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Thank Teddy Roosevelt for Alabama and All College Football

American football was almost banned due to the violent nature of the early game and the huge amount of deaths and injuries. But Teddy Roosevelt, a huge fan of the game used the office of President as his “Bully Pulpit” and saved the game we all love today. Read how.

Who would have thought we as football fans would owe so much to Teddy Roosevelt? (photo

Thank Teddy Roosevelt for Alabama and All College Football

By: Larry Burton

Since it’s still early, it’s time to story tell and let fans know who to thank for all the college and pro football weekends to come this fall. Few realize that it all is due to none other than the Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States of America from 1901 to 1908.

How is that you may wonder?

In Roosevelt’s day, the game and rules were much different and much more violent. It was a new game to the nation and it took the country by storm. Fans loved the violent nature and there were few rules to protect players. The carnage was almost like that of Roman gladiator matches. In just one year, 1904, the Chicago Tribune reported 18 deaths on the fields and 150 serious life altering injuries, most of which came in the college and prep school contests.

At that time, piling on was encouraged and play didn’t stop when a player with the ball was on the ground. Many were hurt after the conclusion of what the end of the play would be in our time.  Little equipment was used for safety and blood and broken bones were the norm, not the exception and helmets were optional.

It got worse in 1905 as both the death toll and injury rates rose to higher and even more unacceptable levels. Schools were dropping the sport and many more, including the big ones at the time, Yale and Harvard were too. Even congress talked of outlawing play. So few schools played the game at that time that if the same number of teams were playing then as now, that death toll would have been near 95 in 1905 and hundreds more would have been permanently crippled. Something had to change. Choking, eye gouging, kneeing, punching and elbowing were all strategies that all teams employed. Many players left the game with bloody bite marks as well.

Schools were being pressured to end football after such years as 1905.

Schools were being pressured to end football after such years as 1905.

The end of American style football as a sport seemed destined to end, especially in the colleges and prep schools.

Roosevelt not only loved the game himself, but had a son who played at Harvard, so he sought to both save the game and institute new rules to make it safer. Soon the “neutral zone” was established that we all know today, play was stopped when a player was on the ground and  to spread the feild and avoid massive pile ups, the forward pass was legalized. The length to gain a first down was also changed from five yards to ten. Penalties were now called for “excess and unnessesary violence”.

Thanks to rule changes and Roosevelt's influence, football was saved.

Thanks to rule changes and Roosevelt’s influence, football was saved.

Roosevelt used his “Bully Pulpit” to convince schools to adapt the changes and keep the sport going. He used the White House itself to invite school leaders to hear his pleas to continue and sign on to his vision of change. He got governing bodies to continue to look for ways to make the game safer and continues till today.

One man, albeit the most powerful man in America, is the reason that football didn’t die away under the weight of his own bloody carnage.  So this season, lift a cheer to “Teddy” Roosevelt, the man who gave us our wonderful fall Saturdays and the kept the sport we all enjoy from becoming part of history.





Football as we know it was saved.

Football as we know it was saved.

And now as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at


Larry Burton is a member of the Football Writers of America Association (FWAA) and was the most read SEC and Alabama football writer during his time at Bleacher Report. He has been credentialed by all the major bowls and the University of Alabama. Larry provides some of the best insight in the business through his "Larry's Lowdown" segment with TDA.

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