Gatorade: Legend…or Myth?

The Legend of Gatorade

Weeks ago ESPN 30 for 30 released a short film looking back at the birth of Gatorade titled, The Sweat Solution, but some are questioning whether the founders of Gatorade were really the first to come up with the idea of hydrating and replenishing electrolytes during physical activity.

Below you can watch the short video:

In 2008, during the broadcast of the football game between Florida State and the University of Florida on ABC, they came up with a Did You Know? graphic showing a bit of trivia. The graphic stated:

“The drink known as ‘Gatorade’ was first developed by FSU team doctor R.A. Johnson in 1962 & called it ‘Seminole Firewater’.

This sparked much of the conversation over the past years since then.

ABC Did You Know? portion -Tomahawk Nation
ABC Did You Know? portion -Tomahawk Nation

What?!? The Gators weren’t the first to think up a sports drink!?!?

That is correct. Though, good luck trying to get them to admit it.

The Lowdown

Many others claim they were using similar drinks before Gatorade came around, both at the college level and some even in high school. Mixing salt with a drink or taking a salt pill was pretty common and catching on all over the country based on conversations with those from that era.

Who were the other colleges taking claim? Well, Florida State obviously if you notice the picture above, but according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell who wrote a book in 2005 about Gatorade titled First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon, Rutgers also came up with their own drink called “Sportade” and “Huskerade” was claimed by the University of Nebraska.

First in Thirst by Darren Rovell -Amazon.com
First in Thirst by Darren Rovell -Amazon.com
Darren Rovell's tweet about Gatorade -Twitter
Darren Rovell’s tweet about Gatorade -Twitter

Going back in time

1969: A trademark registered for the sports drink named “Sportade” developed by Dr. Gerrard Balakian at the University of Rutgers. Dr. Balakian began giving the drink to the football team in 1965 and after several unsuccessful seasons by the team, he sold the drink to the medical manufacturing company Becton Dickinson.

Sportade trademark details
Sportade trademark details

1967: Gatorade receives a patent for their sports drink formula after conceiving the idea in 1965 according Darren Rovell and Gatorade’s inventors. This is also the year Gatorade files for their first trademark.

1966: Steve Spurrier wins the Heisman Trophy and his Florida team wins their first major bowl, beating Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. This was the year which created the “legend” of Gatorade after their first experiments with players in 1965 ended with a 7-4 record and Sugar Bowl loss to Missouri.

1965: According to Rovell’s research, Dr. Gerard Balakian of Rutgers began giving his sports drink “Sportade” to the Rutgers football team.

-Darren Rovell, First In Thirst, c2006, p. 28
– Rovell, Darren, First In Thirst, 2006, p. 28

According to the inventors of Gatorade and Rovell, 1965 was also the year the idea for Gatorade was conceived.

1964 – University of Nebraska trainer George Sullivan was putting salt pills in water and flavoring the solution with Kool-Aid. He called the product “Huskerade” for obvious reasons.

– Rovell, Darren, First In Thirst, 2006, p. 67-68
– Rovell, Darren, First In Thirst, 2006, p. 67-68
George Sullivan -Huskers.com
George Sullivan -Huskers.com

Sullivan says a doctor from the University of Florida came to watch what the University of Nebraska was doing on the sidelines and took the idea. Gatorade inventors deny this claim, but Sullivan says, “In my heart I know I had a part in Gatorade.”

Sullivan story from Husker.com
Sullivan story -Huskers.com

A 2009 story from University of Nebraska-Lincoln news source Scarlet, details more about Sullivan’s story:

Huskerade story -Scarlet
Huskerade story -Scarlet

Sullivan claims he collaborated with a neurosurgeon from the med school about dehydration and began giving it to the football team when they faced Auburn in the 1964 Orange Bowl. This game was played on January 1, 1964 which means preparation for it had to begin in 1963. The article says Nebraska won 14-7, however, every reference we can find shows Nebraska actually won 13-7. Possibly a mistake on the page with a 1-point difference in the score.

It is a strange coincidence both Gatorade and Huskerade have stories involving Auburn and the Orange Bowl in different years of the same decade.

1962 – A news article by the Tampa Tribune written by Bill Verigan, the Tribune Sports Correspondent, is released covering what Florida State University uses to aid their football team. In case the image of the article is hard to read, we will display it clearly here:

Tape, Isometrics Aid FSU

TALLAHASSEE – Tape is as important as spirit to hold a football team together for a season, according to Florida State Trainer Don Fauls.

Fauls, who has been at FSU for eight years, estimates that he uses 45 miles of tape through a school year to patch up ailing athletes and prevent injuries, but taping is only a small part of his job.

