Teddy Roosevelt? Well, he charged up one mountain, had his face carved onto another, got shot and kept speaking for another 90 minutes, but what did he have to do with football?
He just saved it, that’s all.
No kidding and it was a near thing. If not for the intervention of the president, 106 years ago, the game that rules supreme in Texas every fall might look very different or might not be here at all.
At the turn of the 20th Century, football was very different.
It was kind of a glorified rugby. Every play was a “scrum,” a kind of mass collision of bodies—then, as now, big bodies, at least for their day—out of which eventually someone would emerge with the ball, if they were lucky.
By 1892, Harvard had developed the famous “flying wedge” mass formation. As many as 10 men would lock arms, form a V-formation and roar down the field, ball carrier tucked inside the V, like a runaway truck.
It was very successful. It was also killing people. Eighteen men died playing football in 1905 alone.
“Safey equipment” was basically a little leather aviators cap of a thing you could fold up and put in your pocket.
There was a nationwide outcry to ban the game entirely. Its leaders made a pretty impressive flying wedge of their own, Harvard president Charles Eliot, scholar-historian Frederick Jackson Turner, former Confederate General John Mosby and large, influential sections of the press. The Nat ion magazine said football players were “the thugs of society” and compared the football game to a Roman gladiator fight to the death.
The New York Times said football’s trend was toward “mayhem and homicide.” Two weeks later it titled an editorial “Two Curable Evils.” One was lynching.
The other was football.
Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t play football in his youth. In fact he couldn’t do much of anything. His asthma was so bad that for a couple of decades he could not lay down to sleep or he would stop breathing.
But the young boy, despite his small size, terrible health and poor eyesight, embraced exercise and every imaginable physical activity. He always swore exercise cured him of asthma.
In 1876, while a freshman at Harvard, he went to the Harvard- Yale football game, the second meeting of those two rivals.
Teddy fell in love with the game and recommended it for “ the strenuous life” he preached to everyone any chance he got.
By the time the “ ban football” movement got up a head of steam, Teddy Roosevelt was president.
In 1905 he summoned to the White House representatives of the “Big Three” football schools, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, who essentially set the rules.
He, uh, “persuaded” them to change the game he loved for the better. (A Teddy persuasion involved a fair amount of yelling and table-thumping.)
Out of that meeting came the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Also, all mass formations, like the flying wedge, were banned and the forward pass became legal.
And that was huge. It “opened up” the field, did away with the scrum and vast piles of large bodies in the middle. It also made the game far more interesting to watch.
Author John J. Miller, whose book, “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,” is a current best seller, believes even if football hadn’t been banned in the early 1900s it could have become a marginalized sport, similar to lacrosse today.
Bill Reid, who was Harvard’s coach in 1905, and was present at the famous “summit,” bluntly said late in his life that Teddy saved the game itself.
To paraphrase Don Meredith, in 1905 it could have been “turn out the lights, the party’s over,” but it was Teddy who said “turn those lights back on, the party’s just beginning.”