one event.) Because of the low number of tennis participants, only one match was actually played in the “round of 64” and the four other matches scheduled for that round were won by “walkover” when one participant did not show up or otherwise did not begin the match. Five matches in the second round were also won by walkover.

After advancing past the first round in a walkover, 26-year-old Semp Russ won his second round match over Douglas Turner in straight sets 6-2, 6-1. In the third round he met Hugh Jones, a St. Louis native who had graduated from Harvard and would later serve in both World Wars I and II in different capacities. Russ beat Jones fairly easily, 6-1, 6-2.

In the quarterfinals, Russ more than met his match in 28-year-old Alphonzo Bell, a Los Angeles native who had won the Pacific Coast singles championship the previous year, and who in the 1920s would become very wealthy in the oil and real estate business (he was the namesake and founder of the tony Bel-Air neighborhood west of Beverly Hills). Bell defeated Russ in straight sets 6-3, 6-1, then lost in the semifinals 6-3, 6-4 to eventual gold medalist Beals Wright.

The singles and doubles tournaments at the 1904 Olympics were held concurrently, so on the same day Russ beat Hugh Jones in the third round of the singles tournament, he and longtime doubles partner Charles Cresson (who was then 30 years old) played their first round match against the duo of Forest Montgomery and Stewart Tritle, which they won 7-5, 6-2. Then on the same day Russ lost his singles match against Alphonzo Bell, he and Cresson were defeated 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 in their quarterfinal doubles match against Beals Wright and Edgar Leonard, the eventual gold medalists. (In addition to winning gold medals in both singles and doubles tennis at the 1904 Olympics, Beals Wright also won the 1905 singles title at the U.S. Open and won three U.S. Open doubles titles in his career.)

Semp Russ did not compete at the Olympics again after the 1904 games, but he remained one of the top tennis players in the southwest for several years afterward. Between 1899 and 1915 (the year he turned 37) he won a total of 15 Texas state singles and doubles titles. He was inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007. He also took up polo at some point and played that sport until he was 72.

Outside of sports, he had a long and successful career as a lawyer, businessman, and philanthropist. He practiced law until he was well into his 80s, and even in his early 90s he still regularly worked at his office at the eponymous Russ Oil Corporation in San Antonio. Among his many philanthropic efforts was a professorship he endowed at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, a position which is today the Semp Russ Professor of Child Psychiatry Research.

Semp Russ was the last surviving 19th century Longhorn football letterman when he died in 1978, a month shy of his 100th birthday. On his death he bequeathed $2.9 million (roughly $12.1 million in 2021) to the San Antonio Area Foundation, and in the four decades since then the Semp Russ Foundation has given millions more to support medical and health-related research projects.

Russ was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1969. His online Hall of Honor profile page makes mention of his football accomplishments and gives a general sense of his success in business, but as of this writing his appearance at the 1904 Olympics is not mentioned.

Ralph Hammonds has been referred to by some as UT’s first Olympian, a claim found on the Olympedia website, no less. But Semp Russ competed in tennis at the 1904 Olympics nearly two years before Hammonds was born. Hammonds was a multi-sport star at UT in the mid- to late-1920s, and was viewed as the school’s best all-around athlete in his time, despite not playing organized sports until after high school. He was the greatest wrestler ever to compete for the Longhorns and he participated in that sport at the 1928 Summer Olympics, coming within one match of winning a gold medal. His athletic accomplishments are less well-remembered than they should be, perhaps because wrestling hasn’t been a varsity sport at UT in almost a century.

Ralph Waldo Hammonds was born in Lawton, Oklahoma on July 9, 1906 and grew up near the town of Hugo, where his father worked as an attorney. According to a profile published in the February 3, 1927 Corsicana Daily Sun, Hammonds wanted to participate in athletics while in high school, but his mother feared injury and forbade it. So he spent his years at Hugo High School off of the playing field and did not get his first taste of organized athletic competition until after graduating high school in 1922, when he was still a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday.

He enrolled at Oklahoma A&M (later renamed Oklahoma State) and was a member of its wrestling and track & field teams. Oklahoma A&M was the nation’s preeminent collegiate wrestling powerhouse for four decades, winning 27 NCAA team wrestling titles between 1928 (the year of the first NCAA wrestling tournament) and 1971, and finishing 2nd four other times in that stretch. It’s not clear how long he was a student there, but he transferred to Texas some time after his family moved from Oklahoma to San Antonio. Some contemporary reports indicate that he enrolled at Texas during the Christmas break in 1924, and by the spring of 1925 he had become a very skilled wrestler and pole vaulter for the Longhorns.

