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Walter Camp And His Gridiron Game
Man and boy—as player, “coach of coaches,” and keeper of the rule book— he was the guiding genius in the crucial, formative years of college football
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
These stirring events resolved unmuscular young Walter Camp to build himself up for football at Yale, through a spartan regime. He foreswore his mother’s cookies and cakes. Every evening he rode a trolley to the town’s outskirts and took long, lonely cross-country runs. Every morning in his bedroom he performed secret calisthenics (the like of which he would one day bequeath to his country, though he never dreamed this then). When he entered Yale as a seventeen-year-old freshman in 1876, he weighed only 156 pounds but could dodge, leap, and run like a spooked deer. They put him at once into the varsity backfield.
That autumn Harvard went down to play Yale at Hamilton Park. As the teams took the field, Harvard’s bearded captain, Nathaniel Curtis, took one look and asked Yale’s captain Gene Baker: “You don’t mean to let that child play, do you? … He will get hurt.”
Baker replied: “Look to your business. He is young but he is all spirit and whipcord. He’ll take care of himself—and you, too.”
On one of the first plays Camp caught Curtis by the arm, threw him heavily, and was never again taken lightly.
Yale managed to win that second Harvard game 1-0, but young halfback Camp found the Rugby ball very tricky to handle and kick. He took to carrying an “oval” with him wherever he went, even to classes, constantly juggling and dandling it to teach himself not to fumble, practicing punts and drop kicks on the run. He got so good that he would star for Yale six years, three of them as captain (a unique record).
A closer look at Walter Camp, man and boy, reveals how varied were his gifts. As a youth he was leanly handsome, with long features and intense dark eyes shaped like a fox’s. He had a quiet voice and persuasive charm, coupled with innate presence and authority—the very archetype of Frank Merriwell. Besides playing football, he swam, rowed, wrestled, and ran on Yale’s varsity teams, and represented the school in the first intercollegiate tennis tournament. Playing baseball against Princeton in 1880, Camp hit the first ball pitched to him for a home run. Then, outguessing the pitcher, he did the very same thing his next two times at bat. Scholastically he always stood close to the top in almost all his classes. A man of many parts, he was also class poet.
But football was his central passion and lifelong study. When he was elected captain in his junior year, his quarters in Durfee Hall became the campus shrine, and his word the law. If disputes within the team arose, he would gravely state his position and leave the room with a solemn promise to resign if the vote went against him. He always won, and in later years described as his “happiest moment” a time when the team backed him up in kicking out a player who had broken training. The offender had only stayed up to see a show, but when Camp caught him sneaking home after the team’s curfew, the Captain waked up everyone else and held court instanter. (Apparently he relented later on, for the penitent culprit was reinstated.)
Camp was re-elected in 1879 and again in ’81 (as a postgraduate medical student). He could have made it four years straight had he not withdrawn in favor of his friend Bob Watson in ’80. In 1882 he played in only three games before damaging a knee. But he was ready to quit then anyway because he agreed in principle with a five-year eligibility rule that was being contemplated that year, largely with him in mind.
Michigan’s football team visited Yale in 1881; Yale won easily, but the westerners taught Camp something: vocal signals. Hitherto all Yale’s plays had been “called” by silent, furtive gestures of captain or quarterback. The next year, when Yale’s quarterback barked, “Look out quick, Deac!” or any one word from that sentence, it meant that Twombly would start a play to the right and pass to Peters. “Play up sharp, Charley!” or any part thereof, meant Terry around left end.
As a player, Camp was described as having “just a little less fat and a little more wind” than anyone else. He could pass, punt, drop-kick, tackle, and run hard throughout two forty-five-minute halves, unrelieved by any substitute, up and down a 140-yard field. In a day when stand-up fights were common and players jumped on downed opponents to cripple them, Camp avoided roughness. But he knew how to defend himself and was stoical when hurt. So far as his personal scoring totals were concerned, he had heroic disappointments which under later, more liberal rules would have been triumphs. In ’77 he made two touchdowns on long runs against Princeton, but neither was converted by a kicked goal and so did not count. In ’78 his 35-yard drop kick against Harvard, which would have won the game, was blown dead in the air by the final whistle. The next year, his 45-yarder against Harvard was nullified by a Yale offside.
In 1883, Camp, a top student in his other courses, failed in anatomy and surgery and decided to give up medicine. He had been forcing himself to enter the dissecting and operating rooms, and now this paragon of muscle and courage confessed to a friend, “I can’t bear the sight of blood.” He got a job selling clocks, and that remained his profession for forty-two years thereafter.