Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the first in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.
If you think football is dangerous today, take a look at the early 1900s. In 1903, 25 players died from football injuries. The 1905 season claimed 18 lives. Perhaps the most pivotal injury was a Harvard player, Teddy Roosevelt Jr. getting his face staved in. His dad, President Teddy Roosevelt, threatened to abolish football for its “brutality and foul play.”
Why was the game so brutal and foul? Because of its origins. The first “rush” was Yale sophomores against Yale freshmen in a rite of passage called “Bloody Monday.” The first intercollegiate “game” between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 was a brawl called “kill the ball carrier.”
Whereas rugby was played according to an honor code, football’s code was “Anything goes.” There were no rules against slugging, kicking, kneeing, “face-stomping,” dirt-flinging, hair-pulling, and “wind-milling”: lineman wildly swinging their arms before the snap in anticipation of wrecking havoc. And there was biting. Sinking teeth into legs at the bottom of the pile was known as “free lunching.”
But the most dangerous tactics were “mass plays” that treated the defense like bowling pins. Groups of players, well back of the line, locked arms, and rushed forward at full speed like a battering ram. This was crush, slug, push, throw-the-ball-carrier-over-the-pile football. (Some uniforms had handles!) It was all legal. It produced writhing piles of men thrashing around in the mud. Because a play wasn’t over until the ball carrier touched the ball to the ground, one “maul in goal” went on for 15 minutes before the “touch down.” From such piles emerged bloodied players with mangled limbs that the press loved to photograph. It made today’s cage fighting look like patty cake.
No wonder Teddy Roosevelt wanted to abolish the game. In the fall of 1905, he gave the rules committee governing college football an edict: Reform the game or bury it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Meehl has published four novels with Random House: Out of Patience, Suck It Up, Suck It Up and Die, and You Don’t Know About Me. His books have garnered a Junior Library Guild Selection, a Blue Ribbon from the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books and starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. In a former incarnation, Meehl was a puppeteer on “Sesame Street” and in Jim Henson films, including “The Dark Crystal.” His transition from puppets to pen included writing for television shows such as “The Magic School Bus” and “Between the Lions,” for which he won three Emmys. Meehl lives in Connecticut and is writing Blowback ’63 and Blowback ’94. For more information about this author and his exciting books, please visit www.brianmeehl.com and/or www.blowbacktrilogy.com.