While many sports have been under fire recently because of extensive injuries, the Seminoles have not recorded a single serious injury on the practice field or against either of their grid foes-The Citadel and Kentucky. Coach Bill Peterson credits this fact to the men in the training room.

Peterson jokes that Dr. R.A. Johnson, team physician, is out to sabotage him by causing injuries. Johnson attended Florida (an FSU rival) and Tulane (a rival of LSU, where Peterson used to coach) and was also a physician in Miami (FSU’s other state rival).

Dr. Johnson and Fauls are continually looking for new ways to improve the Seminoles physically.

The pre-season death of a Southern Methodist gridder, who died from heat exhaustion, spurred many schools to try to find a way to prevent a similar tragedy.

Training Devices Aid FSU

To combat the deadly combination of high temperature coupled with high humidity, Dr. Johnson came up with a concoction known as “Seminole Firewater” which consists of a lime drink fortified with sugar and salt.

Isometric contractions were another aid to conditioning quickly adopted by FSU.

They consist of stressing the muscles without any actual body movement taking place and build up strength without necessarily increasing muscle size. Every player must go through an isometric routine each day when practice is over.

Another precaution, utilized exclusively by FSU, is a new type of face guard. The interior line is outfitted with the mask to prevent an elbow from connecting with the player’s face, as happened to Georgia Tech’s Chick Graning against the University of Alabama last season.

Fauls also prepares the menus for the Seminoles’ meals, a major factor in team morale. On the road, restaurants are given complete menus and recipes for the team’s meals.

The trainer has received the praise of coaches, players and visitors for the job he performs.

Last year, Sonny Jurgensen, ace passer for the Philadelphia Eagles, praised Fauls’s use of isometrics and said that they were a major factor allowing him to get his arm in shape.

Seminoles Combat Injuries -Tampa Tribune, September 25, 1962
Seminoles Combat Injuries -Tampa Tribune, September 25, 1962

The article’s description of “a lime drink fortified with sugar and salt”  used by Dr. Robert Johnson and trainer Donald James Fauls, sounds much like what the inventors of Gatorade claimed to have come up with on their own.

You can cross reference other facts in the article to verify accuracy. Sonny Jergensen remained with the Eagles until 1963 and the Chick Graning incident happened the year before the article in 1961.

Trainer Don “Rooster” Fauls started working at FSU in 1954, eight years prior to the release of the article as it states. Fauls remained with FSU until 1986. He was inducted into both the FSU Athletics Hall of Fame and National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame.

Don Fauls -Seminoles.com FSU Hall of Fame
Don Fauls -Seminoles.com FSU Hall of Fame
Don Fauls -NATA Hall of Fame -nata.org
Don Fauls -NATA Hall of Fame -NATA.org

Here you can see a video produced by the Florida Development Commission in 1963 when Bobby Bowden was an assistant coach under then-head coach Bill Peterson with athletic trainer Don Fauls pouring a special drink for an FSU player at practice in 1963:

Don Fauls at practice 1963 -Floridamemory.com
Don Fauls at practice 1963 -Floridamemory.com
Don Fauls at practice -Florida Memory
Don Fauls at practice -Florida Memory

This is the earliest use of a sugar and salt concoction we can find with legitimate evidence.

Former FSU President T.K. Wetherell played football for FSU from 1963 to 1967. Wetherell said he remembers drinking a Kool-Aid flavored drink called “Seminole Firewater” when he was on the team. Wetherell claimed players were also given an orange slice, salt pills and an ice cube to suck on to keep dehydration at bay.

T.K. Wetherelly's football photo -nolefan.org
T.K. Wetherelly’s football photo -nolefan.org

Wetherell also told FSU spokeswoman, Browning Brooks, many teams were experimenting with sports drinks at the time.

Copycat?

It is interesting not one, but at least two claims have been made against the Florida inventors of copying the product. We have already shown George Sullivan of Nebraska claim a Florida doctor took their idea while some also claim they took it from Dr. Johnson of FSU.

We found one person online claiming her husband’s father was Dr. Johnson and claimed he invented it and shared with the “inventors” from Florida. We have not been able to verify this claim.

Another claim, which could be part of the same one above, states:

Dr. Johnson blended sugar and lime flavoring with electrolytes (salts) to help keep the players hydrated and to prevent cramping. In 1964 at an annual Seminar of Collegiate sports physicians and athletic trainers held in Tallahassee, Fl., a representative from the University of Florida found out about the discovery that sodium and potassium keeps athletes better hydrated because it gives back to the body what is lost through sweat. They returned to Gainesville and, after being tested on the UF football players, the name “Gatorade” was given. The University of Florida requested a certified patent in 1967 for the drink that Dr. Johnson had freely shared with the public.

