American football was born in the 19th century and introduced to the public through the print media – newspapers, magazines and books. This volume is a time capsule of articles and images originally published from 1827 to 1898 regarding injuries, violence, brutality and death on the gridiron, the remedies and rule changes that resulted, and the periodic crusades to abolish the sport. Primary sources include commentaries by college presidents, professors, physicians, politicians, writers, parents, coaches and players. Such firsthand accounts provide our only historical evidence of the early game and its impact on players and society.
Football has always been a dangerous sport and injuries have always been an inevitable byproduct of the action. At the dawn of intercollegiate sports many people were disturbed that so many student athletes could be hobbled by a game. Some injuries that troubled critics in the 19th century are accepted as part of the game today, as they are in other physical sports. Every year players sprain ankles, wrench knees and break collarbones. What is now called an “injury report” was labeled by early sources as a “list of wounded” or “football casualties,” as if suffered in combat. As football spread to colleges and high schools across the nation, players suffered more catastrophic injuries and some of them proved fatal. The public outcry over the carnage prompted changes in rules and advancements in protective equipment.
PART ONE contains 210 articles, 85 illustrations and 25 photographs from the earliest published descriptions of college football at Harvard in 1827 through the aftermath of the infamous Flying Wedge in the 1890s.
The first thirty pages focus on college football before the Civil War, particularly the annual match at Harvard in which the entire sophomore class challenged the entire freshman class to a game on the first Monday of the school term, which became known as Bloody Monday. The incoming freshmen were usually pummeled; they barely knew each other while the sophomores had been planning their revenge for a full year. Students at Yale, Dartmouth, Brown and other colleges staged similar class clashes. Editorials in The Harvard Register argued that the traditional football contest should be banned. Critics complained of rowdiness, drunkenness, injuries and violence that accompanied the game, which was more of a hazing ritual with a ball as a pretext for bullying classmates, not resembling today’s sport at all. The contest was officially terminated by Harvard authorities in 1860. Students conducted a mock funeral and ceremonial burial of a football (pg. 26).
In the 1870s a new form of football developed based on English Rugby. Students arranged matches against teams from rival colleges. Intercollegiate athletic competition was already taking place in rowing and baseball but most schools played football by their own local rules, with various numbers of players on the field and differing opinions over whether the ball could be carried. Team representatives met to standardize rules to permit them to play against each other. The rules were dramatically altered during the 1880s, molding a uniquely American brand of football that has continued to be tinkered with almost every year since.
The players were initially in charge of every aspect of the game. There was no official school affiliation or involvement. No college administrators, coaches or team owners were involved. The number and enthusiasm of the spectators was an unexpected surprise to those who staged the first games. Funding, which was originally provided by selling subscriptions to fellow students, was soon augmented by profitable gate receipts. Spectator appeal became a crucial factor in the sport’s survival.
While many criticized football for its number and severity of injuries, even more were repulsed by its level of violence and brutality. In response, penalties for unnecessary roughness and piling on were adopted and additional referees were added to monitor the mayhem. Players could also be ejected for vicious play. Regulations constraining violence were enacted to protect the players from their own excesses. The Boston Globe asserted that the players “would play the game with shotguns if it were according to rules” (pg. 153).
Compared to the 19th century, outright brutality has been legislated out of the modern game. Players and fans expect football to be physically bruising with jarring tackles and bodies colliding at full speed. This is the nature of the sport, not an expression of savagery. When a truly brutal event occurs today it is an isolated eruption, violating both written and unwritten rules, penalized by referees, sanctioned by league authorities, disrespected by fellow players, denounced by the media, and condemned by fans.
Individual acts of brutality are now likely to be caught on camera so the incident is clear to see, not in dispute or based on hearsay. Before the age of video and photographic evidence it was often difficult to prove if a punch was thrown or a player was deliberately kicked while the referee was not looking. Conflicting accounts and allegations without resolution were commonplace.
Early leagues were loose associations of colleges without power or precedent for taking unified action. Teams accused opponents of unsportsmanlike conduct but were unwilling to accept responsibility for their own misdeeds. One incentive they all shared was to minimize injuries. Advancements in player safety included raising the hand for a fair catch, limitations on wedge play, and shortening the game. Protective equipment became a common feature. Several articles and illustrations describe players wearing “armor” – shoulder pads, leg pads, headgear, nose guards, mouthpieces and cleats.
Defenders of football pointed out that there were more injuries and deaths in bicycling, horseback riding, gymnastics, aquatic sports and target shooting than in football, but without throngs of spectators witnessing them on Thanksgiving Day.
