On an autumn afternoon in 1876, Theodore Roosevelt attended his first football game. He was a college freshman who had just turned 18. This young man who was destined for great things was enthusiastic about athletics and keen on seeing the newfangled sport of football in person. The previous afternoon, he and about 70 or 80 classmates had traveled from Cambridge, Mass., to New Haven, Conn. They wanted to watch Harvard play Yale, in the second-ever football game between two of the greatest rivals in college sports.
Roosevelt spent the morning of Saturday, November 18, touring the local sights with a Yale student he knew from his days of growing up in New York City. “I am very glad I am not a Yale freshman,” wrote Roosevelt. “The hazing there is pretty bad. The fellows too seem to be a much more scrubby set than ours.”
The weather was scrubby, too, with overcast skies and gusting winds. Ships jammed the nearby harbor, driven in by gale-force blasts of cold air from the sea. By early afternoon, Roosevelt and his friends started to assemble for the game in Hamilton Park, where patches of mud would cause the players to slip and slide as they battled up and down the field.
Before play began, the two teams met to discuss the rules. Football was in its infancy, still a work in progress and only remotely like the sport into which it would evolve. There was no common agreement about many of its most basic elements. What number of men would participate? What would count for a score? How long would the game last? Teams had to make these decisions prior to the kickoff, like 21st-century schoolchildren who must set up boundaries, choose between a game of touch or tackle, and figure out how to count blitzes.
When it came to football, Harvard was the teacher and Yale the student — so much so, in fact, that just a few days before the 1876 contest that Roosevelt would watch, Harvard had sent Yale an elongated, rugby-style ball. Up to that point, Yale had trained for the Harvard game with a spherical ball. When the new one showed up, Yale’s players had to figure out how to play with it. They experimented with the best ways of holding it and tried to make sense of its unpredictable bounces. They did not agree on everything and wound up debating fundamentals such as whether it was most effective to punt the ball on its side or on its end.
Harvard may have felt some pity for its opponent. As the school’s veterans prepared for the rematch, they agreed to a couple of suggestions proposed by Yale. The first would carry with it a lasting legacy: Rather than playing with 15 men to a side, as was the current custom, the teams would play with eleven men apiece. This was to become the first football game featuring eleven players on the field per team, giving rise to the habit of referring to a football squad as “the eleven.” The second suggestion would not have quite the same impact on the future of the sport, but it would affect the outcome of the upcoming contest: Touchdowns would not count for points, and only goals kicked after touchdowns or from the field would contribute to the final score.
If Harvard’s players thought they were going to demolish Yale once more, they soon learned their error. At halftime, the game remained scoreless. After the break, loud chants of “Ya-Ya-Yale” erupted from the fans — and the men in blue soon pushed their way into Harvard territory. A lanky Yale freshman named Walter Camp tried to shovel the ball to his teammate, Oliver D. Thompson. It was a poor lateral pass that failed to reach Thompson’s outstretched arms. Instead, it hit the ground. The ball bounced upward, taking one of those odd hops that can befuddle the most skilled players. Thompson sensed an opportunity. In a split second, he decided to take a chance. From about 35 yards away and at a wide angle, he put his foot to the ball. It soared into the air. Remarkably, it sailed over the rope and through the uprights. The improbable kick gave Yale a lead of 1–0. There was no more scoring that day. Yale won.
Harvard’s loss frustrated Roosevelt and the crowd from Cambridge. They felt their team was better than Yale’s, no matter what the final score indicated. The Boston Daily Globe grumbled that Yale’s players were “so ignorant of the rules that they persisted in a course of play which throughout the game was very productive of ‘fouls.’” In particular, Yale displayed a “reckless disregard of the rules concerning ‘off side.’” Moreover, sniffed the anonymous writer of the article, the referees did not call nearly enough penalties: “The Harvard team bore with these mischances with creditable patience under the circumstances.”
Roosevelt shared this view. In a letter to his mother the next day, written from Cambridge, he did not say whether he enjoyed himself as he shivered among his fellow students and watched a game of football for the first time. The future president certainly had no inkling of football’s eventual popularity. Neither could he have anticipated the crucial role that he would play in the sport’s development, as it changed from a rugby-like activity into the game that millions of Americans know and love in the 21st century.
On the day after Harvard suffered its loss to Yale, the young Roosevelt simply gave voice to the frustrations that so often accompany the agony of defeat. “I am sorry to say we were beaten,” he wrote, “principally because our opponents played very foul.”
The story continues in The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, published today by Harper.
NRO runs excerpts from The Big Scrum this week.
TOMORROW: Football’s death toll
THURSDAY: The Progressives who tried to ban football
FRIDAY: The football fights of 2011
— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and the author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, published today by Harper.