“I’m Only 31”: The Legacy of Jonny Gammage

Ex-Steeler Ray Seals still carries the memories of his lost cousin, Jonny Gammage, who died 24 years ago during a run-in with Brentwood police.

Jonny Gammage never lived in Brentwood Borough and didn’t die there. But his presence endures in the tiny Pittsburgh suburb 24 years after he lay on the pavement — just inside the city line — straining for the words: “I’m only 31.”

Wearing a dark sweatshirt and jeans, he had been driving toward his Moon Township apartment, steering a dark blue 1988 Jaguar XJ6 with Florida plates along deserted streets on a cool, calm October night.

The car belonged to his cousin, Ray Seals, the Steelers’ powerful right defensive end. Seals battled his way into a starting job on a Super Bowl contender following not the ordinary path from big-time college into the NFL but from sandlots in his native Syracuse, N.Y., where he became a semi-pro star. Seals never forgot the one who’d been by his side every step of the way. So when he made it to Pittsburgh, his cousin came along.

Thoughtful and devoted, Gammage threw himself into entrepreneurial and philanthropic efforts on Seals’ behalf. He saw himself as a businessman with a future growing brighter by the second. How the police he encountered on Saw Mill Run Boulevard saw him remains a topic of speculation. A singular characteristic would distinguish him as it has thousands of others in the years since.

Jonny Gammage was a black man.

Just after 2 on a Thursday morning, at 5 feet 7 inches and 187 pounds, surrounded by five white men wearing uniforms and badges who’d just beaten and smothered him, another black man was dead in the street.

Ray Seals joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1994, having worked his way into the league by playing semi-pro ball. Jonny Gammage helped his cousin, Steelers player Ray Seals, with his philanthropic works and business ventures. The death of Jonny Gammage sparked protests against the police that echo into today. | PHOTO COURTESY PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Ramone Seals is the star in his father’s universe and a reflection of him. At age 13, Ramone stands 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 200 pounds, strong, skilled and possessing the athletic flair that has earned him the nickname “Big Play” Ramone, in the vein of his famous dad, once known as “Big Play” Ray. But Ramone shines on the basketball court rather than the gridiron. That pleases Ray Seals, who struggles to sleep at night in the wake of a playing career he says included 10 concussions.

“Basketball is at least a little safer than football,” he says from his Florida home. “I’m still dealing with all the injuries and the effects of the league.”

Ray Seals’ worries are larger than the games his son plays. He dreads the day when Ramone is old enough to drive. It’s not highway hazards that trouble Ray Seals but the prospect of his son seeing those flashing lights in the darkness. Seals estimates he’s been pulled over 30 to 40 times, though never ticketed. A check of the courts shows Seals has experienced his share of financial troubles, a fact of life for many former NFL players, but no traffic citations. Still, interactions with police are common, Seals says.

“You know you’re always going to get that question,” Seals says. “‘Where are you going?’”

Black motorists are familiar with the inquiry, Seals says. “Some guys are like, ‘What’s it’s your business?’ That’s how it all gets started. They don’t feel like they should have to answer that question. I say, ‘I’m going to see my mom.’ I’m always polite. Because I know I have to be.”

Most stops have occurred since his cousin’s death. He recalled one in August for the tinted windows in his Ford Expedition. “I bought it that way,” he says. “It’s Florida. C’mon.” Another cop pulled him over in Georgia, he says, because the light on his license plate was out. “He told me to get out of the car, and I was like, ‘Oh no, here we go,’” Seals says. The officer walked him to the back of the vehicle to point out the blown bulb. “I told him I’d get it taken care of.”

His respect for cops is genuine. His father was one. But his experiences fuel fear for a man who knew none of it on the field. Every stop makes him think of Jonny, so do the headlines about black men dying at the hands of police. The story of Eric Garner is especially painful. Suspecting Garner of selling “loosies,” or single cigarettes without a tax stamp, a New York policeman applied a chokehold to Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk. As officers held him, Garner pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” repeating the words nearly a dozen times. Seals hears those words and then those of his cousin, gasping to Whitehall police Sgt. Keith Henderson, “Keith, Keith, I’m 31. I’m only 31.”

Emotion wells in Seals’ mind as he imagines Jonny clinging to life, begging for mercy that never was given.

“This has to stop,” Seals says. “We just can’t go on like this.”