An early football (soccer) fatality caused by a play on the field was adjudicated in a court in England in 1878. The offending player was charged with “feloniously killing and slaying” his opponent in the game. As reported in The New York Times (page 43), the judge said that although it was a foul blow, it was “in accordance with the laws of foot-ball,” and the jury found the player not guilty.
The most notorious player of the period was All-American end Frank Hinkey of Yale, one of the best players of the early 1890s. Not particularly big or fast, he was relentless and played with unmatched ferocity. He tackled aggressively, slamming opponents into the turf. This alone was enough to alarm many spectators. But Hinkey crossed the line by using his elbows and knees in ways that broke bones and drew blood. He was considered the dirtiest player in the game and is mentioned in multiple articles, the poster boy for a gifted athlete with a bad reputation. Writers who heralded his brilliant play often condemned his fierce tactics. Hinkey became a cult hero-villain, even inspiring a tribute poem, “The Triumph of Hinkey” (pg. 263).
Walter Camp was the primary spokesman for football during its formative years. He was a standout player at Yale as a freshman in 1876 and became team captain. After graduation he remained around the team as an advisor and became the first football coach. He is credited with introducing the line of scrimmage, the scoring system, the series of downs to retain the ball, the quarterback position, the lines on the field, and other fundamental features of the game. He was a prolific writer and promoter of football. As interest in the new sport expanded, many of Camp’s former players became coaches and taught young men to play football at colleges throughout the country. This contributed to Camp’s legacy as the “father of American football,” a moniker he was bestowed in his early-thirties.
The most vexing problem Camp faced in the 1890s was the public uproar against injuries and brutality. After four games between the Military Academies, the annual Army-Navy game was suspended from 1894 to 1898 in part because so many men were being disabled. Some colleges and state legislatures prohibited the sport, classifying it with prizefighting, which was illegal at the time. Football seemed to be on the verge of its second funeral.
When the line of scrimmage was first established in 1880, linemen instinctively positioned themselves along the line, face to face with their opponent. Princeton and Pennsylvania developed tight wedge formations with the ball-carrier protected behind blockers.
Then in 1892 a history buff with no football experience set the wedge in motion. The result was a tremendous yet terrible play that nearly destroyed football before resurrecting it in new form. Several articles in this volume praise and denounce the sudden appearance of the legendary “Flying Wedge.”
The Flying Wedge was a turning point in the sport. Its inventor, Lorin F. Deland, attended his first football game at the age of 35. He had studied Napoleon’s combat tactics and immediately recognized football was a strategic battle – war by sporting means. Napoleon’s strategy of applying overwhelming mobile mass force against a weakness in the enemy line was in accordance with the laws of American football.
Deland’s twist on the standard wedge was to start the players several yards behind the line of scrimmage and run them in a tight phalanx formation toward the line until the center snapped the ball to a player tucked inside the wedge. The moving mass of men hit defenders like a locomotive.
The most effective defensive options were to dive in front of the phalanx to trip its legs, or launch over the top of the lead blockers to reach the ball-carrier inside the rumbling mass. The end product was a bunched cluster of men pushing and grappling for a ball that the spectators couldn’t see.
Deland’s play was lauded for its innovative brilliance (pg. 121) but also reviled for its barbaric consequences. Players from coast to coast were soon battered, broken and killed. Players and coaches who learned and studied football through Camp’s books and articles also read sensational newspaper accounts describing the Flying Wedge before proper techniques were developed. Catastrophic injuries were most common at small colleges and high schools where inexperienced players – untrained, unfit, and ill-equipped to face mass momentum plays – were plowed under by a thundering onslaught. Some young men were literally trampled to death.
One source admitted “foot-ball has deteriorated. With the introduction of the wedge, much of the picturesqueness of foot-ball passed away. Many a regret is heard because the days of long passes, open play, free running, and repeated kicking are gone. The wedge contracts the play; it huddles the players; it removes the brilliancy and effect of individual effort, it injures too many players, a dozen ankles and knees being sprained to-day to one ten years ago. These disadvantages have called forth adverse criticism relative to the wedge.” (pg. 169)
As the leading voice of the sport and the most influential member of the rules committee, Camp vowed to alter the rules so the game would be less violent. Deland made his own recommendations in the 1894 article “How to Reform Football” published in Harvard Graduates Magazine (pg. 208).
The Flying Wedge was so successful and revolutionary Deland was named Harvard’s coach in 1895. In 1896 he co-authored the book Football with Walter Camp (the third book in The American Football Trilogy).
The Flying Wedge was not banned by name. Instead its deadliest elements were effectively circumscribed by new rules limiting the number of players permitted to form wedges and requiring offensive linemen to be stationary at the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball. This gave football its distinctive pre-snap look with crouched opposing linemen head-to-head, poised to pounce when the ball is put in play.
