Teddy Roosevelt loved the rough-and-tumble of football the way college athletes played it back in 1895. He even wrote a letter saying he had no use for critics who objected to the violent game. But a decade later, newspapers made much of the injuries and fatalities caused by football – the death harvest of 1905. College presidents threatened to ban football from their campuses.
Roosevelt changed his tune.
And that is why he saved the game of football, with help from the forward pass.
Death Harvest of 1905
Colleges had already banned football once, back before the Civil War because of rough play. But it returned to campus in 1873. Walter Camp played a key role in nurturing the game’s growth since entering Yale in 1876 and then coaching and boosting the Bulldogs for decades. Football got more and more popular.
Then in 1905, the Chicago Tribune reported, 19 people died playing football that season. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune counted even more — 25 killed and 168 seriously injured playing football that year.
On the last day of the 1905 college football season, a Yale player punched Harvard’s Francis Burr in the face, breaking his nose, and another kicked him unconscious. The assault fell within the rules of the day.
Three other college players died playing the game that season, including Harold Moore of Union College. He got a blow to his head in a game against New York University and died six hours later.
A 13-year-old Salem, Mass., boy died of internal injuries sustained in a game that year. And a game in Bridgeport, Conn., broke a man’s back and killed him.
Roosevelt, then president, knew he had to do something.
Yale vs. Harvard
Walter Camp vigorously disagreed with critics of the game like Harvard President Charles Eliot, who tried to kick it off campus.
It was Camp who had received Roosevelt’s letter in 1895 praising the “athleticism” of the game. Roosevelt, then Civil Service commissioner, wrote that all Americans owed Camp a debt for his championship of athletics. ,
“We were tending steadily in America to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengalee baboo, and from this the athletic spirit has saved us,” he wrote. “No fellow worth his salt if he minds an occasional bruise or cut…”
Then Roosevelt described his own injuries from sport.
I was knocked senseless at polo once, and it was a couple of hours before I came to. I broke an arm once riding to hounds, and I broke my nose another time; and out on the roundup in the west I once broke a rib, and at another time the point of my shoulder. I got these injuries when I was father of a family, and while of course they caused more or less inconvenience, and my left arm is not as strong as it might be now, nothing would persuade me to surrender the fun and the health which I could not have had save at the risk.
Eliot thought little of Roosevelt’s attitude, which he described as “doctrine of Jingoism, this chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of a ruffian and a bully.”
In 1905, the year of the death harvest, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned delegates from the football programs at Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House, along with Secretary of State Elihu Root. It was five weeks before the Harvard-Yale game that would so injure Francis Burr.
“Football is on trial,” Roosevelt said. “Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it. And so I have called you all down here to see whether you won’t all agree to abide by both the letter and spirit of the rules, for that will help.”
A Violent Game
The game back then was largely played without helmets, pads or other protective gear. Then, players only needed to advance only five yards for a first down. They had no neutral zone between the offensive and defensive lines. Players also stayed on the field for most or all of the game’s 70 minutes. Offensive players wedged themselves together and bashed their bodies against the huddled defenses. Mass pileups allowed punching, kicking and gouging.
Some reformers thought opening up the game by widening the field or allowing the forward pass would make it safer. That way, there’d be fewer pileups and less use of the human body as a battering ram.
Camp, who dominated football’s rulemaking committee, opposed the forward pass. He thought it would take the roughhouse excitement out of the game.
What Happened After the Death Harvest Year
A few weeks after the summit with Yale, Princeton and Harvard, Roosevelt asked Harvard’s coach, Bill Reid, for an update. Reid felt pressured by President Eliot to reform the game. Otherwise Eliot would ban it.
Reid told Roosevelt that Camp ran the rules committee with a member of the U.S. Naval Academy faculty, Paul Dashiell. Reid suggested he draft rule changes that Harvard could support. Then Roosevelt could pressure Dashiell into accepting them. The Naval Academy, after all, belonged to the executive branch of government. And if Dashiell caved to Roosevelt, then Camp would have to cave, too.
The rules passed. They would change over time, but they essentially included the forward pass, the 10-yard first down and the neutral zone between the offense and defense.
“Except for this chain of events there might now be no such thing as American football as we know it,” Bill Reid later said. “You asked me whether President Theodore Roosevelt helped save the game. I can tell you that he did.”
With thanks to Score One for Roosevelt by Karen Abbott in the Sept. 20, 2011 Smithsonian Magazine. This story updated in 2023.