by Jeremy Fuchs
With blood dripping from above one eye, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. lay prone on a Cambridge, Mass., field with 21 young men surrounding him, the fate of a national pastime tied up in one 18-year-old’s bid to make Harvard’s freshman football team. His father, President Theodore Roosevelt, had long espoused the virtues of rough play. Football had built tough men out of his four sons. “I would rather one of them die than have them grow up as weaklings,” he once said. POTUS number 26 was not one for worrying about broken bones. “I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal—so long as it is not fatal,” he said in 1903. But football had become fatal. At least 45 players died from 1900 through ’05.
The battering never turned deadly for Jr., but the battering never stopped. And after a spate of injuries in prep school, his father dropped his macho stance, writing, “I am afraid if [my son] goes on like this, he will get battered out before he can play in college.”
Theodore Jr. cut his eye on Oct. 5, 1905. Four days later, perhaps afraid again for his son’s safety, President Roosevelt staged the so-called Football Summit, which ultimately transformed football from a sport that Harvard President Charles Eliot called “more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting” into one more closely resembling today’s game, with forward passing and more punting.
Had Theodore III not cut his eye (and note: The New York Times pointed out that “not one man of all the hundred other freshmen … had received as much as a scratch”) then the impetus for football reform would have been left to men like Walter Camp, who embraced the danger, and the sport would have remained scrum-based, more rugby than run-and-shoot. Collegiate sports would have taken less importance in the zeitgeist, as one of the lasting reforms from the Summit was the creation of the IAAUS, which in 1910 became the NCAA. In short, football would not be football.