Walter Camp and the Birth of American Football - I

Walter Camp and the Birth of American Football - II

Walter Camp and the Birth of American Football - III

Seven Years of College Eligibility

Hopalong Cassady

Mississippi State Mascots

A Career Ruined

The Atom Bowl

"Best Quick-Kicking Team in History"


Football Stories – I
Football Stories – II
Football Stories – III

Football Stories – IV
Football Stories – V
Football Stories – VII
Football Stories – VIII
Football Stories - IX
Football Stories - X


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Interesting Football Stories– VI

Walter Camp and the Birth of American Football - I

Walter Camp has been dubbed the "Father of American Football." He played the largest role in the evolution of the primitive rugby-like game that existed when he played at Yale into the distinctively American sport that had spread across the continent when he died in 1925.

We pick up the story in 1875, Camp's senior year of high school in New Haven.

  • Even though he was not enrolled in Yale yet, he attended the Elis' football practices as a member of the "scrub team" whose purpose was to scrimmage the varsity.
  • Camp helped line the field at Hamilton Park where Yale and Harvard met that year for the first time in a football game.

An immediate problem was that Harvard played a different version of "football" from that played by Yale.

  • Yale preferred a form of football that resembled soccer.
  • Harvard played a version that, like rugby, allowed players to run with the ball.
  • The Yale captain agreed to try the Harvard rules.
  • The Crimson won the game 4-0. Despite the loss, the Yale players decided they preferred their rivals' brand of football.
Young Walter Camp
Walter Camp 1878-9
Harvard-Yale 1875 Program
1875 Yale-Harvard Program

The next year, Camp became one of only two freshmen to make the Yale varsity football team.

  • He was elected captain of the freshman team. In that capacity, he actually served as player-coach since there were no formal coaches.
  • The 1876 Yale squad won all three of its games - against Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia - without allowing a single goal.
  • Camp played for all four years of his undergraduate education, then continued for two more while in medical school. He served as captain-coach after his freshman year. The Eli won 25 and lost only one with four ties during his six years at Yale.
  • The game obviously captured his imagination. He carried a notebook in which he created formation and sketched plays.
  • Walter started a seventh season on the team but a knee injury ended his playing career. He went on to become the first great coach of the sport.
 Yale's First Rugby Team

Returning to 1876, Princeton invited Columbia, Harvard, and Yale to send representatives to a conference on November 26.

  • The purpose of the meeting was to agree on a standard set of rules so that captains wouldn't have to meet before the game to negotiate how the contest would be conducted. The result was the Intercollegiate Football Association.
  • The field was set at 140y x 70y.
  • A neutral referee would run each game, freeing the captains from having to settle disputes.
  • The meeting established the scoring rules and set the number of players on a side at 15.

Camp began attending the annual meetings of the Association in 1878. He usually came armed with proposals to improve the sport.

Continued below ...

Reference: The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, John J. Miller (2011)
Walter Camp and the Birth of American Football - Part II

Walter Camp
Walter Camp

1880 Michigan Football Team
1880 Michigan Football Team

When Walter Camp started playing football at Yale, the game was in its first decade after the inaugural 1869 contest between Princeton and Rutgers.

  • Players went bareheaded or wore stocking caps, which provided zero protection. They didn't wear pads.
  • Between plays, teams formed a rugby-style scrum to determine which team gained possession of the ball.
  • Blocking was illegal as was tackling below the waist.
  • Players could toss the ball backwards or laterally. Forward passes were forbidden.
  • What today would be flagged as "unnecessary roughness" took place on almost every play. There was no way the lone referee could see all the fouls taking place inside the scrum.

Camp set about to improve the game he had come to love.

  • The first proposal he championed was reduction of the number of players on a side from 15 to 11. This lessened the mayhem by providing more room for players to maneuver.
  • Another Camp idea provided a significant breakthrough for the fledgling American sport that would propel it on a course distinctively different from British-style rugby.

A scrimmage takes place when the holder of the ball puts it on the ground before him and puts it in play while on-side either by kicking the ball or snapping it back with his foot. The man who first receives the ball from the snap-back shall be called the quarter back and shall not rush forward with the ball under penalty of foul.

