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How President Teddy Roosevelt Changed Football
American football had its first game on Nov. 13, 1875, between Harvard and Yale. It was a bloody and dangerous game then. Then, its origins were in rugby, but modified. Until 1905, it was a sport that could cause death on the field as punches were exchanged, fingers would be jammed into eyes, knees crippled many upon impact in the groin. It was like a brawl. In fact, in one season, 18 players had died from complications. Then, protection was mostly self defense as helmets and pads were not that effective. The most effective play was the Flying Wedge, which was like a armor tank of men. The attackers found cracked skulls, busted arms and legs, dislocated backs or necks, broken noses and more trying to stop it.
By 1903, football was already popular and Harvard was its king. They had built their own stadium to hold 22,000. The game itself had a serious mortality rate and this is when President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to save his favorite sport. At first, he told the association that if they do not change the rules, the US government will outlaw the sport! That got their attention for awhile. When things were not moving fast enough, Roosevelt ordered the top college coaches and staff to a White House summit about the game in 1905. In the meeting, the coaches swore to reduce the fatalities and injuries of the game by altering the rules. Starting in 1906, some new rules to reduce injuries were changing first downs from five yards to ten. This made the flying wedge much less effective for 10 yds allowed the defense more chance to stop it. A neutral zone was also added between opposing teams, which acted as a buffer. The number of running backs were reduced and penalties for fouls were increased. The most important change was allowing a forward pass, which created a whole new dimension to the game and forced teams to spread out. The pile ups in the center so familiar in rugby were now much less frequent as the forward pass was a new unknown dimension the defender had to deal with. It is hard to believe that prior to 1906, football had no forward pass!
It was a good thing Roosevelt intervened because there had been a growing call to disband the game at all colleges due to its fatalities and injuries.