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In a well-researched true story, we learn how Coach Clayton Teetzel introduces the modern concepts of speed, intelligence and strategy to this brawlers' game, and also instills character in his players. Creatively told in the voice of Fletcher Van Horn, the unlikely quarterback of his high-school football team, this inspiring story depicts the down-and-dirty details of how early football was played. At the same time, the culture of small-town life in turn-of-the-century America is displayed with unabashed honesty-the hopes, dreams and harsh realities of a community who pulled together while rooting for their team.
The story of how an undersized high school sophomore leads his team to victory is a classic tale of overcoming adversity and the triumph of the underdog. It is also a unique and masterfully told account of a time and a game few know-with tremendous appeal to both sports fans and history buffs. As Friday Night Lights did for modern high-school football, The Way We Played the Game establishes itself as the classic account of football's crude beginnings.
At the time, football was already popular out east among the high school and college students, but serious inroads into the Midwest had been limited to the collegians. The Benton Harbor boys actually got their first taste of the game in 1892 when they bought a football and experimented on their own, but before a game could be organized, the ball was stolen and they couldn't afford another one. Cady, on the other hand, learned the game in college and was able to mold the boys into a respectable team.
The game in those days was very primitive, more akin to bar-room brawling than the football of today. The playing was rough and unregulated. Rules often differed from school to school and could only be agreed upon through intense negotiations prior to the game. High school teams were usually organized by students and coached byone of the more experienced players or a volunteer from the community. In Benton Harbor the game prospered, despite the lack of formal organization. The biggest advance was the formation of a board of directors that raised funds for equipment and arranged schedules, but it did nothing to change the nature of the playing itself. That continued to be a rag-tag, bare-knuckles affair.
Football in Benton Harbor changed in a big way in the fall of 1903 when we hired Teetzel. Like I said before, he introduced us to the thinking man's game, which was based on his theory that a football team was like a machine. He believed each player was one part of the total, useless by himself, but functional when working together with all the other parts. Hiring coaches was against the rules back then. The State Athletic Committee declared all coaches should be volunteers from the community, but the rule was rarely enforced. Nonetheless, it was still a rule and we broke it.
The reason we paid top dollar for a coach goes right to the heart of this story.
It all began during the season of 1902. I was fifteen then and weighed 108 pounds-most players averaged around 140-which meant I wasn't big enough to make the varsity squad. Two of my classmates, both close friends of mine, made the team and I was happy for them. But that didn't mean I threw my hands up in frustration, no sir. I was determined.
You may wonder why a small fellow like me would subject himself to the physical abuses associated with playing so rough a game. Well, I shall tell you.
I watched my first football game in 1895 when Pa took me to see the high school team from Benton Harbor play Niles. It was a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon and the game was played in a nearby park. We walked there-I remember because of all the leaves on the ground. Only a handful of spectators showed up. A few of them were students, but most were tough-looking men who stood in groups smoking cigars and making wagers.
The setting was rough-hewn by today's standards. The sprawling field was marked with chalk, but there were no bleachers and the goals were simple wood posts with boards nailed between them-not much to hold a young boy's attention. But then the contest began and the entire scene was transformed into a spectacle that riveted me like nothing ever had or would again. It thrilled me to see the quarterback take the snap and make long tosses to one of his backs, who either ran with the ball or tossed it to another back. I especially liked it when the runner hurdled the line, and at one point a halfback ran so close to me I could see the fierce determination burning in his eyes. Their camaraderie was unmatched-I was moved by the way they collaborated to move the ball forward and then congratulated one another with handshakes or pats on the back.
At the time I was already playing baseball, but forever more that game would pale in comparison to football. The boys I watched that day had a fire in their gut I'd never seen before. In my imagination, they were like Greek warriors or Vikings-rugged adventurers of yesteryear I'd read about in school. The game was rough beyond belief, but I was hooked. I wanted to play football.
Against my mother's wishes, Pa bought me a football for Christmas and I actually slept with it that first night. The following day I took it outside and began kicking it around in the snow and almost immediately was joined by the neighbor kid. Within minutes, another boy discovered us and asked to share in the fun. An hour later, there were ten young gladiators furiously kicking my football up and down the street. Boys back then had a natural yearning to be outdoors running, jumping, and rough-housing. Toss a ball into the mix, add a few rules, and you had the makings of a dream come true. By spring, there were enough of us to make up two full teams.
Me and my two best friends-Cleve Lester and Mit Ludwig-formed the core of the group. We walked to school together, socialized, and went to all the high school home games, which at the time were limited to two or three per season, some years less. The team of 1896 disbanded when their game with St. Joseph exploded into a vicious brawl. By 1901, I had joined a neighborhood football club called the Little Giants, and in 1902 I was practicing with the high school team as a scrub.