  • This rule replaced rugby's scrum with the line of scrimmage. Camp thus invented what became the most important position on the field: QB. Instead of the ad-libbing that occurred when a side got control of the ball from the scrum, the team in possession could "run a play" that it had practiced in advance.
1880 Football Action
1880 wood engraving titled "A Game of Foot-Ball - A 'Scrummage' At the Close"

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Camp miscalculated how teams would utilize the possession rule.

  • He anticipated that, when a team decided it could not move the ball forward, it would punt it away.
  • Instead, squads realized they could hang onto the ball indefinitely. When the defense pushed them back behind their own goal line, a safety occurred. However, no points were awarded and the offense simply put the ball back in play from its own 25-yard line.
  • The problem was similar to basketball without a shot clock. The team that scored the first goal, when it regained possession (via a fumble recovery or a punt), could stall away the rest of the half. A decided underdog would control the ball for as long as possible (until a fumble recovery) in hopes of attaining a scoreless tie.
  • So the following year (1881), Camp suggested that safeties serve as tie-breakers. "The side that makes four or more safeties less than their opponent shall win the game" in the case of ties.

In 1882, Walter came up with a better solution to the problem of teams keeping the ball for an entire half. He proposed the concept of downs.

  • Teams would have three downs to move the ball. If they gained 5y or lost 10, they would keep possession. If they failed to do either, they would surrender the ball to the other team. (The offense could punt the ball on any down, as before.)
  • This proposal placed a burden on the referee to determine whether a team gained a first down. So lines were painted on fields at five yard intervals. One critic suggested the lines turned the football field into a "gridiron."

In less than a decade, Camp propelled football a huge distance toward the game we know today. The sport became much more interesting and generated a torrent of new strategies.

To be continued ...

Reference: The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, John J. Miller (2011)

Walter Camp and the Birth of American Football - Part III

Walter Camp, Yale
Walter Camp

1885 College Football Scrimmage
1885 College Football Scrimmage

Harvard President Charales Eliot
Dr. Charles Eliot

1979 Yale Rusher
c1879 Yale "Rusher" - future
artist Frederick Remington

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Walter Camp continued to experiment with the rules of football in 1883. The rules committee he headed changed the scoring system inherited from rugby, which had simply counted goals as one point.
  • A touchdown was worth two points.
  • A goal after a TD counted for four points.
  • A goal from the field earned five points.
  • A safety produced one point for the defensive team.

The following year, the committe tinkered some more.

  • The value of a safety was doubled to two points, its worth to this day.
  • The values of a touchdown and a goal after touchdown were reversed - a TD earned four and the goal after just two.

The committee members must have liked this system because it lasted 14 years.

One influential person who didn't like the system or anything else about football was Harvard president Charles Eliot.

  • Dr. Eliot believed that athletics could develop the physical toughness American men needed. He also thought that team sports taught students about cooperative behavior.
  • However, he didn't like the "ungentlemanly behavior" that athletic competition inculcated. For example, a baseball player "making a feint to throw the ball in one direction and then throwing it in another."
  • Football was even more repugnant. He believed a running back should attack the strongest section of the opponent's line, not the weakest.
  • However, the more violent football became, the more students, alumni, and the public liked it.

Eliot appointed an athletic committee in 1882 to oversee and regulate sports at the nation's oldest university.

  • The committee's main concern was student safety, particularly on the gridiron. It didn't take much investigation to learn that football was a violent game. The committee informed the team that it would monitor games during the 1884 season.
  • After observing four games, not all involving Harvard, the committee issued a report that said in part:

In every one of these games there was brutal fighting with the fists, where the men had to be separated by other players, or by the judges and the referee, or by the bystanders and the police. Unfair play, often premeditated and sometimes concerted, was a prominent feature in all of the games, and, although not always successful, was rarely punished. Intentional off-side play and unlawful interference with opponents who were not running with the ball were the rule rather than the exception. The game is demoralizing to the spectators mainly through its brutality; unfair play they usually fail to recognize.

  • The committee recommended banning football contests, and Eliot readily agreed. Harvard sat out the 1885 season.
The ban didn't last long.

