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 beand how long the debate over player safety versus the appealing physicality of the game has gone onThe Big Scrum is a useful primer, introducing us to some of the sport's most famous pioneers.
The New York Times
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.)
“[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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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
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.