The varsity team consisted of fifteen players. In all, there were about twenty of us scrub hopefuls-the numbers varied depending upon injuries, study time, responsibilities at home, and overall dedication. We ran through the same routines as the varsity and lined up against them for scrimmage practice, a damn rough job, but it had to be done if we wanted a shot at making the team the following year.
Our 1902 varsity players were an energetic bunch, but the overall expectations for their success as a team were poor. They were an unlikely group, you see. Most came from the Benton Harbor neighborhoods while the rest were country boys who moved into town when school was in session to live with friends or relatives-the remoteness of their farmsteads made it impossible to travel daily back and forth to high school. Another teammate was an Ottawa Indian and two others were colored. No teams had colored players back then, at least none that we played against. But colored folks had been living in Benton Harbor since 1862 when the town was first built, working and living and going to church, and it was only natural they play on our sports teams. Some thought us unusual about that-I like to think we were ahead of our time.
Our roster was full that year but our coffers were not. We got almost no financial support from the community and none from the school. The team was run by a citizen board of directors and a manager. That was it. Every player, whether a team member or a scrub, supplied his own uniform and no two of us dressed alike. For footwear, some of the fellows even wore old work shoes with cleats nailed to the soles. The only coaching we got was from our team captain, a senior by the name of Hub Allen. Hub was a great player, but his knowledge of coaching was limited to the information he absorbed from talking to college players, gamblers, and armchair quarterbacks.
Our list of plays in those days was short and our strategy unsophisticated-our basic game plan in 1902 involved a mass of players trying to move the ball against another mass of players. We played to win, don't get me wrong, but most of the fellows simply wanted to have fun. That's why so many folks were surprised when we won our first games. And we kept winning until everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the highest society bridge club lady was talking about us. In fact, so many people began showing up to watch us play that by the end of the season there was no standing room along either sideline.
When it was obvious we were a team worth supporting, donations from the community began trickling in. The team's board of directors recruited a medical student from Northwestern University, a former football player, to provide us with some decent coaching. They slipped him a few bucks every Friday and Saturday when he came to town to work with us. His name was Bill Machesney.
With Machesney's help, we won the championship of lower Michigan, surprising the hell out of ourselves and a lot of other people, too. This feat set us up to play for the plum-the state title. All we had to do was show up in Ann Arbor on the day before Thanksgiving and beat the champions of upper Michigan. Back then, it usually worked out that the winners of Michigan's two peninsulas played for the sanctioned state championship. The 1902 champion of upper Michigan was Ishpeming.
And that was the rub.
Ishpeming was an iron-mining town located in the northern reaches of Michigan's upper peninsula, a cold, rugged part of the state bound up tight between Lake Michigan to the south and Superior to the north. Ishpeming was perched along the spine of the Marquette iron range and was heavily populated with immigrants-mostly from Britain and Scandinavia. The Ishpeming high school football players were mainly Swedes.
Back then, Ishpeming football was king of the heap. I don't know exactly how or why, but there wasn't a shortage of theories. Some said it had to do with the water they drank while others claimed the Swedes were a superior race of people. I was told by one of our supporters that their training included summer jobs working in the iron mines, which sounded reasonable to me, but in the same breath the fellow said they also used tree trunks for tackling dummies. For sure there was a lot of bullcrap flying, but certain facts about Ishpeming couldn't be denied. Foremost was the skill of their coach, George Sweetland.
Sweetland graduated from Hobart College in his home state of New York where he played football, baseball, and coached intramural sports. He graduated from the Grand Rapids Medical College before being enticed to take the Ishpeming coaching job. During the seasons of 1901 and 1902, he ran his teams against the best high schools, colleges, and sporting clubs in northern Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They won all their games and captured the 1901 state title, Ishpeming's second in a row. In football circles, Sweetland was called the Wizard.
In 1902, few sports writers across the state gave us any chance against Ishpeming. Most believed Ishpeming already played their season's toughest game, which was against Escanaba for the championship of the upper peninsula. Before I go any further with my story, I must tell you about that dogfight.
We won the 1902 championship of lower Michigan a week before the winner of upper Michigan was decided, and that allowed us the luxury of following both Ishpeming-Escanaba games. The first game was played in Escanaba and ended in a scoreless tie. When the State Athletic Committee decreed a second game had to be played in Ishpeming, the Escanaba team balked because of the rough treatment they got there in 1901.
