Preface: During research on my grandfather, John Beck, who was an all-conference halfback during his senior year of college football, I discovered that football was almost banned in the early twentieth century due to the large number of injuries and deaths that occurred. The game has changed, but it continues to be a dangerous sport.
The following essay received first place in non-fiction submittals in a six week writing seminar in which I participated last year.
Football Players: Pawns in a Dangerous Game
by Gregory E. Larson
The quarterback for the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann, held the ball on a routine play during the Monday Night Football game with the New York Giants on November 18, 1985. Two of the Giants’ defensive linebackers, Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson, tackled Joe, and in an instant both the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg snapped like chicken bones. Theismann, suffering from compound leg fractures, lay motionless on the field. A nation of football fans was shocked and horrified, and Joe’s professional football career came to an abrupt end. Television viewers watched the slow motion replay in horror as Taylor’s knee hit Theismann’s lower leg, fracturing the bones and creating a limp attachment. With each replay, viewers turned their heads away from the television. The injury was too sickening to watch. The incident shook the American football fan’s psyche to the core. They wanted to see a clash of modern day gladiators – they just didn’t want to see a career-ending injury.
Football has been, and always will be, inherently dangerous. Throughout the history of the sport, both college and professional football organizations have attempted to address various safety issues to help protect the players and make the game more enjoyable for the fans. As each safety issue is corrected, others arise to be given attention, but the violence and danger continue to be an integral part of the game.
In the early years of college football, 1880 to 1905, the deaths and injuries incited a public outcry to ban the sport. Mass formations and flying wedges (players locked arm-in-arm) were commonplace. Injury-prone gang-tackling (piling on the ball carrier) and the lack of protective clothing also contributed to player injuries. In 1894, the Harvard versus Yale game became known as the “Hampden Park Blood Bath.” Four players sustained crippling injuries, and future games were suspended between the two teams until 1897. There was enough concern about the violence of the Army versus Navy contests that authorities suspended the games from 1894 to 1898. Deaths and injuries in the sport continued to mount. In the years between 1880 and 1905, 325 college football players died, and 1,149 were seriously injured.
In 1905, the public clamored for the President, Teddy Roosevelt to either ban the sport, or bring the colleges together to work to improve the safety of the game. On October 9, 1905, Roosevelt sat down with representatives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to discuss the issues.
Ironically, on the weekend prior to the Roosevelt football summit, the brutality that occurred during a game between University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College highlighted the continued violence. It became known as the Tiny Maxwell Incident.
Tiny Maxwell was a 240 pound player for Swarthmore College. He was a brute of a man who played both offense and defense. When he carried the ball, it took three players to bring him down. Pennsylvania was a football powerhouse, and they didn’t want little Swarthmore College to ruin their reputation, so they developed a plan to rough up Tiny Maxwell. On every play, the Penn players gang-tackled Maxwell, and inflicted slugs and punches to his face. By the end of the game, Maxwell’s nose was broken and his eyes were so swollen that he could hardly see, and he had to be led off the field.
Supposedly, pictures of Maxwell’s bloody face were given to Roosevelt prior to his meeting with Harvard, Yale and Princeton. At the very least, the images were a convincing argument that changes were needed. Roosevelt’s meeting prompted the colleges to create the American Football Rules Committee. The committee formulated several rule changes which initially reduced injuries by spreading out the game over the entire field of play. The key changes were:
· Creation of a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage
· The distance required for a first down was increased from five to ten yards
· Mass formations and gang tackling were banned
· The length of the game was reduced to two thirty-minute halves
· The forward pass was recognized as a legitimate offensive play
In 1906, college football deaths were reduced to six, of which three were caused by fist fights between Ivy League players.
By 1909, the danger returned, with thirty-three football-related deaths. More changes were made to the game in 1910 and 1912, including a ban on flying tackles. Field goal points were reduced from four to three, and touchdown points were increased from five to six.
College Football blossomed as a sport in the years following World War I. Many of the veterans returned from the war and entered college. The deaths and violence experienced in Europe made football seem like a parlor game. The prosperity of the 1920’s, and the relief that war was over, seemed to heighten the enjoyment for the fans during their Saturdays at the stadiums. The radio broadcasts also created legions of followers.
But the danger continued to lurk on college football fields throughout the United States during the 1920’s. At Kansas State Normal (currently Emporia State University), many veterans returned from the war to play football. Their coach, Bill Hargiss, followed the strategies of Knute Rockne, the coach at Notre Dame, who was perfecting the wide open game of passing and open field running. It was in the latter part of the 1920 season when tragedy struck the Normal team during a game against Washburn College. In a light mist on a muddy field, Normal’s big fullback, Jack Reeves, took the ball and plunged through the line. A sideline tackle by one of Washburn’s players broke Reeve’s neck. He was carted off the field and died while the game continued. His teammates were not told of Jack’s death until after the game. The news broke the spirit of the Normal players. The game for the next week was cancelled, and the final game of the season was played, but Normal lost to College of Emporia, 24-0.
Tragedy struck again at Kansas State Normal in 1921. Don Davis, Normal’s outstanding running back was playing with an ear infection. He was tackled hard in a game against Baker University, and the infection spread to his sprained and bruised shoulder. Davis’s condition deteriorated, and he died on November 21, 1921. The final game of the season was cancelled.