  • Eliot's move provoked the ire of both students and alumni who didn't like watching their rivals from Yale, Princeton, and other colleges competing on the gridiron without them.
  • Already, alumni donations underwrote athletic programs from travel expenses to new stadiums. Camp, Yale's coach, encouraged Harvard friends to gain seats on the athletic committee and reverse the vote.
  • So the Crimson returned to football after only a one year absence. The Athletic Committee explained that "The game of football has been much improved during the past season."

The facts didn't support that face-saving statement.

  • If anything, the violence grew.
  • Players regularly suffered broken bones and cuts needing stitches.

Despite the violence - or, more probably, because of it - football gained in popularity.

  • By 1882, the big games attracted thousands of spectators.
  • In 1884, Princeton and Yale met in New York City on Thanksgiving before a crowd of 15,000.
  • Three years later, the Harvard-Yale clash attracted a whopping 23,000.
  • The game spread to campuses across the country, including Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, and Texas to name a few.

As a result, Camp's rules committee stuck with the status quo until 1894, when public furor broke out again.

To be continued ...

Reference: The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,
John J. Miller (2011)
Seven Years of College Eligibility

Taking advantage of eligibility policies during World War II, Barney Poole played seven years of college football at three different schools.

  • 1943 at North Carolina when he enlisted in the Marine V-12 unit stationed there
  • 1944-46 at Army
  • three seasons at Ole Miss – 1941 as a freshman on the JV, then 1947-8

He earned All-American honors as an end at West Point in 1944 and at Ole Miss in 1947 and 1948 (when he was 25 years old). He played under two College Football Hall of Fame coaches.

  • Earl "Red" Blaik at Army
  • John Vaught at Mississippi
  • Barney was also inducted into Hall of Fame in 1974.
Barney Poole
When World War II ended (and he no longer needed to attend West Point to avoid the draft), Barney wanted to return to Ole Miss, but Coach Blaik wouldn't release him. So he intentionally flunked out of the Academy. The Gloster MS native is considered one of the finest ends in SEC history. He shares the Ole Miss record for receptions in a game with 13 against Chattanooga in 1947, the year he teamed with QB Charlie Conerly to lead the Rebels to their first SEC championship. He was selected to Ole Miss' All-Century team in 1992.

Barney was drafted by the New York Giants in 1945 but stayed in college. Then in 1948 he was taken by the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference and played seven pro seasons with the Yanks and then the Dallas Texans, Baltimore Colts, and New York Giants of the NFL.

Two of his brothers, Buster and Ray, also played at Ole Miss where the three earned a total of 50 letters. A campus thoroughfare is named Poole Drive. Barney died in 2005 in Jackson, where he had managed Memorial Stadium for many years.

Hopalong Cassady
This story could just as easily appear on the Baseball Page since it involves both a football great and a famous baseball figure.

The football hero is Howard "Hopalong" Cassady who won the 1955 Heisman Trophy at Ohio State. In high school, the 5'10" 170-pound Cassady was a star RB/DB in football – as you would expect – but also an excellent shortstop. He played both sports for Ohio State, leading the baseball team in HRs in 1955 and in SBs in 1956. He chose to go pro in football and played seven seasons for the Detroit Lions.

While in the ROTC during his freshman year at OSU, Cassady met an Air Force lieutenant at the base near Columbus. That lieutenant was George Steinbrenner, who also coached high school football and basketball in Columbus and then was an assistant football coach at Northwestern (1955) and Purdue (1956). Steinbrenner recalls what happened when the Wildcatsplayed at Ohio State. Before the game, Hopalong "came over to shake my hand and I said, 'Get outta here ya little (bleep)! You're on the other team!' First thing I know he fumbles at his 3, picks up the ball in his end zone and is suddenly running by me at the 50! He was a great, great player."

Steinbrenner left coaching to help his father in the American Shipbuilding Co., where he made the fortune that allowed him to buy the Yankees in 1973. One of the salesman who sold steel to the company was Hopalong. In 1976, George hired Cassady as a conditioning coach for spring training. Hopalong brought the newest fitness innovation, the Nautilus machine, to training camp. The trimmer Yanks immediately reached the World Series in 1976, 1977, and 1978, winning the last two. Cassady also scouted for Steinbrenner and served as first-base coach for the AAA Columbus Clippers for awhile. He continues to work at the spring training camp to this day.