PHOTO COURTESY ASSOCIATED PRESS

On a Friday morning in late August, Dennis Troy’s mind is on football. His son, a converted fullback, is starting at guard as a sophomore for Brentwood High School, where Troy once starred as a tailback and outside linebacker. Sitting in the stands at a game a half-dozen years ago, Troy heard opposing fans refer to Brentwood as a “ghetto” team. That, he says, prompted his run for mayor following a career in economic development that saw him play a lead role in Pittsburgh’s stadium deals. Troy became borough mayor in 2014.

“This is a great community,” Troy says. “Brentwood gets a bad rap from a lot of people, and it’s unfair.”

Troy was born and raised in the borough, 6 miles south of Downtown and home to 9,329 people. Rising to positions of authority in Brentwood carried a tacitly understood prerequisite that one be, like Troy, born in the borough and reared on its streets. That unwritten rule, former borough Councilman Bob Cranmer recalls, applied to those who patrolled the place and enforced the law there, sometimes selectively.

Hired in 1994 as chief with the backing of reformed-minded leaders such as Cranmer, Wayne Babish worked to transform a police force referred to at the time as “good old boys.” When Babish refused to stand by his officers’ actions in Gammage’s death, the municipal council fired him. Cranmer was a vocal critic of borough police and his family was threatened and harassed.

“It was a very difficult time,” Cranmer says. “There were a lot of people in the borough who were not very happy with me. They lined up outside my house. It was frightening.”

He insists the swirling undercurrents that produced those troubled days have been swept aside. The election of Troy, a former staffer of Cranmer’s, signaled a turning point for Brentwood, Cranmer says. Both men cite Cranmer’s appointment to the borough police civil service commission, which helps select new officers, as evidence of how far Brentwood has come since 1995.

“We have a modern, professional police department,” Cranmer says. “Our community is more diverse. This is a different place.”

At the time of Gammage’s death, only 14 African-American people lived in Brentwood, making up slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the borough’s population. Today, roughly 3 percent of the population is black. The borough police department has been made over. Longtime police Sgt. John Vojtas, an integral figure in the Gammage case, has retired. None of the remaining 14 officers was on the force then, Troy says.

“We have an excellent police department,” Troy says. “We have a great community.”

Still, others wonder if anything besides the numbers has changed in Brentwood, or the rest of the country, since that October night.

Rod Doss understands the feelings of fear that rush through the veins when a cruiser turns up in the rear-view mirror.

Since 1997, Doss, a city native, has been the editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier. Despite his position at the helm of one of the city’s leading institutions, Doss knows the reality of “being of color while driving a wrong kind of car.” His response mirrors Seals’.

“It’s a question of maintaining a certain decorum or protocol as it relates to dealing with police,” Doss says from his office on East Carson Street. “If you are a person of color, you must be very cooperative with the police, watch your tone, everything.”

That mindset should apply to police, too, Babish says. As Brentwood police chief in early 1995, he sent a department memo titled “Courtesy on the highway.”

“The bullying or bombastic Brentwood police officer who believes that a motorist must be given a tongue-lashing for any minor infraction or when an arrest is made, is generally a coward in uniform,” Babish wrote.

Eight months later, on Oct. 12, 1995, borough police Lt. Milton Mulholland began tailing Gammage. After the young businessman pulled over on Route 51 near Frank and Shirley’s diner, Vojtas arrived. By most accounts, the situation began unraveling when Vojtas swung his flashlight and knocked Gammage’s phone and day planner from his hand.

Slender and soft-spoken, Gammage was ill-equipped for the fight of his life, Seals says. Mulholland weighed 225 pounds. Vojtas was an avid weightlifter nicknamed “Lats” in high school for his physique. Gammage, meanwhile, suffered from back trouble that rendered him unable even to take part in a game of pickup basketball, Seals says.

“I went to his apartment afterward and saw he had back medicine set out,” Seals says. “There was no way Jonny could resist those officers.”

An autopsy conducted by the Allegheny County medical examiner found Gammage died of “positional asphyxia,” referring to his position face-down with officers applying pressure on his back and neck, leaving him unable to breathe. His death was ruled a homicide. Three officers — Mulholland, Vojtas and Baldwin police Officer Michael Albert — were charged with involuntary manslaughter. The case against Mulholland and Albert ended in a mistrial and Vojtas was acquitted.

“They always say justice, justice, justice,” Seals says. “Man, there is no justice.”

PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Following Gammage’s death, police academies here and across the country began teaching techniques to avoid positional asphyxia.

But the gap between needed training and what officers actually receive remains vast, according to Babish and Michael Botta, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice and Intelligence at Point Park University. The issue is especially acute in Allegheny County, where the number of police departments tops 100.

