No doubt about it, football has always been a tough game to play. In 1905, 18 people died playing the sport and President Teddy Roosevelt mandated the creation of what came to be known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association in order to control the carnage.
Even though back then it was a college and sandlot game, the contests were often lawless affairs, with rules decided by the teams in a huddle prior to kicking off (including how long the game would last, how many men could play per side and what counted as scores).
The game not only looked different, it was different. There was no such thing as a quarterback or wide receiver. There were no first downs and no such thing as a forward pass. Because nobody wore helmets or shoulder pads, injuries were frequent.
During pileups - and there were a lot more of them then - players would throw punches, jab elbows and gouge eyes with a whole lot more effectiveness than they do now. Deaths happened not so much as the result of accidents but from the accumulation of violence that seemed inherent in the game itself.
At the University of Kentucky, engineering student Price McLean was killed during at game in 1923. Because a stadium was being built at the time, it was named for him. Though most people referred to UK’s old haunt as Stoll Field, the stadium was actually named as a memorial to a player (or what today we probably would call a “student-athlete”) .
Many people were outraged at what they understandably felt were senseless deaths and sought to put a stop to it the only way they knew how. If not for Roosevelt’s leadership, football most likely would have been banned. Instead, a set of standardized rules were establishing, along with a mechanism for changing them, and the NCAA was created to oversee and effectively police the game and, over time, most of what went on around it.
Fifty years later, with the advent of television, football took off in the public consciousness and became a cultural touchstone, a defining characteristic of the American experience. Four million boys play the game every year in schools or youth leagues. Another 50,000 young men play the game in colleges every weekend. There are about 3,200 people working behind the NFL shield in some capacity or another.
The revenue numbers are huge, with the NFL currently working at around $10 billion per year, and the college picture a bit murkier since it’s really only possible to track the big guys like the SEC and Big Ten (or is that Lucky 13, I can never remember).
That’s a lot of people and a lot of money and a lot of work for what amounts to a game that knocks you around pretty hard for the fun of carrying or catching a pointed leather ball.
Everybody has their own take on the allure of football, its meaning, and its place in our society. To me it’s a bit of a existential lesson - life is full of risk and harsh consequences, but often rewarding to those who persevere.
So, in honor of the birth date of Teddy Roosevelt this Sunday, Oct. 27 (1858), thanks Mr. President for the memories you never knew you left behind.
Jets at Bengals - This game will come down to whichever defensive secondary has the fewest holes. Geno Smith has a strong and accurate arm. He still tends to throw it places he shouldn’t, especially when he’s playing on the road. That’s my best guess this time. Both defensive fronts have their attractive attributes, but Andy Dalton to A.J. Green should be a winning combination at home.
Steelers at Raiders - Now that they’ve come out of their 0-4 skid, it’s very attractive to take Pittsburgh since the defense is keeping them in games. Their lack of a consistent ground game is still a great cause for worry when they travel. Le’Veon Bell had a good game against the Ravens, and the Raiders are particularly good at getting gashed by power runners with patience. We’ll see.
Coming off a bye week should be a good thing for Oakland, except they haven’t won one of these in over a decade. Terrelle Pryor is a proven danger to the style of defense the Steelers play, and without some sacks to up the pressure on him, they are vulnerable deep. Pittsburgh has got to score more than usual because Oakland has a talented offense. My guess is they probably will. Just enough.
Falcons at Cardinals - Atlanta continues its “Must Win” tour with a visit to Arizona and their mission gets a whole lot easier if Steven Jackson returns to the lineup. The Cardinals have serious protection issues and are making it really tough for Carson Palmer to do much of anything except heave in early desperation. There should not be much of a chance for an upset given the urgency the Falcons must continue to have.
Redskins at Broncos - So after Peyton Manning goes home and returns sadder but wiser for the experience, this week Mike Shanahan comes to his old stomping grounds to see what the natives think of him now. The run-heavy offense that he loves to employ will not get Washington very far when they are a mile in altitude and facing a defense that is exceptional in the middle of the field.
Packers at Vikings - I’d laugh if it didn’t hurt so much. We’ve all piled on Jacksonville this year for their winlessness, but at least the Jaguars are not incompetent. Watching Minnesota play makes you wonder if anybody knows what they are doing. The return of Christian Ponder will likely help, and that’s all the explanation anyone needs.
Seahawks at Rams - It’s now hard to believe that St. Louis held its own against the NFC West last year. My how times have changed things. Sam Bradford’s torn ACL will have the home team undone for awhile. The defense is okay, but you can’t beat a contender using only one arm.