We can not verify this either. All we can verify is there was in fact a drink at FSU, years before Gatorade was invented. Whether it was shared with or stolen by those in Gainesville, we may never know.

Speaking on the Did You Know? graphic from the 2008 coverage we showed at the start of the article, Michael Humes, spokesman for ESPN, said, “While we had multiple sources for the information, we did not research that information thoroughly enough to put it on the air.”

This retraction most likely had more to do with ESPN’s big money corporate sponsors not appreciating it very much since it does not go along with the claims of those making millions off the Gatorade story.

One of Gatorade’s inventors, Dr. Dana Shires, had this to say when asked after watching the game, “Of course I’ve never heard of it. It’s just another stupid stunt from the guys at Florida State.”

We would not expect a claimed inventor who has cashed in greatly off of a product to claim they have never heard of a similar item someone else came up with. We know for a fact Florida State was using a similar drink before Gatorade came to be. Whether or not Dr. Shires had really ever heard of it or not is unknown, but it certainly can not be claimed to be “just another stupid stunt” by FSU.

Unless FSU was incredibly clairvoyant, there would not have been a newspaper article released over three years before the idea for Gatorade was supposedly conceived in Gainesville.

Whether ESPN knew or not, their graphic was correct and there was no need for the retraction. In fact, not only was Gatorade not first, it was not even second in coming up with the idea.

We are sure the inventors of Gatorade probably did their own research and had their own spin on the recipe, but to claim they were the first and only to come up with the idea is simply not true. Other schools were using similar drinks and doing so before the University of Florida.

The Legend…or Myth?

Darren Rovell wrote in his book, “Had the Gators not been successful, marketing Gatorade might have been a struggle.” This is probably true, although there is no clear indication Dr. Johnson of FSU or Sullivan at Nebraska tried marketing their concoctions at all.

From 1965 to 1967, Rutgers had season records of 3-6, 5-4 and 4-5. Not exactly impressive if you are trying to sell it as helping your players.

Nebraska had a bit more success during the same time period with records of 10-1, 9-2 and 6-4. In the two bowl games they played in 1964 and ’65, they lost in both decidedly to Alabama.

From 1962 to 1967, Florida State had records of 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 9-1-1, 4-5-1 and 6-5, 7-2-2. The only bowl win was in 1964 in the Gator Bowl. Not exactly a great story to be told there either.

Florida on the other hand, claimed a great story and Gatorade being the main reason behind their success in 1966. In the 1966 season, the Gators finished 9-2 with an Orange Bowl win, only the second time in the program’s sixty year history to that point, to finish with nine wins.

When watching the 30 for 30 short, the claim is Gatorade helped Steve Spurrier win the Heisman Trophy and the team to win the Orange Bowl. That is the basic premise of their claim and selling point.

When watching, you would think the only game they lost that season, was to the University of Georgia and only because someone took their Gatorade that game. Georgia went on to win the game 27-10. The “documentary” neglects to mention the fact they also went on to lose to Miami at home that season in their final game before the Orange Bowl.

It also neglects to mention the Gators went 6-4 and 6-3-1 over the next two seasons and being left out of bowl games those years. The Gatorade advantage must not have had the same magic in 1967 and ’68. Also didn’t mention the previous season when experimenting with players began, going 7-4 and losing their bowl game.

Finally, the “documentary” neglects to let you know that the Heisman Trophy ballots that season were due the week after Florida’s game against Auburn while Florida was still undefeated, but still had three regular season games and a bowl game after voting was completed.

Voting so early and having Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood at the Auburn game, certainly helped Spurrier’s chances to win. Once voting was completed, Spurrier and the Gators went on to lose two of their next three games to end the regular season.

Florida fans agree, the kick against Auburn helped seal Spurrier’s Heisman win.

Spurrier sealing his Heisman hopes -Wiki
Spurrier sealing his Heisman hopes -Wiki

This is where Florida State fans begin to take exception and more is added to the rivalry. As shown in the image above, defeating in-state rival Florida State, helped seal the Heisman bid.

Not only does FSU feel they were the first to use a sports drink, they believe they were part of the story to help sell it after they were cheated in the game against Florida that season.

FSU uses Powerade instead of Gatorade -Wiki
FSU uses Powerade instead of Gatorade -Wiki

By the time Heisman voting was completed in 1966, Florida had beaten the only rival they had played, remained undefeated, were ranked in the top ten and the Heisman-to-be had just brought his team from behind to beat Auburn with a last second kick of his own.

One catch is what FSU fans point to. A single catch. A single catch ruled incomplete when he was clearly in the field of play.

