Theodore Roosevelt Saves Football

Long before there is a concussion protocol or even a professional league, football is threatened with extinction. In 1905 alone, 18 deaths occur as a result of football's inherent brutality. Some school presidents and even their students call for abolition of the game, either permanently or temporarily until safer rules can be hammered out. Enter President Theodore Roosevelt. Though he was unable to play in college for health reasons, Roosevelt has been an ardent supporter of the Harvard Crimson and a fan of the game in general, including of his sons' teams. Roosevelt leads representatives from major college programs to clean up the game. Consequently, when the sport is at its most violent, Roosevelt goes down in history as The President Who Saves Football. This is the story of football in those endangered years and, in particular, of President Roosevelt's involvement with it.

This timeline has been prepared by Christa Daugherty, a professional librarian working as a digital archives intern with the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University during the summer of 2017.;xNLx;;xNLx;Use the settings icon to customize your view and investigate this aspect of history in 2D or 3D as you prefer.

1876-11-19 00:00:00

Harvard v. Yale 1876

Harvard student Theodore Roosevelt writes to his mother of the Harvard/Yale football game. "I am sorry to say we were beaten, principally because our opponents played foul."

1877-04-29 00:00:00

Harvard v. Princeton 1877

Theodore Roosevelt tells his father of Harvard's football loss to Princeton. About 2,000 spectators attended the game, including several of Roosevelt's Princeton friends.

1892-11-12 00:00:00

First Professional Football Player

Long before a professional league is formed, William "Pudge" Heffelfinger becomes the first paid football player. Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association paid $500 to Pudge, a renowned graduate of Yale, to play as a ringer in its game against its rival, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.

1892-11-19 00:00:00

The Flying Wedge is Born

The Flying Wedge, a play ultimately credited with several football deaths and many more injuries, is born in the Harvard v. Yale game of 1892.

1893-11-29 00:00:00

Thanksgiving 1893

Puck's Thanksgiving cartoon lampoons football. In the center, female football fans pray that their "brave" and "demoniac" boys will come out okay despite having only a "ten-pound head of hair" for head protection. Before helmets were standard, players grew extra hair in an effort to protect their skulls.

1893-12-02 00:00:00

The First Helmet

In the game against Army, Admiral Joseph Maven Reeves wears what many believe to be the first football helmet. He had a shoemaker fashion this protective leather headgear for him because his doctor advised that one more hard hit to the head could result in "instant insanity" or death.

1894-02-28 00:00:00

Army-Navy Rivalry Suspended

Because the 1893 Army-Navy game nearly sparked a duel between a brigadier general and a rear admiral, the game arises as the subject of a Presidential cabinet meeting. Secretaries Hillary A. Herbert (Navy) and Daniel S. Lamont (War) each order that the cadets of his Academy are “prohibited in engaging in games elsewhere.” With neither able to visit the other, the Army-Navy rivalry game finds itself on indefinite hiatus.

1894-11-12 00:00:00

The Springfield Massacre

Though played on neutral territory, the 1894 Harvard-Yale game is so violent it becomes known as the "Springfield Massacre." Seven players are carried off the field in "dying condition." Historian George Sullivan later says of the game, "So savage was combat on a neutral Springfield gridiron ... that newspapers printed a casualty summary similar to those listing victims of a disaster. The game’s violence appalled the world and ignited a national uproar about football ferocity—outrage that threatened the sport’s future." After this game, Harvard and Yale sever football ties for two years, each blaming the other for the "unprecedented brutality" of 1894.

1894-11-28 00:00:00

Thanksgiving 1894

Puck's 1894 Thanksgiving cartoon depicts what various Americans have to be thankful for. "Harold Halfback" gives thanks for his football injuries not being so severe that he cannot play in the Thanksgiving game.

1897-08-01 00:00:00

His First Football Intervention

Asst. Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt asks President McKinley to "revive the football games between Annapolis and West Point." The rivalry resumes in 1899.

1897-10-31 00:00:00

Richard Gammon Dies During Game

Richard Von Albade Gammon, a halfback at the University of Georgia, dies on the field, one of the first documented in-game fatalities.

1898-11-23 00:00:00

Preferences of "The Modern Maid"

A fashionable woman dotes on an injured football player, forsaking the affections of three others: two hearty young men—a soldier and a sailor—and a young man who is ill-suited for military service or contact sports.

1899-07-12 00:00:00

Less Brutal than Your Brutality

Uncle Sam plays policeman to stop a "brutal and degrading" bullfight in Central America while sanctioning savage American sports like football.