In 1923, Normal was renamed Kansas State Teachers College. For the football players, the deaths of years past were behind them. The college fans looked up to those who continued to play the game. To them, the players were heroes, and carried an aura of invincibility and machismo.
The senior quarterback and halfback, John Beck, had the best game of his career at the beginning of the season, scoring three touchdowns and two drop-kick field goals. He paid a heavy price through the physical pounding he received from the opposing players. The coach put him on the bench for the better part of two games to allow him to recuperate from his injuries. While Beck sat on the bench during a game against Southwestern College, KSTC tied the score, and then intercepted a pass. Time was running out and KSTC was within field goal range. This prompted coach Hargiss to call time-out and walk over to Beck, who was known by the fans as Johnnie with the educated toe. They knew he was suffering, but they yelled for the coach to put him in the game. A great cheer went out from the crowd as Beck stood up and did his best to mask the pain as he limped out onto the field. He kicked the winning field goal and became the hero, upholding the macho image of a football player who ignores pain and injury to do anything for the team.
While college football continued to grow as a sport, there wasn’t much public interest in professional football in the early twentieth century. After World War II, the National Football League grew in popularity as the public sought out sporting and recreational venues. The league’s largest expansion occurred in 1970 when it merged with the American Football League and expanded to twenty-six teams. The players continued to increase their size and speed, due to improved nutrition and physical training, which included major emphasis on weight lifting.
With larger, faster athletes, new safety issues have emerged, such as concussions and bone/joint injuries. In 2004, the average weight of an NFL defensive tackle exceeded 300 pounds. Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have become open targets for massive defensive players who move at lightning speed. The Joe Theismann injury is a prime example of this vulnerability of the ball carrier. The defensive players have learned to be effective by lowering their heads just prior to executing a tackle, thus creating a battering ram of tremendous force. The NFL has attempted to counteract these issues by imposing new rules to penalize players for intentional use of the helmet as a weapon, and for late tackles or hits to the quarterback. The immediate injuries are obvious, but there is now concern among the players and the league regarding long-term effects from the heavy and repeated blows a player receives during his career. One recent NFL study determined that football veterans over the age of fifty are five times more likely than the average population to exhibit some form of dementia.
Will the danger in football ever be eliminated? The NFL history has shown that violence continues regardless of rule changes and fines to players and teams. The constant changes to the rules seem like a whack-a-mole strategy. When one safety issue is solved, another pops up. Fans enjoy the violence as long as it doesn’t get out of control. They see the players as gladiators on the field, and get a rush from screaming out their anger or their joy, releasing all their pent-up emotions each weekend.
The NFL has attempted to address player safety through rule changes, but the recent discovery of the bounty system that existed within the New Orleans Saints team has shocked coaches, players and fans. The NFL alleges the Saints organization promoted and supported cash payments of $1,000 to $1,500 to defensive players if they were able to inflict enough pain to cause the opposing players to be carted off the field. The Saints have been fined $500,000, and the head coach, Sean Payton, has been suspended for the entire 2012 season. The defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, has been suspended indefinitely.
The story continues to unfold, but the existence of a locker room tape provides a glimpse into the attitude and directives of Gregg Williams as he prepared his team for a game with the San Francisco 49ers.
Williams’ instructions to “kill Frank Gore’s head” seem eerily similar to Pennsylvania’s pre-game plan to injure Tiny Maxwell over 100 years ago. Williams told his players to turn Gore’s head “sideways.” He also directed them to inflict injury on Kyle Williams, a San Francisco wide receiver, who was recovering from a concussion: “No. 10 [Williams] . . . about his concussion. We need to put a (expletive) lock on him right now.”
It causes the fans to ask, “Has anything really changed?”
If football safety were taken to the extreme, the players would suit up in marshmallow-like suits, wearing foam helmets the size of pumpkins, chasing each other like Michelen men, bouncing and rolling around on the field. Football would be in danger of losing its soul if that scenario became reality. Fans want to see the physical strengths and weaknesses of the players tested on the field. They want to see the muscles and the sweat, the action and the glory.
So for the time being, college and professional football will roll the dice and let the game continue to be played in a heady mix of television money, fanatical followers, packed stadiums and slow motion replays . . . and they’ll wait for the next tragedy to occur.
* * *Sources:
History of American Football – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Violence and Controversy (1905)
Miller, John J. How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Wall Street Journal, Thursday, April 21, 2011, page A13.
Pagano, Richard. Robert ‘Tiny’ Maxwell. College Football Historical Society, Volume I, No. IV, May 1988.
Keyes, Ralph. Tiny Maxwell Cut a Wide Swath As a Football Player, Ref and Writer.
Markowitz, Fred A. Football – For the Sport of It (A history of football from 1893 to 1962 at the Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia).
Football game summaries, Kansas State Teachers College, Yearbook, The Sunflower 1924, pages 116 - 117.
Wallace, Francis. Knute Rockne. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960
Futterman, Matthew and Albergotti, Reed, NFL Flags Saints for Bounty Hunting. Wall Street Journal, Thursday, March 22, 2012, page A1.
Mellinger, Sam. NFL, Fans Share Blame for Pain. The Kansas City Star, Thursday, March 22, 2012, page A1.
Babb, Kent. A Stunning Penalty. The Kansas City Star, Thursday, March 22, 2012, page B1.
MercuryNews.com, 04/04/12, Bounty Tape Transcript: Saints assistant Gregg Williams tells his players to try to seriously hurt 49ers players.