Florida State vs Florida Program -nolefan.org
Florida State vs Florida Program -nolefan.org

On October 8, 1966 Florida State squared off against the undefeated Gators at home in Tallahassee. Down 22-19 to their rivals from Gainesville, Florida State quarterback Gary Pajcic threw a 45 yard pass on second down to wide receiver Lane Fenner.

Lane Fenner's catch viewed from the sideline -nolefan.org
Lane Fenner’s catch viewed from the sideline -nolefan.org
Lane Fenner's catch viewed from behind the endzone -Reddit
Lane Fenner’s catch viewed from behind the endzone -Reddit

When the catch was made with only about 17 seconds remaining on the clock, the crowd went wild thinking they had the game in hand. The cheering was quickly turned down when the SEC officiating crew’s field judge, Doug Moseley, who was trailing the two Florida defenders along the sideline having his view obstructed, was seen calling the pass incomplete.

SEC field judge Doug Moseley
SEC field judge Doug Moseley

Pajcic completed his next pass to Billy Cox for a 13 yard gain to the Florida 32 yard line where FSU kicker Peter Roberts missed the game tying 48 yard field goal.

According to Tallahassee Democrat writer Bill McGrotha, even writer’s for the Gainesville Sun believed it was a catch. Gainesville Sun Sports Editor Joe Halberstein started his column the next morning with “It looked good to me. So help me.”

Gator writers described -Tallahassee Democrat, Bill McGrotha, October 9, 1966
Gator writers described -Tallahassee Democrat, Bill McGrotha, October 9, 1966

Fenner and the rest of the Seminoles sideline and fans thought it was a touchdown and had just been robbed of a sure win after the catch. Once the pictures shown above were seen in the papers following the game, many were outraged. Had video review been available then, the call surely would have been corrected and no telling how history may have changed, if at all.

Even the University of Florida’s own yearbook after the season admitted to getting a break on the play on a catch in the end zone, stating, “What FSU thought was a last-second, come-from-behind victory became shocking defeat when line judge Doug Moseley called FSU’s Lane Fenner out of bounds after a catch in the end zone. This judgment call was about the only break the Gators got all afternoon.”

Gators Nip Seminoles - The Seminole, 1967, p. 224
Gators Nip Seminoles
– The Seminole, 1967, p. 224

Nearly forty years later, it still did not sit well with former FSU President T.K. Wetherell who was a member of that 1966 FSU team. In 2003 he ordered three very large framed prints of the picture to be mounted in and around the FSU President’s Box.

FSU quarterback Gary Pajcic would have had more passing and rushing yards than Spurrier on the day, had the completion been called correctly. Pajcic out-rushed Spurrier and would have finished with 240 passing yards to the 219 by Spurrier.

With the correct call, the top ten ranked Gators would have been victim to a huge upset by the “girls school” to the west, knocked out of the top ten in the polls, severely hurt Spurrier’s Heisman hopes and possibly altered the bowl season.

Without a Heisman story and their first major bowl win, Gatorade might have been a tougher sell.

Conclusion

We are not saying that one play in Tallahassee in 1966 was the difference in whether Gatorade would have been successful or not or even that the world might be enjoying bottles of Seminole Firewater now instead of Gatorade. We are simply pointing out the argument from Seminoles fans and how critical the blown call was to Gatorades meteoric success to the top.

Gatorade was still awarded the patent and efforts to protect, market and sell Seminole Firewater were ever made. So the odds of Gatorade still being the big seller, would have likely happened anyway since Dr. Johnson made no attempt to patent his formula. Gatorade just would not have had the same “legendary” story to help sell it or be able to so easily dismiss claims of anyone else coming up with similar formulas first.

We will refrain from getting into the disadvantages of Gatorade with how they impact an athlete and non-athlete or the issues with the sugar content and save that for another day, but nobody should pretend like whatever formula they came up with in the mid-60’s is the same formula used today.

Cyclamate Cancels Test of Gatorade -Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Oct 24, 1969, p. 9
Cyclamate Cancels Test of Gatorade
-Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Oct 24, 1969, p. 9

The original formula was actually cancer-causing as it used a now-illegal formula which required changing just two years after receiving a patent due to containing the ingredient cyclamate, a known carcinogen causing bladder cancer. Testing of Gatorade in 1969 had to be halted and by 1970, all products with cyclomates were removed from the U.S. market. The super sweetening cancer-causing ingredient used, calcium cyclamate, was replaced with obesity, diabetes and heart disease-causing ingredients.

Noakes, Tim, Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports, 2012, p. 174
Noakes, Tim, Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports, 2012,
p. 174

To the point. The important fact we wanted to address here was whether or not Florida State developed a hydration formula for their football players before the inventors of Gatorade at the University of Florida and the answer is “yes” there was a formula some named “Seminole Firewater” already in use in Tallahassee before the idea for Gatorade was conceived.

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