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UT football history: That time a Longhorn guard was mistakenly reported dead

103 years before Jerry Lee Lewis’s erroneously-reported death, there was a similar incident involving a popular Longhorn.

The 1918 Texas Longhorns football team photo that was published in the 1919 Cactus yearbook. Gordon “Fats” Conley is the third man from the left on the second row.
(1919 Cactus yearbook)

For those who actively follow music and pop culture news, one of the most notable items of this week that didn’t involve Kanye West was Wednesday morning’s report by TMZ that rock & roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis had died in Memphis at the age of 87. Tributes poured in for Lewis on various social media channels for some time that day, until Lewis’s representative confirmed to several news outlets that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee was, in fact, still alive.

TMZ itself finally retracted its report of Lewis’s death shortly before 5:00 PM Central Time on Wednesday.

You may be asking at this point, “Why is this story being mentioned at BON? And what does any of that have to do with the Texas Longhorns?”

I mention the Jerry Lee Lewis false death news because it brought to mind an incident from over a century ago involving one Gordon “Fats” Conley, a Texas Longhorn football player who similarly had premature reports of his demise disseminated by major news outlets. This is the story of that long-forgotten episode in UT football history.

Charles Gordon Conley was born in McGregor, Texas on June 4, 1897, and was the youngest of three children in his family who survived infancy. His family moved at least a pair of times during his childhood before settling in Quanah, a small north Texas town just south of the Red River and about 80 miles west of Wichita Falls. Conley grew into a very big young man and was captain of the football team while a student at Quanah High School.

After his high school graduation he attended the University of Texas and was a three-year letterman on the Longhorn football team from 1916 to 1918. He was 6’3” tall with a weight reported to be between 255 and 270 pounds, an enormous size for a football player in that era. The other members of the 1918 Longhorn squad had an average weight of roughly 170 pounds. Due to his abnormal size he was given the nickname “Fats”, and he was commonly referred to by that moniker in contemporary news stories.

He was a highly-respected player and a beloved teammate. In a passage with an opening line that will seem hilarious to today’s readers, the October 21, 1917 Austin American said the following of Conley:

Doubtless it will always be a mystery how a man can grow until he weighs 255 pounds, but Gordon “Fats” Conley has done it, and he uses his weight to wonderful advantage on the Longhorn football team. They say he is rather hard to bowl over, and his side of the line is absolutely impregnable. There have been faster men than “Fats”, but nowhere will there be found one who is more valuable to the team, more loyal to the school and varsity football, or a better all-around man.

He had good strength to go along with his size, and became a regular playing both ways at right offensive guard and defensive tackle starting in 1916. Conley was named team captain before the start of the 1918 season, his third with the team. Fred Moore, a veteran halfback and a local product who’d attended Austin High School, had been unanimously elected team captain shortly after the conclusion of the 1917 season, but he was called into military service in August of 1918, leaving the Longhorn captaincy vacant.

An entire book could probably be written about the 1918 Longhorn football season. That year’s squad had very few returning lettermen, partly due to several UT students serving in the military during World War I. The “Spanish Flu” pandemic hit Austin hard in the final months of that year, and the UT campus closed for several weeks in October. An October 5 game against SMU was moved to late November, and games against Oklahoma and Arkansas that had been scheduled for that season were ultimately canceled. To fill the schedule, Texas ended up playing a pair of games in October against a team from the Radio School at Penn Field in south Austin. That season also featured wins by the Longhorns against teams from the Ream Flying Field in Houston and the Camp Mabry Auto Mechanics School in Austin.

Conley attempted to enlist in various branches of the military, but none would take him due to his weight. He played at his regular right guard position in UT’s first game of the 1918 season, a 19-0 win over TCU on September 28. But weeks later he withdrew from school and went home “to aid his parents until his army call came”, according a review of his 1918 season that was included in the 1919 Cactus yearbook.

Into Conley’s former role as team captain stepped former Austin High School standout Dave Pena, a tackle who was only a sophomore at a time when team captains were virtually always seniors, and who was likely named the acting captain because he was one of just four players left on the team who had previously won a letter.

Conley ultimately did not serve in the military, and the fighting of World War I — which had cost the lives of no less than 75 former UT students, including three former Longhorn football lettermen — was ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918.

Texas got shutout wins over Rice and SMU in November after the war’s end, and Conley returned to Austin and was able to rejoin the Longhorn football team in time to play a big role in the team’s 7-0 win over Texas A&M on November 28. That win capped off an undefeated 9-0 season for the Longhorns, which would be the next-to-last time they would finish a year with no losses or ties before the 1963 national championship season.

By today’s rules, Conley could have used the four-game redshirt rule to retain a year of eligibility, but in that era there there was no such concept as a redshirt, and playing in even one snap of a game was enough to trigger the use of a season of eligibility. Since the Southwest Conference had instituted a rule a few years earlier that limited student-athletes to playing in three varsity seasons, the 1918 A&M game would be the last of Conley’s Longhorn football career.

In April of 1919, Conley became ill, and after being hospitalized in his hometown of Quanah he underwent an operation for appendicitis. He remained in the hospital for over two weeks, and reports of his condition were evidently dire. Word somehow got back to Austin that he had died, and the April 16, 1919 Austin Statesman reported his death on its third page.

The Austin American published its own report the following day that Conley had “died Monday [three days earlier] at his home following an operation for appendicitis.”

A page four story in the April 17, 1919 Austin American erroneously reporting the death of Gordon “Fats” Conley.

The news of Conley’s death no doubt brought great sadness to his friends and the greater Longhorn faithful who had already mourned the deaths of several former players in the previous year. Former Longhorn stars Louis Jordan (the program’s first All-American) and Pete Edmond had served in the U.S. Army and were killed in action in France during the final year of World War I. Jordan was killed in March of 1918 and Edmond in October of that year, though the latter’s death was not officially acknowledged until February of 1919, over four and a half months later.

Joe Spence was another recent casualty within the UT football fraternity. Spence, a Dallas native whose older brother Alex Spence would later be the namesake of Alex W. Spence Middle School in that city, was a young tackle who’d been a teammate of Conley’s on the 1917 and 1918 Longhorn teams. He contracted influenza just days after playing in the game against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving Day, which developed into a case of pneumonia that killed him on December 9, 1918, only a month after his 18th birthday.

At least 200 deaths in Austin were attributed to influenza in the final months of 1918, when many parts of the U.S. were experiencing the second wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Five days after Spence’s death, influenza claimed the life of former Longhorn John Anderson Barclay, a center on UT’s 1908-09 teams. One month later, a case of influenza-turned-pneumonia killed 27-year-old Thomas Downs, who had played fullback on the 1911 Longhorn team while he was a law student at UT.

It was within this historical context that the report went out from the Austin newspapers in mid-April of 1919 that the much-admired “Fats” Conley had passed away. As shocking as the news of Conley’s demise must have been to his friends in Austin, it was even more surprising to Conley himself. He could not have been truly described as “well”, but he was, it turned out, still alive. On April 21, the Statesman printed the following retraction of its erroneous report from five days earlier.

Conley eventually returned to full health, and lived in his hometown for the rest of his life. He worked as a teacher and coach at Quanah High School during the 1920s, and was occasionally a referee for high school football games. He also worked for a time in the insurance business, and in 1931 he was elected as the president of the Quanah school board. In 1934 he was appointed postmaster of Quanah, and he held that position for the next 24 years until his death on January 12, 1959.

At the time of his passing he was 61 years old and almost 40 years removed from the erroneous reports of his death in the Austin newspapers.