Walter Camp, Teddy and American Football

Monday, October 6, 2014

Walter Camp, who was often called the Father of American Football, was born in Connecticut, shortly before the start of the Civil War, in 1859, to a rather well-to-do family. As a youth he attended the prestigious Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven and then moved on to Yale College in 1876. He was a good runner and strong swimmer. At Yale he was very active, excelling in Yale's sports -- namely rugby and baseball. He played rugby for six seasons, graduating in 1882, with a degree in business (after studying for a time in medicine.)

In 1880, '81, and '82 Camp was named Captain of the Yale team, a position which would correspond to the position of "Head Coach" today. In that capacity Camp attended various Rules Committee meetings with the other leading rugby schools---primarily New England schools, Columbia, Rutgers, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Though still a student, Camp made an immediate impact on the sport of rugby in America.

Camp had noticed that most of the injuries in rugby occurred in the "scrum," the free-for-all push and shove which begins every rugby play. Camp worked to change the "scrum" and over the course of time, with the leadership of Camp, first as a player-coach, and later as the real head coach of the Yale team, Rugby evolved into American Football, as we know it today.

At the 1880 U.S. College Rules meeting Camp lobbied for the "scrum" to be replaced with a "line of scrimmage" where teams line up on either side to begin a play. Eventually, Camp is credited with developing the "snap back from center," "marking the lines for a standard football field," "the system of four downs to go ten yards," "points for touchdowns, extra points, field goals, and safeties." He proposed that the number of players on a team be reduced from 15 to eleven. He developed the alignment of seven offensive linemen and four backs (a quarterback, a fullback, and two halfbacks.)

Camp used his business experience even during his playing days and after graduation by working in the family business, "New Haven Clock Company," but always stayed active in the Yale Football Program (as an unpaid advisor), (save for a two year period, 1894-1896, when he coached the football team at Stanford University in California.

At age 33, in 1892, Camp was already being hailed in this country as the "Father of American Football," the nickname given to him by Harper's Weekly. It was an appropriate name, as he had almost single-handedly changed rugby into American Football.

By the turn of the century Camp was the virtual Czar of Yale football. He hired the coaches, and played a big part in recruiting players to the Yale program. In that day it was a common practice for colleges to use various (questionable) means to lure players to their programs which would be considered no-nos today. It wasn't that Camp was doing things that were illegal. He was just better at doing it than most of the other college administrators.

Camp used his contacts among his well-heeled business associates for contributions to the Yale Football Program -- to build up an athletic incentive fund. By 1906 this fund at Yale amounted to $100,000, which would be the equivalent to $2.5 million in today's dollars. Camp used these funds to develop powerful Yale teams. For instance: One outstanding Yale player at this time was a fellow named James J. Hogan. Hogan was an immigrant from Ireland, who worked his way through Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Though a standout athlete Hogan was working as a laborer when Camp "discovered" him (at age 25) and enticed him to come to Yale.

Hogan was an immediate standout on the Yale football team (he was voted a member of the All-College team of the first half of the 20th Century). For four years he anchored the line for the Yalies, earning All-American honors three times. He often carried the ball, as Yale had a Tackle-back play that was very successful. But Camp and the Yale Administration saw to it that Hogan was well treated. He paid no tuition and lived in a luxurious suite at his dorm.

Furthermore, he had the concession for score cards at baseball games, and held an exclusive campus franchise for cigarettes -- known on campus as "Hogan's Cigarettes." He proved worthy of his keep, and during his time at Yale the team had a 43-3-2 record. As a bonus, Hogan was a standout on the track team. He proved that he was no sports bum by excelling as a member of the debating team. He graduated with honors at Yale. Two years later he graduated from the Columbia Law School, and set up a law practice in New York in 1908. Tragically, he died of Bright's Disease in 1910.

Questionable recruiting practices or not, Camp compiled an enviable record at Yale, as a player, a coach, and behind the scenes director of football operations. However, by 1905 the game of American football had gotten so rough, even with the measures that Camp had devised, that very vocal critics were demanding that the game (featuring the flying wedge, dogpiles and gouging) be outlawed on school campuses. Rep. Landis, from Indiana, noted, "... dog fighting, cock fighting, and bull fighting are Sabbath School games compared with modern football." 19 young men lost their lives playing American football in 1905 alone.

The game was in real danger of being outlawed when President Theodore Roosevelt stepped into the controversy. Although asthma and severe myopia had prevented Teddy R. from playing football at Harvard in 1876, he very much admired the sport, asserting that "football provides character building lessons for today's youths." He backed that up later, when 10 of his Roughriders listed themselves as football players, and proved their worth, attacking San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898. Roosevelt's own son had suffered a broken nose at Harvard -- in absorbing his valuable lesson.

Roosevelt called together the leading football schools of the day -- Harvard, Princeton, and Yale and pointed out the need for football to reform itself, before public opinion forced the outlawing of the sport altogether. The school representatives could see the hand writing on the wall, and, with some reluctance, set up the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (later to become the NCAA). This first committee changed the rules, banning some of the most glaring dangerous practices and limiting the game to actual students, taking away "slush funds," greatly limiting perks for athletes, and arranging to mak annual rules---changes that continue to this day.

Even though Walter Camp's great influence on College football was much diminished after the 1905 meetings, he continued to be the driving force behind Yale's football program for many years. His interest in the game never varied---to the end of his days.

Besides Camp having a full-time job as an executive at the New Haven Clock Co. and his work on the NCAA Rules committee Camp was a prolific writer. By the time of his death he had authored 30 books and over 300 articles for magazines, such as Harpers, Colliers, sports publications, and children related magazines -- Boys Magazine and Youth's Companion were two. His articles appeared in newspapers across the nation. He began picking his All-American football team as early as 1889.

Leading up to the advent of World War I Camp developed a set of exercises, which he called the "Daily Dozen," consisting of 12 basic exercises, designed to get a running start on the day. Both the Army and Navy adopted all or some part of this program for their fighting men.

Walter Camp was a part of the Rules Committee that oversaw College Football from his playing days until his death in 1925, at the age of 65. He belongs on the list of early giants, who molded the game of American football -- with Alonzo Stagg, Knute Rockne, Jim Thorpe, and Pop Warner -- bringing organization, planning, and stature to the game.

Source: Walter Camp Football Foundation

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