The season is upon us
Get the game played on a thoroughly clean basis!”
— Theodore Roosevelt
“Success — it’s what you do with what you’ve got.”
— Woody Hayes
Thanksgiving is behind us and thus a new season is upon us — Michigan season. After all, Thanksgiving was yesterday and Advent doesn’t begin until Sunday, so something has to fill the gap. In Ohio, that something is clearly focused on the football game to be played tomorrow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The game of football we see today is very different than the game as it was played in its early days. Until 1906, the forward pass was illegal. The story behind how and why the rule was changed involves tragedy, triumph and presidential intervention.
By the turn of the century, college football had already become a juggernaut. People are fond now of talking about the money made from college football, but a century ago Major League Baseball games frequently attracted only a few thousand fans (game 3 of the 1905 World Series sported a crowd of only 10,000) but major college football games often drew thousands more. Put another way, when Wrigley Field was built in 1914 it had a seating capacity of 14,000 to house Major League Baseball. When Ohio Stadium was built eight years later to house the Buckeyes it had seats for more than 66,000.
Despite this, college football was in trouble. The fans were there, but the players were dropping quickly. The game was extremely violent. In 1905 alone, three college players and 16 high school players died as a result of injuries that they received on the field. The frequency and severity of the injuries threatened to bring an end to the sport, fifteen years before the NFL would even come into existence.
The Nov. 17, 1905 printing of the San Francisco Chronicle carried a banner headline, “Football Claims a heavy toll in lives.” Detailing the carnage, the Chronicle reported, “Three hardened, seasoned and presumably physically fit college men were slain. The others were amateurs. Body blows, producing internal injuries were responsible for four deaths, concussions of the brain claimed six victims, injuries to the spine resulted fatally in three cases, blood poisoning carried off two gridiron warriors and other injuries caused four deaths.” Columbia University banned the sport entirely.
Into the fray stepped Teddy Roosevelt, the sitting President of the United States. He was no stranger to football. When Roosevelt had formed his Rough Riders more than a dozen of the young men who signed up listed their occupation as “football player.” In the 1905 season, Roosevelt’s eldest son, Theordore Jr., was a freshman on the Harvard football team. Speaking at Harvard that year, Roosevelt had commented, “Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it.” Just weeks later the Oct. 15, 1905 edition of the Salt Lake Herald contains an illustrated front page story titled, “Teddy Roosevelt Jr. is hurt on football field” and containing details of a minor injury the younger Roosevelt suffered in practice.
So T.R. called an audible and summoned representatives from the big three football schools (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) to the White House, insisting that they find ways to make the game safer. The American Intercollegiate Rules Committee was formed with representatives from 62 colleges and universities and from that rules committee came sweeping changes for the 1906 season that gave us the game that we see on the field today.
Most drastically, the forward pass was made legal, though not exactly in the manner that we see it today. A pass of under five yards was ruled a turnover and a pass completed into the end zone was a touchback. An incomplete pass resulted in a 15 yard penalty. For these reasons it was several seasons, and several more rule changes, before the forward pass really caught on. The first legal forward pass also has an Ohio connection. It was thrown by St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson from Bellevue — a town of 8,000 that straddles four different counties in northern Ohio.
So, while you’re (hopefully) enjoying the game tomorrow, remember that football was not saved by a great play or brilliant coach, but rather by the actions of one very important fan who used the power of the presidency to change the game forever.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator at the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.