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As David Maraniss wrote recently in his book “Path Lite By Lightning, the Life of Jim Thorpe:

“Before 1906 there were rules in football, but few to tame its ferocity.  The game seemed a case of unnecessary roughness.  Teams would line up head-to-head with no neutral zone and bang away at each other, hold, scrap, lock arms for brutal-like flying wedges, slug, bite, pile on and attack with deadly force.  Helmets, more like thin leather straps on bonnets, had been around since the 1890’s, but were not yet mandatory, and few players wore them.  From 1901 to 1905 there were 71 recorded deaths in football.  In 190.5 a Union College back, Harold Moore, died from a cerebral hemorrhage after being kicked in the head while trying to tackle a New York University runner.  He was one of 18 players who died that year.  An unofficial casualty count of the 1905 season read like a military after action report: deaths, 18, partially paralyzed, 1, eyes gouged out, 1, intestines ruptured, 2, backs broken, 1, sculls fractured, 1, arms broken, 4, legs broken, 7, hands broken, 3, shoulders dislocated, 7, noses broken, 4, ribs broken, 11, collarbones broken, 7, jaws broken, 1, fingers broken, 4, shoulders broken, 2, hips dislocated, 4, thighbones broken, 1, brain concussion, 2, and these numbers are likely an underestimate”. 

 The number of concussions is certainly understated.  And this list was only information from colleges.  The Chicago Tribune counted 19 college deaths that year.  The number of deaths and injuries were higher in high schools, grade schools and with “town” teams.  The documented deaths occurred with the U.S. population in 1900 set at about 76.3 million people.  By 1910 it had jumped to 92.2 million.  If you half the numbers there were about 84 million in the country in 1905.  With the reported number of deaths, 18 or 19 in colleges alone.  Reform was defiantly needed in the rules.  In 2022 there were a reported 11 deaths nationwide.    

Like the origins of baseball, football in America goes way back to the “Old World” (Europe) as well as the “New World”.  A form of rugby was played in many countries in Europe.  The ancient Greeks played a variation of the sport and they may have been the earliest ones to do so.  The Romans may have brought the game to Brition when that island was occupied.  A reference in a book written in France in 1147 mentions a similar game.  Looking at newspapers from the 1880’s and early 1890’s in Wisconsin, before there were high school teams, adult squads formed in some towns and they would become the "town team". “Foot ball” was played at a fair, picnics and other celebrations. The rules were often inconsistent.  That’s where Walter Camp, a football player from 1876-82 at Yale, stepped in and for the next 50 years ruled the college sport.  After graduating from Yale, he worked for in the family business, the Manhattan Watch Company but each year he had his hand in the college game.  Camp authored many books and pamphlets on the game as well as naming his All-America teams.  His influence was immense and early in his writings he thought that the only good teams and players were those from the East.  The players and teams in the south and west (Wisconsin was considered the west) didn’t know the sport like those from the Ivy League schools. Their feeling was that any school west of the Allegany Mountains or south of the Potomac River played substandard football.

The first attempt to take the game away from its origins of the multiple forms of rugby and to adopt a commonly accepted way of playing American Football was in November, 1876 when a group of young men from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association.  Walter Camp of Yale gathered the group as committee to regulate the game the proper way, the Eastern Way.  The rules slowly changed year by year as the game was evolving but it was still a game totally different from what we know today.  Moving from kicking to more running and from a free-for all scrum to a line of scrimmage with one team at a time possessing the ball.  The sport moved away from team captains assessing penalties to having judges and referees.  Plus, eventually eliminating endless line plunges to the advent of the forward pass in 1906.  The advent of their being a coach also developed.  Often times the team had no official coach but a team manager who set the schedule and helped with the players in drawing up plays.  For the colleges the new major forces on the sidelines were Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner and John Heisman to name a few. 

