There was a time that football was on the chopping block of extinction. It almost faded before it flourished. A former president once lamented, “football is a menacing layer of primal barbarism”.
That president was Harvard educated and noted Rough-Rider Teddy Roosevelt. Sworn in as the 26th chief executive at the tender age of 42. He remains to this day the youngest elected president. And he loved a sporting life. A challenge. The masculine vastness of competition. Football.
At the turn of the century, football had evolved from a club sport on college campuses to a Saturday spectacle of waving fans and a paying public. A deranged attack of camouflaged intentions and implied motives. It was brutal, obscene, savage and angered.
And it was utterly awesome.
Football cross-pollinated old world fierceness and a present bright plumage. An unremitting practice of wild aggression and an Elizabethian ambience of mysticism. A true evocation of excess and salvation.
And it almost didn’t survive.
Football was invented for tough guys. Yet the early pioneers of the sport were Ivy League intellectuals. Most born of pomp and privilege. Displaying their wares on a pitch that often fascinated and horrified. In the year 1896 there were 32 deaths directly attributed to the sport. Known in the early 1800’s as ‘mob football’, teams were springing up all along the Eastern seaboard. At the time most competed in company leagues, which showcased the intense competition of workforce laced with the industrial revolution. Then in 1869 two New Jersey universities squared off in the first ever intercollegiate football game. In that first challenge between Rutgers and Princeton there were 25 men on the field trying to kick the ball across the opponents goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was illegal. ( author’s note: The Cowboys might have fared well under these rules). The first to six was declared the winner. Rutgers was triumphant 6-4. The very next week in a rematch, Princeton, playing under their own set of rules won 8-0. They displayed hawklike power and an indefatigable determination. Twelve students visited the infirmary. One paralyzed, one dead.
But the viewing public was smitten. Thousands of years past the fact, our new nation had successfully resurrected discord days of the gladiators. An enclave of bitter, brutal, piscine visage and podium-pounding truculence. So, a few get injured, maimed and some die. This was undeniably magnetic and dastardly dashing.
But it soon begged the attention of the college task makers. Too violent and unbecoming of such institutes of higher learning. A call to ban the brutal sport was brayed. Both Harvard and Yale at one time banished football. Cries of petty concerns and vastly inferior moral vibes were heard. A decorous investigation was launched. All rules and regulations weremicroscoped. Standards and applications were combed. Soon a steady compromise was reached as to protect the combatants and still secure the heroic grandeur of the game. But it took an act of congress. In the form of a sitting president.
Teddy Roosevelt understood the need for healthy competition. His exegesis doctrine of football was guided with a purposeful manner. A new and improved, safe brand of sporting was incubated. A form-following set of rules. An unshielding dire showdown of the clashing classes: the meek and mild versus the tough and tumbling. As he had grown accustomed in both his private life and public service, Teddy won. Football would continue. Walking a cagily constructed, careful tightrope, the president saved the sport and eradicated the grotesque insanity of bloodthirsty chaos and installed fellowship and fraternity.
Roosevelt would famously spout, “I believe in rough games and manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal as long as its not fatal”. Dick Butkas and James Harrison would have seconded that creed.
Among the amended rules was the ‘forward pass’. Long viewed as a ‘sissy’ and ‘shameful’ tactic. Years later, Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal would agree.
So as we are now armed with adequate research and mills of medical evidence on the lasting and harmful effects of football, stand down. It what many will regard as legislating the tradition and toughness out of football, just know there is precedent. There is a vivid history of the game that has overtaken the falls and winters of our discontents. Fans who are transfixed on the perverted nature of violence get their sport. Fans who like a decent and fair contest reap their rewards. No one is taking the sport away. No one is scheming with heated schism.
So enjoy your football. Just know that we did learn from the pagans of the past. Death and destruction is not the only method of sporting entertainment. A small amount do decor and deep tumult and heart of realness.
That, and a president that could no doubt exercise the X’s and O’s of the spread offense. Or the wishbone. And perhaps the single wing.
Naw. No one can explain the single wing.
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