Thirty years after Cassady won the Heisman, a Columbus OH trash collector discovered a small, bronze arm sticking out from a garbage bin. The arm was part of Hopalong's Heisman. It had been dumped by a thief who had robbed his house of a number of his awards while he and his wife were out of town. Apparently, the thief didn't think the 25-pound trophy would bring much. Cassady found out the trophy was stolen when he returned home and received a call from the police telling him it had been found. For many years now, he has kept it in his home in Tampa.

Howard received his nickname from the movie character Hopalong Cassidy played by another Ohioan, William Boyd. The two Hopalongs met the week before the 1955 Rose Bowl and posed for photos together. OSU won that game to complete an undefeated season that gave Woody Hayes the first of his five national titles.

Reference: "Hop's had a trophy life," St. Petersburg Times, March 31, 2005

Cassidy and Boyd
Hopalong Cassady and William Boyd
Mississippi State Mascots
Mississippi State University began as Mississippi A&M, then became Mississippi State College in 1932, which is when the nickname "Maroons" took root. However, reporters lauded the team's "bulldog" style of play, which led to the school's official athletic symbol. In 1935, coach Ralph Sasse obtained a bulldog named Ptolemy in Memphis to become the team mascot. His energized squad immediately downed mighty Alabama 20-7.

Ptolemy's brother became "Bully I" after Sasse's team upset Army 13-7 at West Point that same year. Bully earned lasting fame, however, by the way he died. After the beloved mascot was killed by a bus in 1939, the campus went into mourning for days as Bully lay in state in a glass coffin. The Maroon Band and three ROTC battalions led 2,500 mourners in a procession to Scott Field for Bully's burial under the home team bench at the 50-yard line. Even Life magazine covered the event. Bully I's successors have also been buried on campus, although not always in the football stadium.

A Career Ruined

Does the name Tommy Blake mean anything to you? Many will be watching the 2008 NFL Draft to see if and when Tommy's name is called.

A year ago, the only argument was how high in the first round Blake would go. The 6'3" DE from TCU had led the Mountain West Conference with 16 1/2 tackles for loss in 2006. As a result, he was a 2007 preseason All-American and expected to compete with Virginia's Chris Long to be the first DE drafted. Now there is a strong possibility that Blake will not be drafted at all. What happened?

He was not injured in the conventional sense of the word. Instead "college football's mystery man" was the victim of mental illness.

Halfway through the Horned Frogs' fall camp last August, the fifth-year senior was the best player on the field even though he wasn't in top shape yet, having passed on many of the "unofficial" off-season workouts led by his fellow seniors. "He was still 255 pounds of greased lightning coming off the edge." NFL scouts attended practice to scope him out. But suddenly Blake, known as one of the most pleasant Frogs, began showing signs of anger. He argued back to coaches and then walked off the practice field.

His sister drove him home to Aransas Pass TX. Coach Gary Patterson flew the 370 miles and convinced him to return a few days later. But matters only got worse. Blake "continued to exhibit disturbing, often combative behavior." His road roommate said, "He was not the old Tommy." No one, including Blake himself, understood what was happening.

TCU held him out of the season opener because of a "medical condition." He played – poorly – in the next three games (which Patterson admits was a mistake on his part) and then was given a medical leave of absence. Since privacy laws prevented TCU officials from disclosing his condition, rumors swirled: drug abuse, steroid use, legal troubles, even a story that he was entering the Baptist ministry.

He returned for the final four games overweight and apathetic. In December, he gave his first interview with a reporter in which he admitted, "I kind of lost track of football for a little bit" but gave no details about what had happened. Finally, in late January, at the urging of his agent, Blake publicly admitted that he was being treated for depression and social anxiety disorder.

He played in the East-West Shrine Game in Houston where he was grilled about his condition both by reporters and by some NFL representatives. He weighed 287, 30 pounds heavier than scouts think he should be. He is working to lose weight for the combine workouts. One NFL scout says, "I wouldn't touch Tommy Blake. I don't know how you can justify bringing a player in who has mental instability."

It will be interesting to see if any NFL team takes a chance on him either in the draft or as a free agent. (Follow-up: Blake was not drafted.)

