Teddy Versus the Pigskin

This week, the NFL announced that it may impose stricter penalties for helmet-on-helmet tackling, in an attempt to ward off concussions. This is the latest in an ongoing problem for the league, which, as recently as this past winter was in Congress’ spotlight over the issue of on-field concussions. In January, Congress held hearings to investigate extent of brain injuries caused by the game. It was, however, not the first time that the U.S. government interjected into the sport and its safety.

The NFL dates back to 1920 but football as we know it has a longer history, especially at the college level. That history, however, is not all glory. Helmets and pads are a relatively recent addition to the game, which early on resembled an unregulated mosh pit of fury more than the regimented game we know today. Actions which would be considered unsportsmanlike today — and be cause for penalty — were routinely ignored as being part of the game. In 1905, eighteen college football players died because of injuries suffered on the gridiron.

That same year, Swarthmore College featured an offensive lineman named Robert “Tiny” Maxwell, who, at 6’4″ and 240 pounds, was considered a behemoth. (How times have changed.) His presence on the field was game-changing and with him on the team, Swarthmore went 7-1. The one loss was to the University of Pennsylvania which, by multiple accounts, implemented a specific strategy to counter Maxwell — beat him up. Specifically, as one author put it, Penn “focused its effort on everyone pounding Maxwell early and often.” Allegedly, a photograph of Maxwell taken after the game, with his eyes swollen shut, nose broken, and face bloodied, made its way to then-President Theodore Roosevelt, pictured above.

Two days later, Roosevelt met with representatives of college football teams and demanded that actions be taken to turn football into a more gentlemanly, less brutal pastime. (Some say that Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport, but given the prevailing jurisprudence of the time, it’s unlikely he had that power.) In the end, Roosevelt triumphed: by December, sixty-two colleges agreed to enact reforms to prevent similar incidents. Swarthmore’s president, in his statement on instituting these reforms, specifically made note of Roosevelt’s request that the game be cleaned up.

Bonus fact: Roosevelt probably had a deep respect for people like Maxwell who, despite injured, kept going. Seven years after the Swarthmore/Penn game, Roosevelt found himself in a similar, if not more dire, situation. Roosevelt was shot in the chest before a campaign speech stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a would-be assassination attempt. The bullet penetrated his steel eyeglasses case and a folded-over copy of the speech he aimed to deliver, and finally lodged itself in his chest. Yet Roosevelt continued on, giving a 90-minute speech, bloodied, before seeking medical attention. He survived the attack.

From the Archives: Numbers Racket: How football players (and others) treat their uniform numbers.

Related: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris. Five stars on 210 (!) reviews.

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