Creative, brutal, and balletic, football is a cornerstone of America’s identity. Today, the sport seems to be on uncertain ground, and to understand its potential future, it’s necessary to know its history.
Imagine a game like rugby, but more violent. That’s how football began in America.
The sport arose as a display of masculinity in the wake of the Civil and Indian Wars, and drew participation exclusively from Ivy League schools like Harvard. But football was destined to change forever when a man named Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879.
Though he fought in the Indian Wars of the Old West, Pratt came to believe that if essentially indoctrinated into Euro-American culture, Native Americans were the equals of their white counterparts. His attitude toward them was essentially this: kill the Indian part, save the man.
Though intolerant by modern standards, at the time this was considered a progressive attitude.
In 1882, the Carlisle Indians football team sprang into existence. Despite initial setbacks the team went on to face Yale, the best team in the country at the time, on October 24, 1896 at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Carlisle scored first but the Yale players, by virtue of their physical advantages, pushed, smashed, and gouged their way to two touchdowns, making the score 12-6.
With three minutes remaining, Carlisle took the ball up the field straight at Yale. Carlisle was stopped cold, but just before their running back hit the ground, he lateraled to a teammate who ran in for touchdown that would have tied the game.
However, the score was disallowed by a referee, a former Yale man, who said the play had been whistled dead prior to the run.
Despite the referee’s bias, the Carlisle players remained in the game, and received a standing ovation at the end.
After this, Pratt was committed and in 1899 hired a professional coach for the team, a Cornell graduate named Pop Warner.
Warner led the charge of innovating football at Carlisle, pioneering the hidden ball trick (the quarterback tucks the ball underneath a teammate’s sweater who runs around the outside of the pack and down the field; the other team remains involved in the scrum at the line of scrimmage believing the ball is somewhere inside it) and even sewing leather, football-shaped patches on the front of Carlisle’s uniforms for one game against Harvard in an attempt to disguise the player with possession of the ball.
Thanks to Pop Warner’s apparent slights of hand, the rulebook for American football greatly expanding, bringing increased definition to the sport.
Then came 1905, when football was on its last legs.
Ivy League teams renewed their focus on brute force to counter the innovations made by Carlisle. As a result, nineteen players died that year and multiple Ivy Leagues disbanded their football teams. Even Harvard questioned whether football should continue.
Thanks to urgings by then-president Teddy Roosevelt, the game transitioned to three downs for ten yards as opposed to the previous five yards, and for the first time the forward pass was legalized, though at the time failure to catch a forward pass resulted in a 15-yard penalty. Forward passes, though legal, were never attempted.
Pop Warner responded by designing a new, oblong football with laces on the side and teaching the players at Carlisle to spiral the ball.
Thus came Carlisle’s greatest moment on November 23, 1907 in the last game of the season against the University of Chicago, the best team in America at the time.
Carlisle’s best receiver Albert Exendine was stymied for most of the game, getting bowled over or knocked out of bounds on every play. So the next time he was knocked out, Exendine simply snuck around the bench and ran back onto the field, just in front of the Chicago goal.
Carlisle’s quarterback, Emil Hauser, saw Exendine and unloosed a vicious spiral. Exendine caught the pass all alone and trotted across the UC goal line for a touchdown.
The final score was 18-4 for Carlisle.
Today, as in 1905, football once again finds itself in danger of disappearance, or at least a significant loss of participation.
The clear link between hits to players’ heads and long-term brain damage, including dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, depression, and Alzheimer’s, among professional players is largely responsible for a steady decline of involvement in youth football over the past six years. The numbers of youth football players dropped nearly ten percent between 2010 and 2012 alone.
“I think football will become smarter. Coaches just have to know the science behind it and what they can do to keep kids safe,” varsity football head coach Anthony Long said.
Many football coaches look away from injuries as the primary cause of youth football’s decline, and instead focus on the myriad electronic diversions offered to today’s youth.
“I think there are a lot of electronic distractions these days that divert energies that ten years ago were put towards other things like sports,” former Varsity head coach Daniel McGrath said.
In spite of the current challenges facing football on all sides, the sport is most likely here to stay. The game is rooted in tenacity and innovation – something most Americans cherish and idealize.
Football is timeless. One need only read the Chicago Daily Tribune’s report on Carlisle’s famed forward pass to understand why.
“The crowd may have noticed something they never had before – that a ball traveling through space traces a profoundly elegant path,” the Tribune reported. “They may have noticed something else – that it was beautiful.”