Reference: "Living on the Edge," Sporting News 2/18/2008

The Atom Bowl

An item in the Hayward (CA) Review (among other newspapers) on December 29, 1945

NAGASAKI (U.R) — A gridiron carved from the rubble of this atomic bomb target city will be the scene of a New Year's Day "Atom Bowl" football game between two service teams, it was announced today. The teams will be captained, respectively, by Marine 2nd Lt. Angelo Bertelli, former Notre Dame star, and Navy Lt. Bill Osmanski, pride of Holy Cross and the Chicago Bears. Both men are on occupation duty with the Second Marine division. Sideline and halftime attractions will include music by a Marine band and Japanese girl cheerleaders.

The Marines occupied Nagasaki in September 1945, six weeks after the atomic bomb detonated over the city and shortly after the Japanese Surrender on the battleship Missouri. As Christmas approached, the men were homesick. So the commanding officer, Major General LeRoy Hunt, suggested a football game to raise morale. Rather than thinking it insensitive, the men regarded the game as a celebration of the end of the war and the consequent saving of lives that would have been lost on both sides if the U.S. had invaded Japan.

Two former football stars, Bertelli (who won the Heisman Trophy in 1943) and Osmanski, were enlisted to organize the teams. A surprising number of the Marines had played football at Temple, Michigan State, Washington, UCLA, Texas Tech, and other colleges while still more had high school experience. By trading with officers on Navy ships, equipment was gathered to fashion goal posts and bleachers on Atomic Athletic Field #2, one of two recreation areas cleared from the debris.

However, the condition of the field presented a problem. Although no one knew enough about the effects of the bomb to fear radiation poisoning (else the Marines would never have been sent to Nagasaki in the first place), the field was littered with shards of glass. So the captains agreed to play two-hand touch below the belt instead of tackle football. Fifteen yards would be required for a first down instead of the usual ten. Bertelli and Osmanski also secretly agreed to do everything in their power to make the final result a tie in order to keep peace in the units.

Atom Bowl

Despite snow flurries, 2,000 filled the bleachers to capacity for the game. The division band played "On Wisconsin." Bertelli tossed two TD passes to lead Nagasaki to a 13-0 lead at the half. However, Isahaya retaliated in the second half on two scoring runs by Osmanski. With the game tied 13-13, George Halas' former star couldn't resist the temptation to shuck the pre-game pact and kick the PAT for a 14-13 victory.

Reference: "In 1946, a search for relief on a desolate Nagasaki field,"
John K. Lukacs, New York Times, 12/29/2005

"Best Quick-Kicking Team in History"
Alabama QB Bobby Jackson
Bobby Jackson

Gary O'Steen, Alabama
Gary O'Steen

Coach Bear Bryant 1958
Bear Bryant 1958

When Bear Bryant went "home to Mama" to coach his alma mater, he took over a program that had won four games in the last 36.
  • Needless to say, Bryant didn't inherit much talent.
    The team I inherited in 1958 was a fat, raggedy bunch. The best players, the ones with ability, quit us, and recruiting was actually over, so we weren't going to get much for the following year except the boys Coach Hank Crisp and Jerry Claiborne got busy and signed when I was still in Texas coming to terms and getting my A&M team ready for the Gator Bowl. ... They were probably the best freshman group I ever had, too.
  • Only one problem: freshmen weren't eligible for varsity play in 1958. So Bear made do with what he had.
    That season, out of necessity, we played what I call garbage football. Get­ting-by football. A lot of quick-kicking and crazy plays that were really as conservative as could be. They just looked flashy.
  • Bryant built his O around QB Bobby Jackson, one of the few good athletes who survived.
  • Jackson could pass and run but had to operate behind a weak line.
    We ran the option or some kind of keeper play most of the time. We lined up in every offensive set known to man and then let Jackson keep it. Or we'd quick-kick. We had a fine quick-kicker in Gary O'Steen. Jackson and O'Steen were our offense.
  • Of course, it wouldn't have been a Bear Bryant team if it didn't play tenacious D.
  • The Tide got a tie and a win in their first four games. One of the losses was to that year's national champion, LSU. The victory came at the expense of Fur­man.
  • The fifth game was at 3-1 Mississippi State, ranked #20.