Wrestling was briefly a major sport at UT in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and though the school still had a wrestling team for some years after that period it ceased to be a varsity sport there after Oklahoma A&M left the Southwest Conference in 1925, which left Texas without a conference opponent to wrestle against. Roy McLean, a UT alum who went to work for his alma mater soon after graduating in 1917, coached the Longhorn wrestlers for most, if not all, of that program’s history, and in his 50 years working for the school he also spent time as a cross country coach, a pioneering weight training instructor, and professor.

After arriving in Austin, Hammonds needed little time to show that he was the best wrestler on campus. McLean said in March of 1925 that Hammonds — though still quite green in the sport and just 18 years old — was “the most capable 158-pounder ever to attend Texas University”.

Hammonds was not a large man at that age; he stood just under 5’11” and was no more than 160 pounds. But no teammate in his own weight class could pin him, and nary a legitimate challenger could be found even among the team’s heavyweight wrestlers. In a practice match with John “Tiny” Gooch, a standout 6’6” tackle on the Longhorn football team and at one time the holder of the Southwest Conference record in the discus, Hammonds pinned the shoulders of his much larger teammate, who was around seven inches taller and at least 50 pounds heavier than he. (“Tiny” Gooch is included in this story’s header photo, the third man from the left seated on the bottom row.)

Hammonds was not expected to contend for a title at the 1925 AAU national wrestling championships, which were held at his former college home in Stillwater, Oklahoma. McLean, it was later reported, “decided to send Hammonds there as an experiment to see how far the 18-year-old youngster would go”. According to the Austin Statesman, Hammonds ran into Oklahoma A&M’s longtime wrestling coach Ed Gallagher before the start of the meet, and Gallagher, who was Hammonds’s first wrestling coach, “confidently informed Hammonds that the Oklahoma Farmers had three 158-pounders in the tournament who could throw him.” Hammonds went on to beat all three of those Oklahoma A&M grapplers en route to winning the championship of the 160-pound division, claiming the title with an upset win in the final match over the much more experienced Guy Lookabaugh, a 1924 Olympian and former Oklahoma A&M wrestling superstar who was a full ten years older than Hammonds. The March 28, 1925 Daily Oklahoman called Hammonds’s defeat of Lookabaugh “almost unbelievable”.

[Note: the 158-pound weight class in wrestling had been discontinued and replaced by a 160-pound class in 1922, but sportswriters in 1925 still often referred to wrestlers and/or weight classes by the old labels.]

In 1926, Hammonds again won the championship of the 160-pound division at the AAU national wrestling tournament, which was held in Oregon that year. He also reportedly won an exhibition match with Oregon’s Frank Bryan, who had entered himself in both the 160-pound and 175-pound divisions and ended up winning the latter division’s crown. Despite wrestling no longer being a varsity sport at Texas, when the UT Athletic Council awarded “T”s to Longhorn athletes in the various spring sports in 1926, Hammonds was given a special varsity letter for wrestling due to his win at the AAU nationals, which means he was very likely the last wrestling letterman in UT history.

Perhaps inspired by Frank Bryan’s failed attempt at winning two different weight classes in 1926, Hammonds entered the 1927 AAU national tournament in both the 160 and 175-pound divisions. Training for that tournament was a challenge because it was difficult for him to find a wrestler on his own campus or any other in the region who could make him break a sweat. So he would test his skills and endurance on the mat by having workouts where he quite literally took on all comers.

From the February 11, 1927 Austin Statesman:

There are quite a number of good wrestlers at the University, ranging in all the weights. So when Hammonds, the champion of them all, in these parts as well as parts afar off, wants a work-out he gets all the wrestlers, some 15 or 20 of them, hemmed in a pen out at the gym. Then he takes them one at the time until the shoulders of them all have have been penned [sic] to the mat about three times around.

One big fellow called Mack got a big hand from the gallery of onlookers the other day because he succeeded in staying with Hammonds for a period of three minutes before being counted down. But that was late in the afternoon, being about the 100th match of the day for Hammonds.