Although his pet play was disarmed, Deland’s enduring legacy to football was profound. He opened the sport to the brain trust –generations of crafty tacticians who concocted chess-like strategies and creative maneuvers to outfox their opponent – an intellectual energy that adapted with the times and eventually opened football to new ideas like the forward pass and the platoon system.
Part One concludes with articles about the death of star player Richard Von Gammon of the University of Georgia (pg. 312), the state legislature’s anti-football bill banning the sport, a plea by Gammon’s mother to retain her son’s favorite game, and the backlash leading to the governor’s veto of the bill. Football rules evolved, players adapted, and the game survived the first crusade against it despite its inherent and inevitable dangers.
PART TWO presents the complete book, Football Facts and Figures, compiled by Walter Camp in 1894. In response to the attack on his game, Camp issued an open survey (pg. 225) to former football players and school administrators, inviting them to submit their opinions of the positive and negative impact of football on their lives and to chronicle any injuries they suffered and their lingering effects.
Some have questioned the statistical validity of Camp’s published compilation since he was the editor and does not claim that all of the responses he received were included in the book. However, many of the more than 200 published respondents were well-respected academic authorities and famous former players so the book made a significant impact with numerous injury reports and academic records. This early investigation into the health effects of football reflected a willingness to research the facts and alter the game to make it less dangerous to the players.
The current threat to football concerns injuries to the brain, CTE, and the long-term ramifications of repeated head collisions. The sources in this volume describe many anecdotal examples of concussions, brain injuries and players getting knocked out (see Index) but there is no specific correlation or study regarding the long-term effects of head trauma on former players.
Intercollegiate football was barely twenty years old when Camp published his survey so the oldest former players were only in their early forties and most respondents were much younger. Most quit playing football after college, with a few notable exceptions like O. D. Thompson who played for 22 years (pg. 543). There were a handful of semi-pro and athletic club teams with older players but no equivalent of modern pro football to add years of violent collisions with huge grown men. The average size of the players named as the “giants” of Yale and Harvard in 1892 was 5 feet 10 inches and 169 pounds (pg. 115).
Eliminating the Flying Wedge did not eliminate the physical peril of playing football. In ensuing years continued reports of injuries and deaths on the gridiron led to the famous football reforms of 1905, spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt, which led to the formation of the NCAA.
Early crusades against football inspired a marginally safer game with revised legislation and improvements in equipment designed to protect players. The 19th century sources often refer to their responsibility in ensuring the future of football, an existential challenge that 21st century football enthusiasts now shoulder for future generations.
Academic essays by faculty and medical authorities include: “Are Intercollegiate Athletics to Stay at Cornell?” by Prof. Burt G. Wilder of Cornell University published in the University of the State of New York’s 105th Annual Report of the Regents, (1892, pg. 89); and two prestigious publications from January 1894: “Intercollegiate Football” by J. William White of Yale and Horatio C. Wood of Pennsylvania University, in North American Review, (pg. 154); and a series published in The Forum, “Are Foot-Ball Games Educative or Brutalizing?”: “A Physician’s View of the Game,” by Dr. D.B. St. J. Roosa (pg 163); and “Some Opinions by a Group of College Presidents,” by Jacob Gould Schurman of Cornell University, James Burrill Angell of the University of Michigan, and Ethelbert Dudley Warfield of Lafayette College (pg. 171). Princeton professor and future President of the United States Woodrow Wilson also weighed in on the debate (pg. 192).
Several excerpts in this volume were written by Caspar Whitney, the sports editor of Harper’s Weekly. His popular column “Amateur Sport” was widely read and his words condemning brutality influenced public opinion. Whitney named the first All-American teams in conjunction with Walter Camp, and later became Chairman of the United States Olympic Committee.
Artists in this volume include Winslow Homer, A.B. Frost, Frederic Remington, and Charles Dana Gibson.
Footnotes and spelling forms are retained from the original publications, including hyphenation and capitalization, e.g., defence, practise, inclose, foot-ball, to-day, New-York city, and Thanksgiving day.
The Index contains over 750 entries. Injuries are listed by type (bruise, concussion, cripple, disable, dislocate, fracture, sprain) and body part (ankle, arm, brain, collarbone, ear, elbow, eye, face, head, jaw, knee, leg, ligament, limb, mouth, neck, nose, rib, shoulder, skull, spine, tendon, tooth).
Related word forms used in the original sources are cited separately in the Index. Therefore, brutal / brutality / brutalize / brute are separate headings; as are fight / punch / slug / throttle; and death / fatal / killed / mortal.
The Lost Century of Sports Collection publishes time capsules from the birth of American sports in the 19th century.