Archive for Thursday, September 1, 2011

Finally, football season

September 1, 2011

For many, including myself, this is one of the most anticipated weekends of the year. No, I am not referring to Labor Day — this is bigger than a holiday. This is the first real weekend of football season! Oh, yes, the NFL has started pre-season games and their opener is a couple of weeks away. But this weekend, the colleges and Kansas high schools start play. To many of us, this is a huge weekend.

Personally, I love baseball and basketball and I enjoy soccer, but football season is the highlight of the year. Football is the most popular sport in the USA and is unique. There is no more exciting way to spend a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon than attending a football game.

My love affair with football goes back to my early childhood. I remember when I was young going to Garnett High School games with my father. He had been a starter on the only undefeated team Garnett ever had, and I reveled in hearing former players recalling victories of the past. On Saturday afternoons we would listen to college games on the radio. Football was a big part of my growing up. I had an eight-year undistinguished career playing high school and small-college football.

What most fans don’t realize is that football almost ceased to exist a century ago. If not for the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Camp and others, modern football would not be played.

I recently completed reading a book, “The Big Scrum, How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” by John J. Miller, which details how perilously close football came to being banned. It is a great narrative about the history of football and how the sport has changed.

No one should be surprised that Roosevelt loved the game. While being a sickly boy, through hard work and exercise, he built himself into a muscular adult. He was a great believer in physical fitness. Although he never played football, he was an avid fan after attending the Yale-Harvard game in 1876. When he was forming the Rough Riders to fight in the Spanish-American War he gave preference to former football players.

Early football was a mishmash of conflicting rules, combining soccer and rugby. At one time, if a player ran for what we would call a touchdown, no points were awarded. The scoring team was given a chance to kick the ball over a rope that was 10-feet high and if successful, they were awarded a point. The game lasted until one team scored six points. Of course, there were very few, if any, pads or protective equipment worn.

There were reasons for concern about football due to the lack of eligibility rules. In short, football was a chaotic, violent sport that resulted in 26 deaths in 1909. Charles A. Elliot, president of Harvard University, led a major effort to outlaw the sport. In a council of college presidents the game came within two votes of being banned.

Roosevelt called for a meeting of college presidents in 1905 and began work to standardize rules. The effort was led by Camp, who drafted the basic rules including scoring, the line-of-scrimmage, roughness penalties and the start of play with the snap of the ball from center. Knute Rockne played a major role. He was instrumental in creating the forward pass, which again made football a much safer game.

New offensive strategy made football more of a contest of finesse. Yes, football is still a rugged sport, but more efforts have been made to protect participants. It remains a game that young people should not play if they don’t want to get hit.

As the decades passed, more protective equipment was mandatory. In my lifetime, I remember when the facemask was added. Today’s players are bigger, stronger and faster, and the game wouldn’t exist without high-quality protective equipment.

So when you settle back to watch a football game this weekend, you might want to thank the pioneers of the sport who battled to save it from oblivion a century ago.

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