1899-12-12 00:00:00

A "Corking Good" Game

Governor Theodore Roosevelt writes to Bradley T. Johnson about the "corking good football game" he witnessed at Harvard.

1899-12-12 00:00:00

Unconscious? Not so Bad!

While a woman worries for the player at the bottom of the pile, her daughter proclaims, "He doesn't mind it, Mother. He's unconscious by this time!"

1901-10-13 00:00:00

Fearless and Fierce

Theodore Roosevelt receives a letter from a referee at his eldest son's football game. Ted "tackled fearlessly and fiercely," "never for a moment let up until the whistle blew," and "showed thought and intelligence in his play."

1901-10-19 00:00:00

Ted Breaks his Collarbone

President Roosevelt is sorry to hear that Ted has broken his collarbone playing football but is glad to hear he played through the injury and minded it little.

1901-11-01 00:00:00

Football Meets Literature

Edward B. Bloss publishes a short story about a student trying out for the varsity football team.

1901-11-13 00:00:00

Sideline Tickets

Arthur W. Talmadge, manager for the Harvard University Football Association, offers President Roosevelt sideline badges for the Harvard-Yale game on November 23. If Roosevelt would prefer, grandstand seats are available instead.

1901-11-16 00:00:00

Can He Make a Touchdown?

In popular culture, football begins to appear as a recurrent metaphor. Here, President Roosevelt urges a Native American to the goal line: Citizenship. Having surpassed the yard line of Progress, he must also overcome Civilization, Self-Support, and Education. Two defenders, Custom and Barbarism, lie on the field behind the runner, having missed their tackles.

1901-11-23 00:00:00

The Game

Because he could not attend "The Game," as the Harvard/Yale contest has come to be called, President Roosevelt receives a telegram of the score from G. W. Milmore.

1901-11-29 00:00:00

Awfully Hard Luck

Theodore Roosevelt laments to his daughter, Alice, that it was "awfully hard luck" to miss the Harvard/Yale game, "especially as it proved such a smashing triumph for Harvard."

1901-12-03 00:00:00

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Fred E. Haynes shares pictures of the Harvard v. Yale football contest in a letter to President Roosevelt the week after the game.

1901-12-13 00:00:00

White House Invitation

President Roosevelt asks Charles S. Fairchild to thank the Harvard team on his behalf and invite them to dinner at the White House.

1902-01-04 00:00:00

Ted Plays Hard

Theodore Roosevelt expresses concerns about Ted wearing out his football years while still at the Groton School. Ted has already broken his collarbone and killed a tooth in the game; at this rate, he may "get battered out" before he reaches college.

1902-10-13 00:00:00

Kermit Tackles Football

Like Ted, Kermit also goes out for football. Theodore Roosevelt asks Kermit who plays opposite him at end and how he does at tackling, though he reminds his son to put his studies first.

1902-10-19 00:00:00

A Touchdown for Roosevelt

Not only is football popular in metaphors, but Roosevelt has become popular in football metaphors. Here his work to end the Anthracite Coal Strike is recorded in a football-themed cartoon.

1902-10-31 00:00:00

The Third Eleven

Theodore Roosevelt expresses that he is fine with Ted playing "on the third Eleven" and urges him not to break his neck "unless you esteem it really necessary." Of breaking limbs, the President jokes that he is less particular, though he prefers they should be kept "reasonably whole."

1902-11-22 00:00:00

Don't Flinch

President Roosevelt reminds Philadelphia students to study hard and to follow a football philosophy: "Don't flinch, don't fall, and hit the line hard."

1903-04-27 00:00:00

"Not So Bad as Painted"

By this time, many concerns have surfaced over football's violence. Not all are buying that perception, however. Edwin G. Dexter of the University of Illinois proclaims football to be "safe as games go." He even contends that football does not "furnish as many injuries and fatalities as baseball and other sports."

1903-05-02 00:00:00

Hit the Line Hard

On a speaking tour throughout the United States, President Roosevelt addresses a crowd in Salina, Kansas, giving them similar advice to what he told Philadelphia students months earlier: "Don't Flinch, Don't Foul, and Hit the Line Hard."

1903-10-02 00:00:00

Manly and Holding One's Own

Theodore Roosevelt expresses how glad he is that his two oldest sons are "manly and able to hold [their] own in rough, hardy sports." Their character is more important to him than their prowess in sports or studies.