Hammonds also occasionally took on relays of wrestling opponents in public settings, such as at a March 1927 barbecue at Barton Springs for a large group of Texas legislators, where in one of the athletic events scheduled for the evening Hammonds wrestled and pinned five opponents in less than ten minutes.

He did not fare as well at the 1927 AAU freestyle wrestling championships at Ames, Iowa. Hammonds was beaten in the tournament of the 160-pound division by its eventual champion Fendley Collins of Oklahoma A&M (who later spent 32 years as the head wrestling coach at Michigan State), and though he reached the finals of the 175-pound division he lost on points to Oklahoma A&M’s George Rule. A story in the April 5, 1927 Statesman claimed that Hammonds had been hobbled in the tournament after one of his 160-pound opponents got him in a toe hold and made a move that tore Hammonds’s ligaments in one knee, and though he managed to win that match and a few others afterward, the wrestlers who eventually beat him took advantage of that knee being far from 100% in strength.

Whatever the condition of that knee actually was, it didn’t prevent him from participating in track & field later that spring. At a May meet he broke the conference record in the pole vault by clearing the bar at 12 feet 11 inches, and he reportedly vaulted over 13 feet in practices. At the 1927 national college track & field meet in Chicago, he tied with five other vaulters for second place.

In the fall of 1927, he was a member of the Longhorn varsity football team for the first time and earned his only letter in that sport, playing as a substitute guard and tackle. In his first season as head football coach at Texas that season was Clyde Littlefield, UT’s longtime track & field head coach who had already worked with Hammonds for three track seasons.

With Hammonds having earned letters in three sports, reports from early 1928 stated that he planned to go out for baseball (a sport he hadn’t played since his youth) that spring in hopes of making the Longhorn varsity team and becoming the first UT athlete to earn letters in four sports. But with the baseball schedule potentially conflicting with his goal of making the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, he ended up focusing once again on wrestling and track & field instead, and he graduated with a bachelor of business administration degree that spring.

He lost a re-match with George Rule in the final of the 175-pound division at the 1928 collegiate wrestling championships, but rebounded and won that same division in July at the Olympic wrestling trials in Grand Rapids, Michigan to clinch a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Hammonds sent word from Michigan to UT Athletic Director L. Theo Bellmont “that he was flat broke in the face of the impending trip” to Amsterdam for that month’s Summer Olympic games, and in short order the Athletic Council, Lutcher Stark, and other Longhorn boosters cobbled together $135 (equivalent to over $2,100 in 2021 money) and wired it to Hammonds to help cover “incidental expenses” while in Europe.

Hammonds was one of nine men entered in the middleweight (174-pound) division of the freestyle wrestling competition at the 1928 Summer Olympics, and at 22 years of age he may have been the youngest in that group. He defeated Louis Van Der Herten of Belgium in his first match, then beat 30-year-old Finnish wrestler Vilho Pekkala in the semifinals. In the gold medal match, he lost to 29-year-old Ernst Kyburz of Switzerland. Details on that match are difficult to find, but a September 25, 1928 Statesman story written after Hammonds’s return from Europe called his loss to Kyburz “a bum decision” that “the audience hissed and booed” after the referee announced it.

Due to how the Olympic freestyle wrestling competitions were organized at the time, Hammonds’s loss in the gold medal match did not result in him winning the silver medal. Instead, he was moved into a “silver medal round” bracket where he had to wrestle Canadian Donald Stockton, who had lost to Kyburz in the other semifinal match, and with a win over Stockton he then would have wrestled for the silver medal against either South Africa’s Anton Praeg or Australia’s Thomas Bolger, whom Kyburz had defeated in his first and second matches, respectively.

Hammonds was evidently injured during his match with Stockton, as the official record says that he “retired”. Stockton moved on and won the silver medal by defeating Anton Praeg, Kyburz’s victim in the quarterfinal round. Praeg and Hammonds would have then had a match to decide the bronze medalist, but both were injured and unable to wrestle in the bronze medal round, so by a quirk in the system the bronze medal was awarded to Samuel Rabin of Great Britain, who had lost to eventual silver medalist Donald Stockton in the quarterfinals in his only match of the tournament.

