In 1905, 18 men died playing football and hundreds more were seriously injured, some of them paralyzed at the point of a flying wedge, a medieval formation that promised a certain kind of gladiatorial excitement. There was a growing outcry, especially in the bigger cities and certain universities, and even calls for the sport's abolition. President Theodore Roosevelt, supposedly horrified by a picture of a bloodied Tiny Maxwell (no such picture has ever been reproduced), threatened to ban the game by presidential order. The rules were changed in January 1906 to open up the game with the forward pass, but football remained as coarse and violent as ever.
Still, there was no denying the game's appeal, however guilty. The bravado, the physicality—the game was purely American. In a way a game like football, because it was especially unredeeming, was a proof of progress. Nothing affirms the status of a nation-state more than its ability to waste time.
This was a golden age, after all, a turning point, a goodbye to the barbaric conditions of the 1800s, a hello to a fine and civilized time ahead. There was still plenty of brutality to go around (those damn trains!), but it was only intermittent, to the point that it was newsworthy. Now that there was some small promise of living to the weekend (and now that there was a weekend), there was a growing demand for amusement. Tenors, comics, lecturers, physicians demonstrating X-rays—the trains were full of these traveling crowd-pleasers, and they stopped off in Canton and Massillon.
Professional football was played coast-to-coast but without the organization of major league baseball. It was still a nascent sport, piggybacking the college game, and was hardly tracking national attention, except when it was especially revolting. At the beginning of the century it had been little more than community intramurals, its popularity a local phenomenon. Attempts to organize it more fully in cities were fitful and unsuccessful. (The National Football League, hatched in Philadelphia in 1902, almost immediately dissolved for lack of funds, and a six-day football tournament held that December at Madison Square Garden was a flop.) It could not compete for newspaper space with even, say, harness racing.
Smaller towns, however, especially in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, were less discriminate when it came to leisure pursuits. So it was here that the game germinated, mostly unnoticed until the rest of the country awakened to its possibilities.
As football as an entertainment became increasingly important, so did the men who played it. That certain players were being slipped something out of the gate receipts was no longer a secret. It was still a scandal, just not a secret. The Pittsburgh Press, for example, reported in 1905 that Walter East, a prized end on the Western University of Pennsylvania football team, would not return because "he is not a fit man for a college team for he has been receiving pay for years." East, the paper went on to say, had even demanded a bonus to return to the college club but was "curtly turned down." Peggy Parratt, who was a star quarterback at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was turned out about the same time. He had been playing under center for Case on Saturdays and then, wearing a funny-looking helmet and noseguard, playing defense (as Jimmy Murphy) for the nearby Shelby Athletic Club on Sundays.
But there was another category of men, grown men who didn't have to flirt with rules of college eligibility. These were migrants of a sort—past collegiate stars, perhaps, or maybe just hardened factory workers—who shopped their athletic skills and vicious temperaments to the highest bidder. They traveled throughout the land, crossing from sport to sport, as sensitive to the seasonal marketplace as farmworkers. Christy Mathewson might pitch for the New York Giants during the summer, but he was not above making a buck as a punter and fullback for the Pittsburgh Stars in the fall.
The names weren't always so famous, inasmuch as skill at football was only partly a requirement for success at it. Among these athletic vagrants were talented players, for sure, but the most prized at the professional level were often simply the biggest and meanest. Heft was extremely important, but even more valuable was the ability to mix it up, to give and take. The game, rule changes aside, remained borderline assault and battery.
The hardscrabble Nesser brothers, boilermakers in the sense that they made boilers (none of them matriculated at Purdue), might have been the most violent men to ever strap on leather helmets (on those occasions that they wore helmets). They showed up all over Ohio, dispensing brutality at the slightest promise of payment, numb to the idea of pain. Knute Rockne said that getting hit by a Nesser was "like falling off a moving train." But it was the brothers' ability—maybe eagerness would be a better word—to take a blow and keep coming that gave opponents pause.
This was a game, remember, that did not insult masculine sensibilities with much protective equipment. Even among this fraternity, though, the Nessers constituted a frightening species. It was said that the seven football-playing brothers did not have three good ribs among them, and that a doctor finally refused to work on Ted's nose, it had been broken so many times. After the eighth repair he refrained from further reconstruction, saying, "What's the point?" Of course 23-year-old Ted, 5'10" and 230 pounds, might have been a special case, even among the Nessers. He once played a game with bones sticking out of his arm.