- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

One morning in October 1905, so the story goes, President Theodore Roosevelt opened a newspaper in the White House and saw a photo showing the bloodied face of Swarthmore star Robert “Tiny” Maxwell from a game against Penn the previous day. Horrified by the spectacle, Teddy summoned the leaders of college football and threatened to abolish the sport if they didn’t enact reforms to make it safer.

Nowadays, this poignant tale has been exposed as largely a fantasy - sort of football’s version of the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. Yet some of the basic facts are true.

Roosevelt, justly famed as a proponent of the active life, was among the growing number of football fans worried about the brutality of the sport.

Technically, the president did not have the power to abolish it nationally, although some colleges already had. But in expressing his concerns to representatives of the most illustrious football schools - Harvard, Yale and Princeton - Teddy was indeed speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

“I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games,” Roosevelt said at the time. “I have no sympathy whatever with overwrought sentimentality… and I have a hearty contempt for [a player] if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as of serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address and courage.”

Still, reforms obviously were needed. During the 1905 season, 23 college players died as the result of gridiron injuries, and 149 others were seriously hurt in an era when the deadly flying wedge was a routine part of the game and many players disdained the use of leather helmets as sissified.

At Roosevelt’s urging, meeting followed meeting. Finally, on Jan. 12, 1906, the newly formed National Intercollegiate Football Conference - the forerunner of today’s NCAA - enacted drastic rule changes that made the game safer and indirectly paved the way for football to become part of the nation’s collective autumnal experience for the rest of the 20th century and beyond.

The key meeting in which the significant rule changes were proposed took place in Philadelphia on Dec. 9, 1905. Among the proposals:

- If a player committed an act of brutality, which included “slugging” and “kneeling” (presumably to pummel an opponent already down), he was to be ejected for the rest of the half with no substitute allowed to take his place.

- Six men from each team had to begin plays on the line of scrimmage with a neutral zone of one ball length between sides.

- Forward passes were to be allowed behind the line of scrimmage, although an incompletion would result in a loss of possession.

- To retain possession, a team had to gain 10 yards instead of five on four plays, thus opening the game.

- Games were reduced from 70 to 60 minutes.

Several weeks later, the national conference was founded with 62 schools as members. And in the second week of January, the conference approved the changes, thus preserving football for the sporting ages.

Some crusty old-timers balked at the new rules. University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg griped that they would turn football into “a parlor game.” Yale’s Walter Camp said they were “so radical they would practically make a new game.”

For which, hip-hip hooray and sis-boom-bah.

That September, Saint Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson threw the first forward pass in a game against Carroll College. It was incomplete, but the second resulted in a touchdown by Jack Schneider, and the birth of modern football was literally at hand. Other teams quickly adopted the pass as an occasional weapon, although its use did not become widespread until after Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne used it to upset heavily favored Army in 1913.

More than a century later, we should be properly thankful for the rule changes that turned football into something more exciting than extremely hazardous to the combatants’ health. What would many of us do with our weekend afternoons if it weren’t possible to watch college and professional behemoths cavort under much safer conditions than existed long ago?

So let’s belatedly thank President Roosevelt, whose involvement helped the sport become truly “bully.” President-elect Barack Obama should be as successful in his expressed desire for college officials to rethink their method of picking a college football champion each season.

And in his 1905 remarks dealing with college football, Teddy offered another piece of advice that today’s often overly glorified jocks would do well to heed. Said the old Rough Rider: “It is a bad thing for any college man to regard sport as the serious business of life.”

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