After the 1905 season, one which saw President Teddy Rosevelt’s son, Theodore Jr. being injured while playing at Harvard, the “Rough Rider” bowed to additional outside pressure as well and called a meeting on the sport.  Representatives from various colleges and others (Maybe Walter Camp, considered the “father of American football”) attended.  Now Teddy thought that the sport was a “manly” one but the number of deaths and injuries reported was putting pressure on him to ban the game.  He ordered the representatives to come up with a way to make the sport safer. They came up with three major changes: 1) Instead of a first down being five yards it was moved to 10 yards. 2) A neutral zone between the offense and defense was authorized. 3) The adoption of the forward pass would allow teams to move the ball down the field easier and not have the defenses bunched up so much.  Beginning in 1906 the number of deaths went down a little at first and then dropped to an “acceptable” level.  Some years there would 10-15 deaths and others only five or six from actual playing, not including those deaths from practice.  And, the equipment got better for more injury protection.

Some coaches welcomed the use of the forward pass but others thought that it made the game a “sissy” or “parlor” game.  One of those who opposed it was the “king” of the sport, Walter Camp.  He thought that passing was undignified.  But in fact, while playing for Yale, Camp inadvertently threw a pass as he was about to be tackled.  Yale was penalized with a loss of a down.  For several years Heisman had been lobbying for the forward pass and along with other supporters he got his wish. While Heisman, Stagg, Warner and a few others got the new rule change, other coaches held back in its use.  The pass itself didn't immediatly eliminate many deaths buit as time went on, it helped.

In 1908 the playing field was 110-yards from goal line to goal line.  It had both parallel and horizontal lines so as to look like a gridiron, a term still used today. If a player left the game, even with a minor injury, they couldn’t return so most of the 11 starters played the whole game.  The game clock could be 70-80 minutes with a halftime.  The two teams would decide the length before the start of the contest.  Offensive linemen could take handoffs, catch and run with the ball.  The goal posts were on the goal line.  The team on offense had three plays to get a first down, not today’s four and they had to gain 10-yards.  There had been rules earlier, in the 1880’s and 1890’s about a first down being five yards and I’ll mention this later.  The kickoff was from mid-field.  If you kicked off and the ball went nthrough the goal posts it counted as a field goal.

Scoring changed over the years as well. In 1883 a touchdown was equal to only two points; a field goal was five points and a kick conversion was four points.  This put a premium on kicking, hence the name football. From 1884-97 a touchdown was worth four points, the field goal stayed at five points and the extra point kick conversion dropped to two points.  Between 1898 and 1911 a touchdown became worth five points.  Between 1904 and 1908 the field goal dropped in point value to four points.  But, since 1898 the extra point conversion kick has remained worth one point.  In 1909 the field goal value dropped to the current three points and in 1912 the current touchdown score of six points began. Suffice it to say, since 1912, all of the scoring has remained the same except for the two-point run/pass conversion instituted in 1958.  The safety was originally worth one point in 1883 but changed to the current two-points for the past 141-years.     

Why all this talk about college football changes you might ask?  Well, high schools generally follow what colleges do as far as rules and innovations. It may take a few years to institute the changes but high schools and colleges are very similar.  Also, it was the colleges in 1876 that formed the modern rules.  There were no professional teams until the early 1900’s.  The last major rules changes from the original rules set in 1876 occurred in 1883 and that is what high schools would follow.

A couple of notes before I close my blog. 

First, I will write about the seven-yard rule vs. the five-yard rule next time.

Second, Look up Eddie Cochems on Wikipedia.  Look for other stories about his innovations in the passing game on the internet.  He came from a big family in Sturgeon Bay.  His is often a forgotten but important part of the game.  Yet, the school, Sturgeon Bay High School, has no plaque or picture honoring this great football pioneer.  That’s a shame!! Write you congressman or senator…in this case the AD, the principal and the school board as ask that they consider doing something to honor him.  

I’m off my soap box now.  Hope you liked what I wrote and if you have time, read “Path Lit By Lightening: The Life of Jim Thorpe”.  It has so much more about American history than just recounting Thorpes athletic prowess.

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