Think Today’s Game of Football is Tough?

When the Falcons and the Patriots take the field for the Super Bowl in 2017, their uniforms and protective gear differ markedly from the gear worn by those who played the game almost one hundred years ago.

A family photograph of the 1917 University of Colorado football team, for which my grandfather played quarterback, hangs in our front hall and shows a very different player of what was clearly a different type of game. The photograph is one of those marvelous panoramic ones that stretch three feet wide, and it depicts two striking elements about the team: The first is the size of the men. My grandfather was 6’2″ and at least half the players in this photograph are taller than he is. I always thought previous generations were somewhat shorter in stature than we are…not true with those farm boys. I might add that these players were tall and rangy, not like the muscle-bound players of today.

The second element that catches everyone’s attention is their protective gear–or lack of it. The players are wearing very small shoulder pads, more akin to ladies’ fashion shoulder pads of the 1980s. The men’s thighs are covered with some type of padding, and they may be wearing thin shin guards. For the sake of the picture, each player’s small leather helmet is placed on the ground in front of him. Face masks did not exist at that time. None of the gear seems capable of having protected against almost any kind of injury.

Their footwear looks like a well-crafted leather work boot. The boots may have had cleats that are not visible in the photo.

This photo–and the upcoming Super Sunday–sent me on a mission to find out more about early football. I learned that it was a rough game with inadequate protective gear.

Football Helmets

Football was first played in the late 1870s by college men. In these early games, no protective gear at all was worn. The first helmet was crafted by a shoemaker in 1893 for a player gearing up for the Army-Navy game. A Navy doctor had warned the player that he would be risking death or “instant insanity” if he took another kick to the head. From that time on, the helmet began being worn occasionally by some of the players. (Helmets were not mandatory until the 1930s.) The amount of protection offered is debatable; the early helmets resembled aviator caps more than football helmets. Some players wore them to reduce the development of “cauliflower ear,” and they may have been effective for that.

Today when either Tom Brady or Matt Ryan looks out across the field, each quarterback is aided in finding their team members by scanning for the appropriate color of helmet. Early helmets were all very similar and were simply “leather color,” so picking out a team mate by head gear was not part of the process. Only as game rivalries began to increase did players think of painting the helmets so that players down the field could be more easily spotted.

Increase in Rules

Today’s players are not only fortunate to have better gear, but they definitely benefit from having more stringent rules that are enforced by the referees. (The game is made even safer since an all-seeing camera can provide instant replay to enhance a ref’s ability to call the game.)

In its early days, football was a very rough game with few behavioral guidelines: slugging, group tackling, and a general spirit of unsportsmanlike behavior were very much a part of the play, according to John Sayle Watterson in his exhaustive book, College Football. In the Harvard-Yale game of 1894, Yale’s Frank Hinkey, known for rough play, leaped onto a Harvard player’s shoulder and neck, breaking the Harvard player’s collar bone with his knee.

During the first half, Yale’s tackle, identified only as “Murphy,” had poked Harvard’s Mott Hallowell in the eye, causing bleeding, and the Harvard team was intent on avenging this injury. Murphy had already had a pretty rough time of it. He was still in the game despite having suffered such a hard blow to the head that he was disoriented “and had to be told after each play the direction of his own goal.” Harvard eventually had the satisfaction of seeing Murphy leave the field permanently on a stretcher.

Ultimately the game resulted in more injuries and violence than had ever occurred before. Nine substitutes replaced players who were either hurt or ejected for over-the-top behavior we can only guess at. Six players were seriously injured, and Yale’s Murphy was taken to the hospital where he remained in a coma until later that day.

By 1905 the level of violence in the game had continued to escalate. That year 18 players died (there were 20 times fewer players in those days) from injuries suffered in the game, and as a result, fewer men were interested in playing football.

This caught the interest of none other than U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt. Ten of his Rough Riders listed “football player” as their profession. He knew and respected many who played the game, and Roosevelt felt football was good for the body and built strong character. He began advocating for reform in football with a greater emphasis on safety.

Roosevelt Intervenes

There was no NFL at the time, the sport was strictly a college game, so Roosevelt invited representatives from the Big Three (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) to the White House to talk about creating rules to eliminate foul play and brutality. What grew out of this meeting was the American Football Rules Committee that began to implement regulations that would make the game less dangerous.

While today’s game certainly takes a toll on the men who choose to play it, they can be thankful that technology has provided scientists with the ability to create better protective gear, and they can be glad Teddy Roosevelt pushed to remake the game so that it could continue. In addition, the players of 2010 might give a chest bump in honor of the tough players like my grandfather who helped create the game they play today.

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2 thoughts on “Think Today’s Game of Football is Tough?”

  1. Would love get a copy of this photo for my baby son’s room. Die-hard Buffaloes fan. Go Buffs!!!

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