Giovanni Griffith: The Swansong of a cursed man

Every now and then, we are reminded of the fragility of a footballer’s career. Of how a single moment on the pitch can inject an unwanted interlude into a promising story or even bring it to a swift and bitter end. A tackle, a tear, a break. We look on, cringing, wincing. Ouch! That looks bad.

For a player, such incidents can prove devastating – the mind thrown into turmoil, morale extinguished in an instant and doors to negative thought processes sprung ajar. Depression and feelings of helplessness soon follow: Why me? Will I ever play again? The road to recovery is often a precarious one.

For some players, there is a way back; but for others, it’s terminal. And in very rare cases, misfortune can strike on more than one occasion. As was the case with Italian footballer Giovanni Griffith.

In 1952, the young defender (with Celtic roots on his father’s side) began his career at home-town club Parma before switching to Palermo three years later. A three-season spell at Roma followed before his trajectory landed him in Bergamo in 1960.

On April 9, 1961, the 27-year-old took to the field of play wearing the colours of Atalanta. It had been a match day like any other: a light breakfast, the usual route to the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, a team meeting followed by a warm-up on the grass, the pre-match nerves building throughout.

La Dea were sat in 10th place in Sere A and hoping to gain ground on their sixth-ranked opponents Sampdoria. Griffith had been in good form, playing alongside club legends Livio Roncoli (known as The Pharmacist) and Piero Gardoni in a team coached by future Azzurri boss Ferruccio Valcareggi. Meanwhile, unable to usurp Griffiths from the starting XI, 22-year-old defender Franco Nodari (who would go on to make more than 160 appearances for the club) had been sent out on loan to Abruzzo side Calcio Chieti.

The action began, both sides jostling for supremacy, Sampdoria with the upper hand. With barely seven minutes gone, visiting striker Ernesto Cucchiaroni advanced with the ball, Griffith rushed to make the challenge. The players came together in a violent clash prompting a unified gasp from the crowd – then silence, the gravity of the situation abundantly clear.

A stretcher, anxious looks on teammates’ faces, a player fighting back tears, sympathetic applause – it’s a scenario we have all seen unfold on the field of play. The first diagnosis from the Matteo Rota Hospital in Bergamo revealed a double exposed fracture of the tibia and fibula of the right leg, with escape of bone fragments.

As is often the case in such tragedies, football carries on while the player fades from memory, stuck on a hospital bed with too much time to think. After a while, hope of recovery returns, but it is a dangling rope just out of reach. A period of frustration ensues. Then more hope. Then more frustration. Hell. Eventually, strength returns, a finger wraps around the rope and the long climb to salvation begins, inch by inch.

There’s good news, the doctors are impressed with Griffith’s progress. A combination of strong bone fibres and effective physiotherapy has him walking, albeit with a limp, by October. Two months later, he is running and soon after, he is kicking a ball for the first time. There is a smile, a sense of relief. The worst is over.

On January 17, 1962, a euphoric Giovanni Griffith returned to the training ground for the first time since his double leg break 10 months earlier. He took part in a light session with his teammates – nothing serious, just a kick about for fun. After a few minutes, his confidence building, he went to receive the ball. At the same moment, the leg of a colleague came swinging into view, targeting the same object. There was no time to take evasive action. There followed a scream, not just of pain, but of anguish – the swansong of a cursed man.

Like some twisted real-life game of snakes and ladders, Giovanni Griffith had moved to within a step of completing his recovery before being plunged back to square one. But this time, he kept falling, further and further. Despite the best efforts of his coach and comrades, the player fell into a deep depression, bludgeoned by the reality that there was no way back from a second double leg break. The limits of medicine had already been surpassed on his first rehabilitation – this time his career was over.

It took four years for Giovanni Griffiths to recover from his second injury during which time he resolved to at least kick a ball again. Remarkably he did, playing two competitive games for Alessandria in 1965 before hanging up his boots for good, the risk of a third trauma too much to bear for the 31-year-old.

His departure opened the door for Franco Nodari’s return. The man who would later become known as the Marble Cat would go on to play an instrumental part in Atalanta’s Coppa Italia win a year later, the club’s only major trophy to date. But for Griffith, it felt like he had been sacrificed by the footballing Gods and cast into the wilderness so that others could bask in the glory.

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01