Happy Friday! Today on Museum Bites we’re continuing our tour of Green Bay, Wisconsin with a look at this fair city’s favorite pastime, football. Are you ready for some?! Almost 100 years ago, Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Calhoun organized a fledgling team of local jocks to play a new game called gridiron football. Join me for a look at how a medical student, shipping clerk, and former US president all had an impact on this controversial game. We begin by rolling back the clock to the 1860s…
At many a moment on many a day, I am convinced that pro football must be a game for madmen, and I must be one of them.
~Vince Lombardi, player, coach, and all-around Yoda of football.
Destructive Rowdiness: In the 1860s, a handful of Ivy League schools began meeting on the pitch to play a new game that was a cross between rugby and soccer. University officials encouraged the sport, believing it an ideal outlet for students’ destructive rowdiness. Better to let the young men tear up the field and fellow classmates than precious university property. The game caught on and in 1869, New Jersey rivals, Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game using London Rules (think: more soccer, less rugby; Rutgers won 6-4). And soon after, Yale, Columbia, and Cornell came a running, but Harvard was having none of it. The men in crimson preferred the Boston Game, a rugby-style version where the ball was put into play by a scrum but instead of trying to kick the ball forward, they heeled it out (i.e., kicked the ball backward to a teammate). In 1875, Harvard convinced Yale to play the Boston Game, and despite defeat, Yale was won over by this new version of the game. Soon after the other schools followed suit.
If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score? ~Vince Lombardi
You Say Scrummage, I Say Scrimmage: These early days of football were fraught with chaotic starts, kicking and shoving man piles, and little regard for safety and spectator entertainment. Enter Walter Camp, med student, football player, team captain, and influential member of the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA). Camp introduced two key upgrades to the game. The first occurred in 1880 when the IFA did away with the scrummage in favor of the scrimmage. Instead of a huddle of men scrabbling for the ball with their feet, possession was given to one team at the start of the game. The scrimmage created a more orderly start, but possession of the ball could be maintained by one team throughout the entire game. Players were frustrated and fans were bored. In 1882, Walter Camp and the IFA established a system of downs. Within three plays (downs) the offense needed to move the ball at least five yards upfield or risk losing ten yards and possession of the ball. Downs added more excitement and strategy to the game. Soon lateral passes and long runs were incorporated into playbooks. Fans and players alike were thrilled, but these new rules did nothing to protect players or prevent violence.
Fun Football Fact: Considered the Father of Football, Walter Camp was responsible for adding yard lines to the field, as well as creating the quarterback position, 11-player team, and system of points. Surprisingly, he was not a proponent of the forward pass.
Turf War: The IFA created rules to enhance the game, but initially there was little to no attempt made to rein in violence or protect players. What had started as an outlet for destructive rowdiness had morphed into all-out war. In 1888, the IFA allowed tackling below the waist and teams began coming up with vicious methods to take down their opponents. Harvard concocted the infamous flying wedge, a brutal, bulldozing play based on military tactics. Punching, kicking, eye poking and other forms of abuse were the norm, and some teams intentionally targeted star players on opposing teams. Little if any protective gear was worn leaving players to rely on their “long” hair and leather nose guards to see them through the game.
The fans ate it up and stadiums swelled in attendance. By 1893, 40,000 fans spent Thanksgiving Day inside Manhattan Field stadium watching the Princeton Tigers trounce the Yale Bulldogs. Many university officials balked at the violence and threatened to ban the game. More referees were added and rules banning nails in shoes or metal on any part of the body were enforced. But player injuries and even fatalities continued to mount. Things came to a head during the 1905 season when 18 players died and another 159 were severely injured. Colleges and universities throughout the country began banning football.
Football is on trial…because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.
~ Theodore Roosevelt (1905)
President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid football fan, summoned influential IFA members and university officials to the White House in an effort to save the game. After several contentious rounds of negotiations, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (precursor to the NCAA) was established to oversee and regulate college football. Initial modifications to the game included the creation of a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage, 10-yard first downs, the forward pass, and penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. To this day, officials continue to modify and improve the game.
Fun Football Fact: The first football helmet was introduced in 1896, a flimsy contraption made of three leather straps.
I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.
Lambeau Leap: Professional football began in athletic clubs and city teams primarily in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. In 1919, Curly Lambeau, a shipping clerk from the Indian Packing Company, and George Calhoun, sports editor for the Green Bay Press Gazette formed a professional football team in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Lambeau had been captain of the Green Bay East High School football team and spent his freshman year of college playing for legendary coach Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Prior to his sophomore year, he was cut from the team and sent home after developing a severe case of tonsillitis. Eager to get back in the game Lambeau persuaded his employer to sponsor a team and because of his efforts, the Green Bay Packers were formed.
Lambeau coached and played halfback and in 1921 they joined the American Professional Football Association (renamed the National Football League in 1922). Within a year the team was kicked out for breaking league rules by allowing college players to participate in a non-league game. Lambeau paid a fine of $50 and within six months the Packers were reinstated. Despite Lambeau’s efforts, the team struggled with financial difficulties. He met with local promoters and together they concocted a plan to sell stock to save the team. The scheme worked and today the Green Bay Packers are the only nonprofit, community-owned team within the NFL. Lambeau’s enthusiasm and innovative style led the Packers to win six championships. Shortly after his death in 1965, Green Bay’s City Stadium was renamed Lambeau Field.
Fun Football Fact: In 1959, the Packers hired a relatively unknown assistant coach from the New York Giants, named Vince Lombardi. Lombardi immediately whipped the losing team into shape and delivered their first winning season in 12 years. He and the Packers went on to dominate the league, winning five championships, including Super Bowl I and II. After his death in 1970, the Super Bowl trophy was named in his honor.
Joining the Fray: Thanks to Walter Camp, Teddy Roosevelt, Curly Lambeau and a host of others, football has become the most popular spectator sport in the United States. It is a violent, controversial, and thrilling game. In no other sport can you enjoy the excitement of a Hail Mary, flea flicker, defensive blitz, pooch punt, and my personal favorite, Lambeau Leap. This weekend stadiums across the nation will rock with exuberant fans. Coaches will pace and scheme along the sidelines, muttering behind their play cards, while players sprint, smash and strain to gain or contain yardage. And harried refs will attempt to regulate all the madness. If you’re like me you’ll tune in and join the fray. Go Pack Go!
Fun Football Fact: In 1993, LeRoy Butler came up with the Lambeau Leap after the Packers defeated the Los Angeles Raiders 28-0 in -22° F wind chills. The win clinched a playoff berth for the Packers, the first in 11 years. Truly something to leap for!
That concludes our look at the Green Bay Packers and the origins of football. Next week, we’ll wrap up our tour of Green Bay, with a taste of cheese. In the meantime, have a great week!
Cover photo of the Green Bay Packers (1919), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Pro Football Hall of Fame: Birth of Pro Football
Pro Football Hall of Fame: Green Bay Packers History