THE PRESIDENT WHO SAVED FOOTBALL

Football is as American as apple pie. Whether played professionally or collegiately. Negatives have developed in the game. Especially in the professional ranks. Brain concussions and deflated footballs.

 

The time is the turn of the century. Nineteen hundred five, give or take a few years either way. Professional football was not a fait accompli. Still in its formative stages. College football was king.

 

The game different back then. Brutal and violent. Rough. Fatalities and serious injuries common place. Football fields were described by many as killing fields.

 

Where not fatal, injuries consisted of wrenched spinal cords, crushed skulls, and broken ribs that pierced the heart.

 

In 1904, there were 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries. In the several years before, more than 100 had died. Football was a grinding bruising sport. Brute strength was required to move the ball forward. Players locked arms in forward movement and used their heads as battering rams.  No helmets, of course.

 

Tackles were gang style. A large number of defensive players ending up on the offensive ball carrier. The accumulated weight of the gang tackle estimated at one and a half tons.

 

Newspaper editorials called for an end to college football. Some college presidents disbanded their teams. Several state legislatures were considering making the game illegal.

 

Regardless of the dangers involved, college football was at its peak in popularity. Tens of thousands attended games. College football rivaled professional baseball.

 

President Theodore Roosevelt got involved. A Harvard graduate, he was never able to play football because of nearsightedness. He supported college football, however. It involved the strenuous life which Roosevelt advocated. The game made men.

 

Harvard had a bad time with football in 1894. A Harvard/Yale game. A blood bath! Harvard canceled football for two years.

 

Roosevelt was convinced that football was the proving field for the battlefield. Most of his Rough Riders were former college football players.

 

Roosevelt realized that violence had to end for football to survive. Play hard, but do not kill and maim players.

 

The President called a White House meeting on October 5, 1905. The head coaches of the country’s premier football teams attended. Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Roosevelt said in effect…..Ok guys, time to curb violence. The schools issued a statement condemning brutality and pledging to keep the game clean.

 

However, the 1905 season turned out to be worse fatality wise than 1904. There were 19 deaths and 137 serious injuries. Among them, the President’s son who played on the Harvard freshmen team. In a game against Yale, he suffered significant bruising and multiple nose fractures. That same day, a Union College halfback in a game against NYU was kicked in the head. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

 

Stanford and California switched to rugby after the 1905 season. Columbia, Northwestern and Duke dropped football. Harvard President Charles Eliot threatened that Harvard would be next.

 

Roosevelt did not think highly of Eliot. For reasons other than football. He thought Eliot was trying to emasculate the game.

 

Roosevelt was of the opinion that perhaps his October 1905 message had not been heard.  He called another meeting of school leaders. This time, the President put his foot down. Shape up was his message. Otherwise, he would lead the growing sentiment against college football. He ordered that they come up with radical rule changes to make the game safer.

 

The second conference was known as the Intercollegiate Conference, the forerunner of the NCAA. The group came out with significant game changing rules. The forward pass was legalized. Can you imagine! No forward pass till 1906.

 

The legendary coach John Heisman had long been an advocate of the forward pass. He thought it would open the game, thereby reducing dangerous mid field collisions.

 

Other new rules adopted included creating a neutral zone between offense and defense. Mass formations were abolished. First down distance was doubled from 5 yards to 10 yards. Three downs permitted.

 

Though approval was given to the forward pass, its use was restricted. The ball could not be passed to a receiver in the end zone. The ball could not be passed within five yards of center. An incomplete pass resulted in the opposing team getting the ball.

 

The New York Times called the forward pass idea radical.

 

Fatalities and injuries dropped dramatically in 1906 and 1907. The tables turned in 1909. Fatalities spiked. Another meeting, a non-White House one. More reforms. Restrictions on the forward pass eased.

 

College and professional football might not be part of society today were it not for Theodore Roosevelt. He saved football at a precarious time in its history.

 

Think how tough football is today. Injuries in every game. Yet, present day football compares in no way to that which existed in Roosevelt’s time. A more dangerous sport back then. Hard to believe!

 

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