On 27 October 1906, Leeds City forward David “Soldier” Wilson died of an apparent heart attack during a match against Burnley. He was 23 years old.
Wilson had debuted for Leeds only the previous December, after transferring from Hull City for a fee of £150. A gifted passer, he proved also to be a prolific scorer, tallying 13 goals in 15 games that first season, enough to make him the club’s top scorer. Injuries plagued him, though–he missed eight matches at the end of the 1905-06 season and missed a few others at the start of the next one.
By the time Leeds hosted Burnley at Elland Road in October, Wilson had appeared in a total of five matches that fall and had not scored in any of them. It was a physical match, with Leeds inside-left Jack Lavery taking a knock that greatly reduced his effectiveness. Then, after 60 minutes, with the match scoreless, Wilson withdrew to the locker room complaining of heavy chest pains.
About 15 minutes later, another injury forced Leeds left winger Harry Singleton to retire from the match. With Singleton out and Lavery still hurt, Wilson decided to return to the pitch despite his own pain and against the advice of others. The Yorkshire Evening Post later reported that “Though his chest was very sore, Wilson said he could not remain there while the Leeds City team were in such straits.”
After only a few minutes, the pain became so great that Wilson again withdrew. He stepped into a hot bath, where he soon lost consciousness, then died from what was later diagnosed as heart failure. The match was still in progress, with Burnley taking a late goal to win 0-1.
Prior to Wilson’s death, at least six other footballers had died from injuries sustained while playing, but he was the first to die during a match. His wife later laid much of the responsibility for his death on cigarettes, noting that had been a very heavy smoker.
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