It was late in the 1901 game with Ishpeming ahead 11 to 0, when a couple linemen began fighting. Then both benches emptied and the two coaches even came to blows. The Escanaba players were holding their own until a throng of Ishpeming toughs, some armed with blackjacks, swarmed the field and joined the fray. The brawl would've been much worse for Escanaba if the police hadn't broken it up. When the referee called for the game to continue, the Escanaba players refused to play-said they feared for their lives. They walked off the field and Ishpeming was given the win. But that wasn't the end of it. A week later, a train carrying the team from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, stopped in Escanaba on its way to Ishpeming, and a handful of Escanaba players boarded to give them a warning. Said the Ishpeming crowds would mob and maybe even kill some of them if they didn't let the Swedes win.
Such was the bad blood between Escanaba and Ishpeming.
For the 1902 rematch, the State Athletic Committee made it clear to both parties that Ishpeming would be disqualified if their supporters interfered with the game. The Ishpeming's team management took the threat so seriously they built a fence around the playing field and arranged for a contingent of police officers to patrol the grounds.
The game was played, and Ishpeming won 11 to 5. We heard the results, first by wire, and then in more detail when we got our hands on a copy of the Escanaba Journal. The paper said "over three thousand rooters witnessed the fiercest and most exciting contest ever played on an upper-peninsula gridiron," a fact that was verified by Machesney. Yes, he was there.
The minute our team management knew we'd be playing for the state championship they contracted Machesney to prepare us. They also paid him to take the train to upper Michigan to watch the second Ishpeming-Escanaba match. He posed as a reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and was given a seat in the reporter's stand where he went to work filling his scratch pad with notes.
I'll never forget the days leading up to our 1902 game with Ishpeming. The town was excited beyond belief. A train was chartered for Ann Arbor and more than two hundred rooters signed up, not including the team members and the News-Palladium marching band, which added twenty-five more. The team even got new uniforms, all matching, courtesy of a local businessman and small-time gambler named Billy Harper.
We players felt good about our chances in spite of the negative news reports. That's because Machesney worked us hard and tutored us endlessly on the Ishpeming game plan, which he described as fast but otherwise pretty straightforward. I must have played especially hard that week because Machesney said I could go with the team as water carrier, which pleased the hell out of me. I'd have cleaned the horse stalls in every Benton Harbor livery for that opportunity.
Gamblers began arriving in Benton Harbor a couple of days before Thanksgiving-I knew who they were because of the hefty wads of cash they carried. The Ishpeming gamblers offered outrageous odds, up to eleven points. The Benton Harbor gamblers were uneasy over that kind of confidence, but they dug deep into their pockets to support us. I was proud of that.
I woke up well before sunrise Thanksgiving Day to find a hard morning. The grass was white with frost and the mercury in the thermometer had dipped to twenty-eight. I dressed, ate breakfast, and then walked to the depot to join some girls who were decorating the coaches with orange and black flags and banners. We also tied a broom to the front of the locomotive to signify that we'd swept the lower peninsula clean. Then the wagon arrived with our gear and I helped load it onto the train while the rooters boarded and claimed their seats.
We arrived in Ann Arbor just before eleven o'clock and immediately formed a parade line behind the band for the march to the university. The crowd broke for lunch while a fellow from the Athletic Department led us to our locker room. Shortly after one-thirty, we trotted onto the playing grounds beneath the gaze of nearly two thousand spectators.
The fellows were nervous, but their tension eased a bit when they saw the Swedes, which is what we called the Ishpeming players. That's because they weren't very big-Machesney Said they averaged 135 pounds to our 154. At the time it seemed like a damn joke. But then the game started, and we got our first look at them in action.
The Ishpeming players may have been smaller, but the bastards were quick. Back then passing was illegal and huddles weren't used-the players simply got up after the play was whistled dead and scrambled back to the line while the quarterback called out his selection. Ishpeming did it so fast my head spun trying to keep up with them. They juggled fakes, runs, tackle-back plays, and old-style revolving mass plays that caught our players flat-footed. We played our hearts out but couldn't get a foothold on the Ishpeming game plan. At the end of the first half, the Swedes had already run nearly seventy plays. The score was an embarrassing 23 to 0.
Excerpted from The Way We Played the Game by John Armstrong Copyright © 2002 by John Armstrong
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted October 22, 2009
My teenage son, age 14, normally does not like to read. He can't put this down! He keeps coming to quote different items out of the book to me. He loves it! His great grandpa just passed away(born in 1903), and he played football in 1922. This book seems to have come at a good time, and he can put his great grandpa right into the story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 5, 2009
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