“These smaller communities can’t afford either to train officers properly or pay them a decent wage,” says Botta, a former federal Drug Enforcement Agency investigator. “That is something that absolutely needs to change.”

Botta contrasts policing in small localities with that of Pittsburgh police, where Chief Scott Schubert and others have undergone additional training at Point Park.

“That’s a very professional police department, and it makes a difference,” Botta says.

Consolidating departments is an option Botta, Babish and others favor. But that stirs old turf wars. Officers are left soldiering on in those smaller communities, where salaries typically start at less than $50,000.

Point Park, Botta says, offers tuition discounts for working officers. But they tell Botta they can’t afford it and lack the time.

“If we want good police officers,” he says, “we need to make it a priority.”

Meanwhile, billions of dollars in military equipment — tactical gear, assault weapons, armored vehicles and more — have flowed into police departments across the country, shepherded there under federal Department of Homeland Security programs. This, Botta says, feeds a central problem.

“Some of these guys have been watching too much ‘Rambo,’” he says. “They have the wrong idea of what policing is about. So we have all this Homeland Security money out there, all these cops with all these AKs and everything else. We need community-oriented policing, like the beat cops from 50 years ago, who knew everybody in the community.”

Awaiting pregame introductions before Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers starting right defensive end reflected on his remarkable rise. His favorite team growing up was the Steelers. The Cowboys were his brother’s team. Now he was facing them in the NFL’s biggest game.

“I just couldn’t believe I was there,” Seals says. “It was a dream come true.”

Only a handful of players have made the NFL without going to college. Seals is considered among the best. He spent five seasons with Tampa before the Steelers picked him up as a free agent.

At his side stood Gammage, not just a cousin but a best friend, confidante and his most ardent backer. He arranged autograph sessions, Christmas giveaways and guided business ventures. Seals landed leaguewide recognition for his philanthropic works.

“That was all Jonny, man,” Seals says.

By the time Seals strode on to the field in Tempe, Ariz., to face the Cowboys in January 1996, Gammage was gone. Dallas bested the Steelers, and Seals never took the field for the team again. By 1998, his unlikely NFL career was over.

“It was never the same,” he says.

Pittsburgh has not altogether left him. He comes back occasionally, joining former teammates for reunions and tailgating at Heinz Field with friends and fans. He remembers getting lost during one of his trips.

“I was driving around in the dark trying to figure out where I was,” he says. “Then I looked up and saw the sign. Route 51.” He sighs. “I said, ‘Man, I don’t want to be here.’”

Losing Jonny could never take him away.

“He is always there,” Seals says. “He always will be.”

Timeline:

July 20, 1964
Jonny Gammage is born in Syracuse, N.Y.

June 17, 1965
Ray Seals is born in Syracuse, N.Y.

1986-87
Seals plays with the Syracuse Express of the Semi-Pro Football League; he works part-time at Taco Bell, a rib restaurant and the Hotel Syracuse.

November 1987
Seals tries out with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

1989
Seals plays in his first regular season NFL game; two years later, he becomes a starter at left defensive end.

1992
Seals is inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame.

1994
Seals signs a three-year, $2.8 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The deal comes with a $400,000 signing bonus. He buys a blue 1988 Jaguar XJ6.  Seals and his cousin Gammage form Athletic Promotions to market Seals and other players.

Oct. 11, 1995
Gammage calls Seals to advise that the lineman’s grandfather is ill.

Oct. 12, 1995
Brentwood police Lt. Milton Mulholland begins following Gammage driving his cousin’s Jaguar on Saw Mill Run Boulevard. He is pulled over just inside the Pittsburgh city line, clashes with five white police officers and is held face-down on the pavement, where he dies.

Oct. 16, 1995
An autopsy shows Gammage died of positional asphyxia, the result of compression of his chest and neck, rendering him unable to breathe.

Nov. 27, 1995
Allegheny County District Attorney Bob Colville announces that three officers — Mulholland, Brentwood police Officer John Vojtas and Baldwin police Officer Michael Albert — have been charged with involuntary man-slaughter in the killing of Gammage.

Jan. 28, 1996
Seals starts for the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys, recording a sack of future Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. The Steelers lose 27-17.

August 1996
Seals tears his rotator cuff and spends the season on injured reserve.

Oct. 8, 1996
A mistrial is declared in the case of Mulholland and Albert. Following a second mistrial a year later, charges against them are dropped.

Nov. 14, 1996
A jury acquits Vojtas.

1997
Seals signs with Carolina Panthers, plays in 14 games and starts seven.

April 15, 1998
Seals signs a contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.

July 13, 1998
Seals announces his retirement from the NFL.

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