The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

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The intriguing, never-before-fully-told story of how Theodore Roosevelt helped tosave the game that would become America’s most popular sport.

In its infancy during the late nineteenth century,the game of football was still a work in progress thatonly remotely resembled the sport millions followtoday. There was no common agreement about many ofthe game’s basic rules, and it was incredibly violent andextremely dangerous. An American version of rugby, thisnew game grew popular ...

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The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

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Overview

The intriguing, never-before-fully-told story of how Theodore Roosevelt helped tosave the game that would become America’s most popular sport.

In its infancy during the late nineteenth century,the game of football was still a work in progress thatonly remotely resembled the sport millions followtoday. There was no common agreement about many ofthe game’s basic rules, and it was incredibly violent andextremely dangerous. An American version of rugby, thisnew game grew popular even as the number of casualtiesrose. Numerous young men were badly injured and dozensdied playing football in highly publicized incidents, oftenat America’s top prep schools and colleges.

Objecting to the sport’s brutality, a movement ofproto-Progressives led by Harvard University presidentCharles W. Eliot tried to abolish the game. PresidentTheodore Roosevelt, a vocal advocate of “the strenuouslife” and a proponent of risk, acknowledged football’sdangers but admired its potential for building character.A longtime fan of the game who purposely recruited menwith college football experience for his Rough Riders,Roosevelt fought to preserve the game’s manly essence,even as he understood the need for reform.

In 1905, he summoned the coaches of Harvard, Yale,and Princeton to the White House and urged them to act.The result was the establishment of the National CollegiateAthletic Association, as well as a series of rule changes—including the advent of the forward pass—that ultimatelysaved football and transformed it into the quintessentialAmerican game. The Big Scrum reveals for the first timethe fascinating details of this little-known story of sportshistory.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though it is now an autumn distraction for millions every weekend, football was on the verge of extinction in the early 20th century. Its participants, who did not benefit from padding or helmets, frequently suffered severe injuries or died. States considered banning the sport—including, of all places, Georgia—while colleges fervently endorsed its demise. But President Theodore Roosevelt always defended the game. According to Miller, Roosevelt's 1905 meeting with football coaches at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, urging the popular teams to play clean, began the game's ascent to legitimacy. Miller offers full glimpses into the lives of the men who nurtured or nearly destroyed the game, like cantankerous Harvard president Charles W. Eliot (who compared football to "the ‘supreme savagery' of war"), legendary Yale football coach Walter Camp (who essentially invented the position of quarterback), and Harvard coach William T. Reid, whose public letter outlining football's commitment to safety kept the sport at the influential school. But Miller, a national correspondent for the National Review, is far too preoccupied with Roosevelt's life as a sportsman. The book feels like a fascinating footnote with biographical padding. (Apr.)
Booklist
“[Miller] is on target with a necessarily selective biography highlighting Roosevelt’s lifelong affinity for sports and physical activity, thereby providing context for understanding why a president would devote valuable time to what was then a minor sport. [An] enjoyable history of a seldom-explored turning point in American sports history.”
Tweed Roosevelt
“Football enthusiassts and Theodore Roosevelt admirers will both enjoy and learn from these little-known but important historic events that preserved from extinction one of America’s favorite sports.”
Candice Millard
“In Miller’s hands, the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s love for, and defense of, ‘the great game’ has as much vigor and passion as Roosevelt himself. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly American tale.”
Library Journal
This focused study of Teddy Roosevelt's effect on the growth of football could be called Mornings on the Gridiron, reminiscent as it is of David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback about TR's youth. Although TR was too small to play college football, he was a fan of the sport. Miller (national correspondent, National Review) draws from published sources to colorfully detail the future President's interest in a vigorous sporting life, while also depicting the early development of football, particularly at the Ivy League schools, with a special spotlight on innovators. As football rules developed in the 19th century, though, the brutality of the game did not subside, and many prominent leaders called for the outlawing of the sport in the early years of the 20th century. TR, then President, intervened by bringing together leaders from several elite schools to form the governing organization that enacted radical rule changes to open up the game. The distance for a first down was increased from five to 10 yards, a neutral zone was established at the line of scrimmage, and, most important, the forward pass was legalized. VERDICT There is a timely connection here with today's concerns over football violence. Highly recommended for general readers who love football and/or TR.—John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ
Kirkus Reviews

The unlikely—and perhaps slightly overblown—tale of how Teddy Roosevelt flexed presidential muscle to save the fledgling game of football.