1903-10-04 00:00:00

"Proud of Your Pluck"

As Theodore Roosevelt makes a parenting decision, he also reflects on the larger issues at play in the sport of football: the sport's roughness. Weighing Ted's courage and desire to play on the second eleven against the danger of his light-framed son being injured by much older, larger players, he leaves the decision of playing second or third team up to Ted.

1903-10-19 00:00:00

Better to be Captain

Theodore Roosevelt is pleased that Kermit was made captain of his squad, proclaiming "I would rather have you captain of the third eleven than playing on the second."

1903-11-11 00:00:00

A Great Score

Theodore Roosevelt bolts from an important dictation session to share Kermit's telegram with the family: Groton has won! "Rah! Rah! Rah!"

1903-11-14 00:00:00

Football on Film

Thomas Edison snags footage of the Princeton vs. Yale football game of 1903. This is commonly thought to be the first recorded football game.

1903-11-15 00:00:00

"Beaten on Her Own Ground"

Theodore Roosevelt is glad Ted's football season is over now that it has resulted in a broken nose. He bemoans Harvard's football season as "one of the most humiliating things" he has ever heard of. "Imagine being beaten on her own ground by both Amherst and Dartmouth!"

1903-11-16 00:00:00

To the Harvard Eleven

In a letter to John S. Cranston, President Roosevelt encourages the Harvard team in its game against Yale. "The one excusable thing," he says, "is for them to get their tails down."

1905-09-10 00:00:00

"Mucker Play"

President Theodore Roosevelt meets with Ivy League representatives to forge a "gentleman's agreement not to have mucker play," he tells his son, Kermit.

1905-09-16 00:00:00

The One Man

Reverend Endicott Peabody of the Groton School implores President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene on behalf of the game they both believe in.

1905-09-21 00:00:00

An Influential Princeton Man

As Henry Fairfield Osborn does not want his son at Princeton "initiated into the present system of football training," Endicott Peabody suggests enlisting him to help with football reform.

1905-09-27 00:00:00


Puck uses football as a vehicle for satire of the national debate over tariff reform. A consumer carrying the ball (labeled "Tariff Revision”) lies battered and bloody at the bottom of a dog pile of football players who are named after the major trusts opposing reform: Steel, Tools, Tobacco, Clothing, Leather, Oil, Coal, and Beef. The game takes place in the stadium of the "Stand Pat" Athletic Conference.

1905-10-11 00:00:00

Far From a Valuable Training

Concerns about football transcend physical safety; the morality of savage play is also a concern. William Emlen Roosevelt writes to his cousin, President Roosevelt, that "unfair and unsportsmanlike and brutal-like" football play is "far from a valuable training," being "possibly the worst thing young men can get."

1905-10-23 00:00:00

A Tidal Wave of Sweeping Change

St. John's Athletic Association believes the only way to "radically change the rules" is for all schools to join a voluntary one-year boycott. The association asks President Roosevelt to advocate such a revolutionary movement among the schools within his influence, as "such a tidal wave should bring the sweeping changes needed."

1905-10-27 00:00:00

Lighting Fires All Over the Land

Reformer Jacob Riis notes that President Roosevelt has "struck a spark that is lighting fires all over the land in the matter of fair sport."

1905-10-29 00:00:00

T. Roosevelt, Jr., the Star

Ted Roosevelt makes "several pretty tackles" and is "one of the star performers" in the defeat of Harvard's freshman team by Worcester Academy. The newspaper account of the game states that the score deficit would have been greater than 5 points "had it not been for Theodore Roosevelt, Jr."

1905-11-12 00:00:00

Studies Come First

Theodore Roosevelt tells Kermit he is glad he could play football, be it only for a short time, and encourages him to "peg away at his studies." Though Ted does not expect to still be on the team when the Yale game comes around, Roosevelt is pleased to hear that he is doing so well at football in college.

1905-11-18 00:00:00

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Injured

Having previously broken both his collarbone and his nose, Ted Roosevelt breaks his ankle on the Harvard freshman team.

1905-11-26 00:00:00

Harold P. Moore Killed in Game

Harold P. Moore, halfback and star of Union College's team, dies six hours after the game from a cerebral hemorrhage he sustained on the gridiron.

1905-11-29 00:00:00

Clean, Good Football

Dr. Alexander Lambert tells President Roosevelt that “this year, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton played clean, good football” because Roosevelt’s football conference in early October “bore fruit."

Theodore Roosevelt Saves Football

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