In conjunction with the visit to Starkville, Bear recalled the story of Red Blount, a longtime member of the Alabama athletic board, who played an important role in bringing Bryant to Alabama.

  • Red had bragged to his friends about what a great coach Bama had bagged. Now he sat in the stadium to watch the genius coach against the Maroons (as MSU was typically called at that time).
  • State took the opening kickoff and, led by all-SEC QB Billy Stacy, drove all the way to the 6 before being stopped. Red told his buddies what a great coach Bear was.
  • On the first play, O'Steen quick kicked 58y. Red said, "What's going on?"
  • State drove deep again "to about our 15" before stalling. On first down, Bama gained 9y, and Blount clapped. On second down, O'Steen quick kicked 52y. Red didn't get it. "How you gonna win kicking all the time?"
  • The Maroons marched inside the Bama 15 but the intrepid D again halted the march. Bama gained almost 10y on the first play, bringing a smile to Red's face. But on second down, guess what? O'Steen quick kicked. Bear recalls:
    Red leaps right out of his seat. He says, "Hell's bells! We done hired our­selves an idiot!"
  • This kick traveled 67y deep into enemy territory.

Finally, the Tide got the break Bryant was looking for.

  • Jackson, playing DB in that era of limited subsitution, stole one of Stacy's laterals on the Maroon 28.
  • The O pushed far enough for T Fred Sington to boot a FG from the 19 for a 3-0 lead.
  • Blount changed his tune. "I dunno. That old boy may know what he's doing after all."

The score held into Q3.

  • The only Mississippian on Bear's roster, E Norbie Ronsonet, cradled a 21y pass from Jackson to climax a 64y drive to advance the lead to 9-0 with five minutes left in the period. O'Steen's 28y dash highlighted the march.
    John Forney, longtime Alabama radio announcer, told this story about Ronsonet.

    We got a field goal from Fred Sington and then had the ball down around State's 25. Coach Bryant sent in Norbie Ronsonet, a tall, gangly end ..., with the play. Jackson told me later than Ronsonet brought in a pass play; Jackson called it, gave the snap count and broke the huddle. Ronsonet, wide-eyed, looked at Jackson and said, "What do I do, Bobby?"
    Jackson told him, "Go to the end zone, take a left, and I'm going to hit you with a touchdown pass." That's exactly what happened ...
  • That allowed Bama to survive a State TD in the final 15. Stacy returned a punt 39y to the Bama 12 to set up his own roll out for the TD. MSU tried an onside kick, but G Wayne Sims grabbed it to stifle the last chance for the home team.
  • O'Steen ended the day with five quick-kicks, four of them traveling over 50y. He also punted 35y on fourth down out of bounds on the 2.
  • In the dressing room, Bryant passed out cigars and told his players, "Today you became men."
  • Red Blount called Bear that night back in Tuscaloosa. "Bear, I just want you to know that I don't understand what you're doing, but whatever it is, I'm for it."

The next week brought more of the same against Georgia in Tuscaloosa.

  • O'Steen quick-kicked four more times. His first one, 58y to the 13, set up the first TD. Bama held, and the Dogs punted. Gary returned it 14y to the 37. Three plays later, he turned RE for 14y and a 6-0 lead.
  • Georgia threatened repeatedly, piling up 291y of O, but could not penetrate the EZ thanks in large measure to 4 INTs.
  • Finally, with just three minutes left, Ronsonet intercepted a pass and raced 38y to the 16. Jackson lugged it to the 1, then dived over to make it 12-0 with less than a minute left.
What happened next set off what Bear called "the biggest fight I ever saw."
  • For some reason, Bama tried an onside kickoff and recovered it.
  • Georgia players took exception to that tactic and started a free-for-all.
  • When order was restored, Bama ran three more plays to end the game.
  • It was the first time the Crimson Tide had won two in a row since October 16, 1954.
Reference: Bear: The Hard Life & Good Times of Alabama's Coach Bryant,
Paul "Bear" Bryant with John Underwood (1974)
Above the Noise of the Crowd: Thirty years behind the Alabama microphone, John Forney (1986)
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