Walter Camp And His Gridiron Game

PrintPrintEmailEmail

 
 

The spectators could see the elevens hurl themselves together and build themselves in kicking, writhing heaps. They had a general vision of threatening attitudes, fists shaken before noses, dartings hither and thither, throttling, wrestling and the pitching of individuals headlong to earth; and all this was an exceedingly animated picture which drew from them volley after volley of applause.... 

Judges, reporters and so on saw something more. They saw real fighting, savage blows that drew blood, and falls that seemed as if they must crack all the bones and drive the life from those who sustained them.

Came a crush about midway of the field. All the maddened giants of both teams were in it, and they lay there heaped, choking, kicking … gouging and howling. One smaller man lay under them. He held the ball hugged to his breast....His chin rested upon it and his white face looked out from the ruck as the face of a man might look who was on the rack....

A New York reporter thus described the Yale-Princeton football game of 1884 at the Polo Grounds, but he hadn’t seen anything yet. That was the year in which Princeton first rolled out its juggernaut V, or “wedge,” formation as an opening play. From then on, as other teams copied and sharpened the wedge, American “redmeat” football was to grow redder and meatier until popular revulsion brought a change. The game became gory to a point where even that chesty champion of ruggedness, Theodore Roosevelt, felt that something must be done about it. But not until 1906 were wedges outlawed, and the forward pass legalized, thus ending football’s Dark Ages and ushering in its Renaissance.

For that is what the “modern” game really was, a rebirth—a return to the artful, open-field ways of running, kicking, and ball handling which had characterized American football through the years after 1869 when it was evolving out of British soccer and Rugby. And it is a curious but historical fact that the man most responsible for football’s “red-meat” era, and for the long delay in its passing, was a most refined and gentlemanly sportsman who admired and exemplified speed and skill far more than brawn and violence: Walter Chauncey Camp, Yale ’80.

When Camp was entering his teens, baseball had already been established as the national pastime. Football was considered a disreputable form of mass brawling indulged in by town mobs on public greens or by college classes on “rush” days. Walter, the polite and somewhat gawky son of a schoolteacher, was a natural at baseball and also at track, yet at the Hopkins School in New Haven he skipped these genteel sports in favor of vulgar football. Interminably, even in spring and summer, he practiced kicking with such few mates as he could get to join him.

What inspired him was the sight of Yale College stalwarts practicing for and playing their first organized football “matches” at New Haven’s Hamilton Park. Princeton and Rutgers had staged the first intercollege games down in New Jersey in 1869, joined the next year by Columbia. In 1872, when Camp was thirteen, Yale unbent to let its students invite Columbia up for a contest, which Yale won three goals to none.

As American college boys then knew it, football was the London Association version, nicknamed “soccer,” played with a round ball of black rubber which replaced the inflated pig bladder used since time out of mind. It was a game (as soccer remains today) consisting entirely of running, dribbling, kicking, or “heading” the ball, with no catching or carrying it (except by the goal tender) and no tackling or other avoidable body contact. In England, meantime, there had been a shift to the very different, much rougher game played at Rugby School. In this, a ball shaped like an ellipsoid (patterned after the old “pigskin”) was hand-passed, caught and run with for “touch-downs” or kicked for “goals”; tackling the ball carrier was not only legal but basic. Yale got its first taste of this style of play from David S. Schaff, class of ’73, who had schooled for a while at Rugby.

In their first game with Princeton, at Hamilton Park in ’73, the Yale players startled their visitors with furious Rugby “rushing” and “bucking.” During an intermission occasioned by the ball’s bursting and a long search for another one, the Princetonians cooked up some rushes and bucks of their own and won the game 3-0. That was the first Big Three football game. In the second one two years later, Yale went up to Springfield, Massachusetts, and took another trimming, 4-0, this time at the hands of Harvard, which had learned Rugby tactics from McGill and other Canadian teams.