Think football is dangerous today? In 1903, 25 players died from football injuries. The 1905 season claimed 18 lives. The key injury in ’05 was to a Harvard player named Teddy Roosevelt Jr. He got his face staved in. His dad, President Roosevelt, was none too happy. He threatened to ban football for its “brutality and foul play.”
Why was the game so brutal? Because of its origins. The first “rush” was Yale sophomores against Yale freshmen in a hazing rite called “Bloody Monday.” The first intercollegiate game, between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, was a brawl called “kill the ball carrier.”
While rugby was played by an honor code, football’s code was “Anything goes.” It was legal to slug, kick, knee, “face-stomp,” fling dirt, and “windmill”: lineman wildly swinging their arms before the snap. And there was biting. Sinking teeth into legs at the bottom of the pile was called “free lunching.”
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. Crush, slug, push, throw-the-ball-carrier-over-the-pile football created writhing piles of men. Because a play didn’t end 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 the press loved to photograph. It made today’s cage fighting look like patty cake.
No wonder Teddy Roosevelt wanted to blow the final whistle on the game. In the fall of 1905, he gave the rules committee governing college football an edict: Reform the game or bury it.
Next: What happened in ’06 to save the game!