High in the stands sits the Old Grad, wringing his blue-veined hands and lamenting in his sad, crackling voice that the game—be it football, baseball, hockey, or whatever it is that he used to play in college—is changed in practically all essential points and invariably for the worse. Well, here is one ancient football alumnus who declines to subscribe to the goom. It is more than 65 years since I played. The change from the good old times brings no resentful tears to my eyes. Only in one respect do I believe that we oldtimers had the better of it: the game as we knew it was more fun to play.
From a modern viewpoint it might be charged that we were frivolous in our attitude toward a serious matter. Watching contemporary gridiron practice, I fear that we were guilty of lightheartedness. Try as I may, I cannot recall to memory, upon the faces of my old teammates, that zero-hour, Holy-Land-or-bust purposeful-ness which is now required facial wear for all gridiron athletes. I can even remember seeing players smile on the field!
Colleges were receptive to athletic endeavors of wide range in the early 1890s. Among other official intercollegiate sports were rope climbing, hop-skip-and-jump and the high kick. In this hospitable atmosphere, football was a welcome diversion. It had been played in a choice few colleges beginning in the early '80s, and by 1890 it had enjoyed wide expansion across the country.
Fundamentally, the football of the period did not differ from today's game. True, there was another system of scoring. Forward passing was taboo. Interference was a term applied only to illegal handling of an opponent. A culprit caught in the act was penalized as he is today. There was "guarding" then, which was interference of another sort. A player galloped rhythmically, step for step, with the back carrying the ball, warding off tacklers as best he might. This maneuver was legal.
Allowing for these minor divergences, the underlying method was the same. Just as in the contemporary sport, 11 earnest young athletes to a side strove to plunk the ball back of the enemy goal line in a series of downs. The strategy employed was primitive. The center rush snapped back the ball to the quarterback. The quarterback handed it over to a halfback. The halfback then ran wide or bucked the line as seemed to him most opportune and, without any particular help from anyone else, persevered on his lonely way until somebody on the other side felled him. The only variations were an occasional punt or a rarer drop kick.
What the individual player did was strictly his own business. No referee blew a salvaging whistle to save him from destruction. (It may be that my memory fails, but I cannot remember that the referee had a whistle.) The ball was out of play when the carrier, having decided that he could conveniently advance no farther, shouted "down"—and not before. As at a signal, every member of the opposing team then piled up upon the fallen runner with all the abandon of bear cubs raiding a honey tree. When the victim had been exhumed and the wind pumped back into him, the teams lined up again.
This was fairly rigorous as an ordeal. It was as nothing compared to the invention of a specialist in mass mayhem named Lorin F. Deland. He invented the flying wedge in which a veritable juggernaut rolled down upon a scattered lot of static defenders, whose only hope was to hurl themselves at the knees of the thundering herd. The result was an all-time high in carnage.
The sporting public, then as now, loved violence. But a maneuver which, twice in an afternoon's play, left a dozen or more stalwarts flopping on the greensward like moribund fish was a little-too much. Protests rose. Faculties objected. Anguished parents wrote letters to the newspapers. The athletic authorities outlawed Mr. Deland's wedge, and no attempt was ever made to revive it.
Hamilton College, my alma mater, put its pioneer team in the field in the fall of 1890. I played right tackle and, on a muddy field, was sometimes shifted to right halfback. As an institution, Hamilton leaned to classics rather than athletics, notwithstanding which we developed enough native talent that season to defeat both Syracuse and Colgate.
We started from scratch—not more than three of the original candidates had ever seen a football before—but then, so did most of our competitors. I recall with painful vividness the remarks of our coach, a crack Princeton halfback named L. D. Mowry, upon his first survey of our extremely awkward squad totaling exactly 17.