Skip to main content

Remington And The Eli Eleven

July 2024
3min read

A Vivid Look at Early Football

Each fall for more than a century now, the thoughts of countless young men have turned to the controlled mayhem called football. It may not be the national game, but it has been around nearly as long as baseball, and for many there has been no contest between the two: football wins, knees down.

Among its most indefatigable fans was the artist, Frederic Remington—unsurprisingly, for he played for Yale in 1879 and 1880, when “Old Eli” was the nearly undisputed giant of American football (before the Princeton-Yale game of 1879, it is said, he dipped his jersey in blood from a local slaughterhouse so that it would look “more businesslike”). In a very real sense, Remington also was present at the creation of modern football, for one of his teammates in those years was the redoubtable Walter Camp, who is largely credited for the invention of the scrimmage, the four-down system, the field’s present gridiron pattern, the quarterback, the “All-America Team,” and the reduction in players from fifteen to eleven. In 1888 Camp became general athletic director and head advisory football coach at Yale.

Two years later, already an established illustrator, Remington returned for the Thanksgiving Day contest between Yale and Princeton and painted the sprightly scene at the right, showing one of the many Yale touchdowns that day (Yale, 32; Princeton, zip). On Thanksgiving Day, 1893, he was back again, this time on assignment from Harpers Weekly to illustrate the game against Williams College. With him this time was Richard Harding Davis, managing editor and roving reporter for the magazine. Davis’s subsequent story, portions of which follow, demonstrates that while the modern game of football was then in its embryonic stages, a lot remains the same—including confusions and contusions.


Oh—the score? Yale, 82; Williams, zip. So what else was new? —T.H.W.

“Very few people who watch football as it is played to-day have the least idea of how much is being done before them. They only see the result. … All they see on the day of a great game is two lines of men breaking away suddenly and making for a bunch of three or four, who run shoulder to shoulder until one of them goes down, and there is a confused mass of legs, and the lines are formed once more, and the same thing happens again. The spectator does not see the opening being made in the line through which the man with the ball is eventually to go, nor the quarter reach it back to the man who passes it on to another, nor the interference of two more and the guarding of still another. It merely looks to him like a general stampede without judgment, and certainly without preconceived action. He hardly believes you when you tell him that to bring the ball these three yards five men had actively assisted the one who carried it, and that what they had to do, and the manner in which they were to do it, had been written out for them months before on a blackboard. …


“[Before the game] The eleven were an hour practising ‘getting off’ promptly, and it was interesting to think that all of that time was being given to so little a part of the whole. …

“They all limped —everybody limped—even those who were practising; and the majority of them I discovered, when it was time to rub them down, were only held together by yards of rubber bandages, which they wore concealed about their persons. They were covered with porous plasters and sticking-plasters, and they were painted in fine stencil-like effects with iodine, and the bodies of most of them resembled envelopes that have passed through the Dead-letter Office, and have been stamped and cancelled and crossed and recrossed with directions. There is nothing so marvellous in surgery as the rapidity with which a Yale football player can recover from breakages and sprains that would send any other man to bed for a month. …


“The game in the afternoon was with the eleven from Williams College, and it was chiefly interesting to me because it showed that Yale’s opponents in such games were only regarded by her as objects to be experimented upon, and as nothing more serious.… It never occurred to the spectators to notice what a Williams man was doing or was trying to do; they were only interested in what the Yale men did with him.… And as soon as the first half was over the Yale team seated themselves in a row in the dressingroom and listened to what the coaches might have to say. …

“While this was proceeding Walter Camp came in at the back, exactly as though he had wandered in by mistake and was surprised to find an entire football eleven occupying the premises. He stood modestly out of sight and suggested to [ex-Captain “Billy”] Rhodes, quite as though it was a matter of which he could not be expected to know much, that the ends seemed to him to be bending back into a halfcircle, and that as this tended to shut in rather than to assist the backs, it would be perhaps a good thing if— Then he smiled pleasantly on Remington and me, and listened with apparently great interest when Rhodes strode out before the semicircle of players, and said: ‘Here, you fellows want to keep the ends up; you shut the halves in again and again. The ends crowd too much towards the centre, and—,’ etc., etc.

“There is only one man in New Haven of more importance than Walter Camp, and I have forgotten his name. I think he is the president of the university. …”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.