10 days after the end of the Olympic freestyle wrestling competition, members of the American and Swiss teams participated in a series of exhibition matches over two days in Geneva, Switzerland. One of the scheduled matches pitted Hammonds against Kyburz in a rematch of their gold medal fight, but Kyburz did not show up, which reportedly caused the Swiss crowd to become “disorderly”. After Hammonds quickly beat an opponent who was substituted in Kyburz’s place, “the excited spectators rushed to the edge of the ring and menaced the American referee, but order was restored”, according to an Associated Press story. Hammonds was thus not only deprived of an Olympic medal, but he also was denied the satisfaction of a second chance against Kyburz.

A year earlier in February 1927, Hammonds had told the Corsicana Daily Sun that his goal was to wrestle at the Olympic games and then quit the sport, saying, “I like to wrestle, but it is such a crooked game professionally that I do not care to continue with it after I am graduated from the university next year.”

He had changed his tune by the time he returned from Europe 18 months later. He wrestled professionally into at least his early 30s, and also worked at different times as a promoter and referee. On at least a pair of stretches in the mid-1930s he was recognized as the world junior heavyweight champion by the National Wrestling Association.

He remained involved in the sport of wrestling for several years after competing at the 1928 Olympics, but was never an Olympian again. After finally retiring from wrestling, he moved into a career in the insurance business and eventually became the president of Lloyds of North America Insurance Company, but it later went bankrupt, and in 1954 Hammonds was indicted on federal perjury charges and his firm was placed in receivership by the state.

In 1957, Hammonds was one of 22 candidates (20 Democrats and 2 Republicans) to run in a special election for the U.S. Senate to fill the seat that had been vacated when Senator Price Daniel was elected Governor of Texas. He called for putting “insurance companies under federal control with every policy guaranteed by the federal government”, according to an Associated Press story noting the race’s many candidates, but he received just 2,372 votes, good for the seventh-most out of the crowded group of candidates, but a figure that amounted to 0.25% of the votes cast.

Ralph Hammonds died of heart failure in 1966, two months shy of his 60th birthday. He was posthumously inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1992. His Hall of Honor page on the UT Athletics website lists most of his major athletic accomplishments, and though it mentions that he competed in the 1928 Olympics it leaves the reader to speculate on what sport or event he was an Olympian in, as the screenshot below shows.

A screenshot (taken on September 17, 2021) of Ralph Hammonds’s Longhorn Hall of Honor online page, which mentions his status as a 1928 Olympian but not the sport that he competed in.

Though not technically an Olympian, Magnus Mainland was another notable early Longhorn athlete (and coach) who participated in an Olympic contest, playing basketball at the 1904 Olympics over three decades before it was made a competition sport at the summer games.

Mainland was born in 1879 and raised in the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland. He moved to the United States at age 18 and settled in or near Racine, Wisconsin, an area that became home to many Orkney natives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He attended Wheaton College in Illinois in the early 1900s and played for that school’s basketball team.

Less than 13 years after James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in late 1891, it made its first Olympic appearance as a demonstration sport at the 1904 summer games in St. Louis. At that time, team sports were not yet played by national teams at the Olympics, and the basketball competition at the 1904 games had an “amateur” championship largely comprised of YMCA teams from around the midwest, and a college round robin tournament with just three teams, one of them being Mainland’s Wheaton College team. In Wheaton’s two games, it lost 23-20 to Hiram College of Ohio, and beat Latter-Day Saints University (now called Ensign College) of Salt Lake City, Utah by a 40-35 score. Basketball was not played at the Olympics again until 1936, its first year as an official medal sport.

Mainland came to the University of Texas as an engineering student in 1905, and during his time in Austin he was involved in student organizations and athletics. He earned two varsity letters in football (1905-06), and even at a mere 189 pounds he was the second-heaviest man on the 1905 Longhorn team. He also helped organize the first Longhorn basketball team in the spring of 1906, on which he was both a player and head coach. He coached the Longhorn basketball team for its first two seasons of existence, in which it compiled a record of 11-5.

After his time at Texas, he worked as a merchant in both the plumbing and sheet metal industries, and lived for the rest of his life in Arizona and California. He died in Santa Barbara, California in 1959, at the age of 79.

The 1906 Texas Longhorn basketball team, the first in school history. Player/coach Magnus Mainland is pictured in the “T” sweater on the far left in the second row from the top.
The Cactus, 1906