Last November I wrote an article for The Boston Globe taking a look back at the crisis that faced football in the early 1900s because of the violent nature of the sport (19 players died as a result of gridiron injuries in 1905) and Teddy Roosevelt’s intervention in 1905 to get the leading colleges to reform the sport. It had been suggested to me that the subject would make a good book. The primary source material about TR’s role seemed thin to me, though, and I wasn’t sure how such a book could be structured.
Well, now I see how the project could have been executed. John J. Miller delves into this particularly timely topic, given the current spotlight on hard hits and concussions in the NFL, in his new book, “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.” Given the limited research materials on Roosevelt's actions in 1905, Miller’s work encompasses a broader timespan, taking a dual storyline of the evolution of football from its early days and the sporting life of Roosevelt from his days as a sickly youth.
Miller mentions early in “The Big Scrum” that he was surprised that the epic biographies of Roosevelt by Edmund Morris omitted any mention of his role in lobbying for college football reform, and I was as well when I was researching the subject. The book’s subtitle, “How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,” however, is probably a bit of hyperbole. Miller himself writes this about Roosevelt on page 17, “It is probably too much to call him football’s savior.”
Still, as a TR buff and a football fan, “The Big Scrum” was an informative and entertaining read, and I definitely learned some new factoids.
"The Big Scrum" reaffirmed my belief that Roosevelt could not have been a mere mortal (Could anyone else have given a 90-minute speech after being shot in the chest?). President, author of 18 books, big game hunter, trust buster, Rough Rider. Did this guy ever sleep? From Miller’s book I learned that one day a young TR rowed across Long Island Sound from Oyster Bay, NY, on a 25-mile roundtrip. During his honeymoon, he scaled the Matterhorn. Screw the Dos Equis guy; Teddy Roosevelt is “the most interesting man in the world.”
Even though many say that football is our “new national pastime,” the history of the early days of football hasn’t gotten nearly as much ink as that of baseball. “The Big Scrum” helps to fill that void, and this may be the most engaging part of the book. Miller takes us all the way back to Medieval Europe, whole towns would play a form of football where large mobs played with an inflated pig’s bladder. Hence the term “pigskin.” The tradition continues at the Royal Shrovetide Football Match. Augusta National this is not, however, if you check out the YouTube video. The story of the 1876 Harvard-Yale game, which opens the book, with Roosevelt in the stands as a spectator is a cracker. Yale won 1-0. Touchdowns did not count for points; only the kicks after touchdowns counted if they cleared a clothesline strung between two poles 20 feet apart from 100 feet away.
The evolution of rules is fascinating as well. One season safeties did not count against teams. As Miller writes, “A safety mere let [the offensive team] put the ball on their own 25-yard line and start over.” In the 1880 Princeton-Yale game, Princeton took the ball in the second half, took 11 safeties, and never gave Yale the ball. Result: a 0-0 tie. Fun! Makes Ravens-Steelers seem like an AFL shootout in comparison.
One other fun factoid: the first Cal-Stanford game in 1892 was delayed for an hour because no one remembered to bring a football. Perhaps the Stanford band entertained the crowd in the meantime.
Stay thirsty my friends...