In an age of rampant nostalgia, Allison Danzig's anthology of oldtime football writing, Oh, How They Played the Game (The Macmillan Co., $10), has something for everyone—for devotees of the modern game as well as old fanatics. The contributions by former coaches and players, as well as those by newspaper and magazine writers, are refreshingly free of emphasis on the superiority of past gridiron greats; in fact, many of the oldtimers concede that the modern college game is better than the one they played.
But college football in those days had a very different setting and cast of characters, a kind of luster that comes only with time. It all started in 1869, with Princeton vs. Rutgers on a field in New Brunswick, N.J. During that first-ever game, a crotchety Rutgers professor pedaled up to the scene on his bicycle, dismounted, waved his umbrella and shouted to the player's, "You men will come to no Christian end!" In later years, after some deaths and injuries, efforts were made to abolish college football, and one of the pieces Danzig includes is a defense of the game by Theodore Roosevelt ("I emphatically disbelieve in seeing Harvard or any other college turn out mollycoddles instead of vigorous men").
Much interesting material is included on those gridiron pioneers, Walter Camp, Amos Alonzo Stagg, John W. Heisman and Pop Warner. Recollections by and about players abound. (In 1937 Congressman Hamilton Fish, a standout tackle in the early 1900s, named his two "most lasting hobbies": Harvard football and the Republican Party.) The most interesting subjects, of course, are the great players and coaches who enriched the era—Grange, Rockne and Thorpe, whom Dwight Eisenhower called "the finest player I ever saw...."
George Ade, the Hoosier wit, and James Thurber, the Buckeye satirist, enliven the book with amusing contributions, and several classic columns by Grantland Rice reveal a deep knowledge and love of the game. The evolution of football from English rugby and soccer is traced through the writings of Walter Camp and others, who also probe the origins of its refinements. The game's popularity was not always so high. Next time you are turned down for an extra seat at The Game, consider the attendance at the first Yale-Harvard contest at New Haven in 1875. Only 140 Harvards showed up.
Danzig, a sportswriter on The New York Times for 45 years, has been selective in his choice of articles without displaying any overpowering prejudices—except, of course, for the game of football.