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Football and the American Character

John Miller
Hillsdale College


John MillerJohn J. Miller is director of the Herbert H. Dow II Program in American Journalism at Hillsdale College and national correspondent for National Review. A graduate of the University of Michigan, where he served as editor of the Michigan Review, he has also worked on the staff of The New Republic. A contributing editor of Philanthropy magazine, he writes regularly for newspapers and journals including the Detroit News, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review. He is the author of several books, including The First Assassin, a novel set during the Civil War, and most recently The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.



The following is adapted from a luncheon speech delivered at Hillsdale College on September 9, 2013.


On November 18, 1876, Theodore Roosevelt, a freshman at Harvard who had just turned 18, attended his first football game. Destined for great things, he was enthusiastic about athletics in general and eager to see the new sport of football in particular. So here he was at the second game ever played between Harvard and its great rival Yale.

As Roosevelt shivered in the cold and windy fall weather, he watched a game that was quite different from the sport we know today. There were no quarterbacks or wide receivers, no first downs or forward passes. Before play began, the teams met to discuss rules. What number of men would play? What would count for a score? How long would the game last? They were like school kids today who have to set up boundaries, choose between a game of touch or tackle, and decide how to count blitzes.

Harvard’s veterans agreed to a couple of suggestions proposed by Yale. The first would carry a lasting legacy: Rather than playing with 15 men to a side, as was the current custom, the teams would play with eleven men. So this was the first football game to feature eleven players on the field per team.

The second suggestion would not shape the sport’s future, but it would affect the game that afternoon: Touchdowns would not count for points. Only goals—balls sailed over a rope tied between two poles—kicked after touchdowns or kicked from the field during play would contribute to the score.

In the first half, Harvard scored a touchdown but missed the kick. By the rules of the day, this meant that Harvard earned no points. At halftime, the game was a scoreless tie.

After the break, Yale pushed into Harvard territory and a lanky freshman named Walter Camp tried to shovel the ball to a teammate. It was a poor lateral pass that hit the ground and bounced upward, taking one of those funny hops that can befuddle even skilled players. In a split second, Oliver Thompson decided to take a chance on a kick from about 35 yards away and at a wide angle. The ball soared into the air, over the rope and through the uprights, giving Yale a lead of 1-0. No more points were scored that afternoon.

In a letter to his mother the next day, Roosevelt gave voice to the frustration that so often accompanies defeat in sports. “I am sorry to say we were beaten,” he wrote, “principally because our opponents played very foul.”

More about Teddy Roosevelt and what he did for football in a moment. But first, let me discuss briefly why football matters.