The year was 1905, and the occasion was a football game between Penn and Swarthmore College at Philadelphia's Franklin Field. By game's end, as legend has it, the face of American football had been changed forever.
The Quakers, led by All-America quarterback Vince Stevenson, were a recognized power. Swarthmore was a small college, growing bigger, whose team was paced by a 6'4", 240-pound guard named Robert W. (Tiny) Maxwell. Under the rules of those days, Maxwell not only blocked and tackled but also often carried the ball.
Penn's game plan was to put Maxwell out of action as quickly as possible. Swarthmore hoped to do the same to Stevenson. Later, Maxwell, who died in 1922, recalled that, while on defense, he was struggling to get his battered body off the ground: "Just as I was getting up, Stevie came over and said, 'Tiny, you're great. You've played the greatest game I ever saw in my life. You've been the whole line. I'm going to lay off you.' I believed him, and when I got into the line I didn't get set up very strong. That sonuvagun yelled out, 'No signals, fellows. I'll take the ball right through that big slob Maxwell.'
"Stevenson went through me as if I was paper, and he socked me on the jaw, too, as he went through."
By the end of the game Maxwell's nose was broken, his eyes were swollen nearly shut and his face resembled steak tartare. According to some gridiron histories, a newspaper photo of his face shocked President Theodore Roosevelt. Two days later, in a meeting with major college representatives, the President demanded that they clean up football or he'd ban the game outright. Whether T.R. in fact saw a photo of Maxwell is doubtful, but there's no question the meeting was held—almost certainly because T.R. had become increasingly distressed by the extreme brutality in the sport—and several others shortly after it. Three months later the rules were changed to double the yardage required for a first down from five to 10, reduce playing time from 70 minutes to 60, add restrictions against roughing, establish a neutral zone on the line of scrimmage the length of the ball and legalize the forward pass. The result was football pretty much as we know it today.
With Maxwell, legend is so intertwined with fact that the two are hard to separate. Did he write the words to Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl and sell them to Edgar Smith, the song's credited lyricist, for $25? The late Gene Kelly—onetime Voice of the Phillies—reported this as fact. Did Maxwell spend his spare time in college playing cards in the back room of a local pharmacy while waiting to be summoned to practice by coach George Brooke? One of Brooke's successors, Lew Elverson, says that's the way he heard it.
A native of Chicago, Maxwell began playing college football at the University of Chicago in 1902 for Amos Alonzo Stagg. He also boxed and set school hammer-throwing and shotputting records. "When Tiny put the shot," humorist Arthur (Bugs) Baer observed, "the shot stayed put."
Throughout his life Maxwell was the target of good-natured ribbing because of his size (by his mid-30s, he not only towered over the average man but, at 300-plus pounds, also weighed twice as much) and his stuttering. But Maxwell's struggle with a speech impediment made his physical presence less intimidating and in fact increased his popularity. It's said that after he transferred to Swarthmore in 1904, Maxwell got permission from Brooke to go the 11 miles into Philadelphia one night on condition that he return by 1 a.m. On his way back to his room, Maxwell happened to awaken Brooke. "What time is it?" demanded the coach.
"A little before wuh, wuh, one," said Maxwell.
At that point a clock struck five.