The story of football's rise from a haphazardly organized game dominated by Yale and Harvard to America's favorite sport is a fascinating one, requiring the contributions of many men—not the least of whom, writes National Review correspondent Miller (The First Assassin, 2010, etc.), was President Roosevelt. An advocate of the "strenuous life" that helped him overcome childhood asthma, the president admired those who sacrificed their bodies on the playing field and felt it was the job of America's universities to spend as much time molding young men's bodies as they did minds. Football's popularity grew in lockstep with Roosevelt's political success, though the game became increasingly controversial, the result of a style of play that led to numerous deaths and countless debilitating injuries. Trailblazing Harvard president Charles Eliot, himself a firm believer in exercise, crusaded against football as a dangerous endeavor that encouraged deception and cruelty, making him the perfect foil for Harvard grad Roosevelt. Even as Eliot led efforts to ban football, Roosevelt called the game's most influential coaches—including legendary Yale coach Walter Camp—to a White House summit to discuss the state of the game. Though the tangible results of that meeting—a joint statement by the coaches in which they promised to be more vigilant in upholding the rules of fair play—were minimal, the author contends that the meeting had a profound impact on the game's development and set Roosevelt up as a behind-the-scenes influencer who ensured the game's survival long enough for new rules (including the forward pass) to make it safer. It's a worthy addendum to the story of football's rise, even though the case for Roosevelt as a cornerstone of its development feels overstated.

A good yarn, but might have made a better chapter than a full-length monograph.

Judy Battista
Miller…provides a richly detailed history of football's founding, with occasional detours into how Roosevelt, who had been an asthmatic child, came to embrace "the strenuous life"…For those who know little about how football came to be—and how long the debate over player safety versus the appealing physicality of the game has gone on—The Big Scrum is a useful primer, introducing us to some of the sport's most famous pioneers.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061744501
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/12/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, national correspondent for National Review, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, and the author of five books, including the novel The First Assassin.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: America's Game ix

Chapter 1 The Killing Fields 1

Chapter 2 Creation Stories 19

Chapter 3 Game Time 47

Chapter 4 Camp Days 65

Chapter 5 The Capacity to Inflict Pain 91

Chapter 6 The Virile Virtues 111

Chapter 7 Let Them Be Men First 135

Chapter 8 Rough Riding. 155

Chapter 9 Football Is a Fight 175

Chapter 10 The Air War 205

Appendix 223

Acknowledgments 225

Notes 227

Index 247

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2012

    More Teddy bio than football history

    Many paragraphs of this text are spent on TR's hunting and health and other tangential issues. Little is spent on TR and football because there is little to say. TR did some crucial bully pulpit work in 1905 to push reforms. That's about it. 70% background of TR, 30% about football, which never had a big scrum.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2012

    Good book - interesting history on the origins of football

    This was a great book in terms of the history of football and the history of Teddy Roosevelt. However, I'm not sure it really ever got to the point where it brought Teddy Roosevelt and football together. It almost read like two seperate stories, and I am not sure if the point ever got made as to how TR saved football. All in all though it was insightful, well researched and very interesting in terms of the founding of the game with the rules as we know them today.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 19, 2011

    Very Interesting

    A very good book about the beggining of college football, with some information on Roosevelt's life. It gives basically a walk through the events of the Industrial Revolution that were important to the start of College Football and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. It also introduces you to other men that aren't as well known as Roosevelt.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted August 23, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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