In what was the second program of the Fall Series, the Ford Presidential Library welcomed John Miller to speak about his newest book, “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football”. The book speaks to the love for physical activity, in particular football, that Roosevelt had, and how he helped to save the game from being destroyed.
Miller began his journalism career with the New Republic and in 1998 joined the staff of National Review where he was appointed National Political Reporter. He has written five books and contributes to other new publications, including the Wall Street Journal.
Miller began his talk with the statistic that motivated him to write the book; in 1905 18 people died playing football. Lead by Harvard University President Charles W. Elliot and a gaggle of progressive–era politicians, a movement evolved attempting to “kill” the game which had in its infancy already secured its place in the fabric of American life. Eventually, however, “one of the most remarkable men to walk across the stage of American politics”, Theodore Roosevelt, would intervene on the side of the sport.
Overcoming asthma as a youngster, he “made his body”, learning the lesson that commitment to fitness could turn a “scrawny little boy into a vigorous man”. He became an avid fan of football during his years at Harvard, and always placed great value in the strong men that the sport produced. Roosevelt went so far as to recruit former football players for his “Rough Riders” which would earn fame and glory fighting in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. He emerged as National Hero and a man of “Presidential timbre”.
Joining McKinley on the Presidential ticket in 1899, he delivered his most famous speech, “The Strenuous Life”. His passion for sport was exemplified in his words which were eventually converted into versions which would appear in children’s magazines, encouraging love of athletic sports, rough sports of endurance and fitness, stating that “in life, as in a football game, hit the line hard”.
In 1905, as President, Roosevelt stepped up to save the game. He called on the head coaches of the three largest “football schools” Yale, Harvard, and Princeton to meet at the White House to discuss the games future. It was during this meeting that the President encouraged the coaches to eliminate the brutality that dominated the game. Though they all said they would, Bill Reed, Coach at Harvard really heeded the call. At the end of the 1905 season Reed, along with a group of reform minded colleagues, helped to establish and approve sweeping rule changes to reduce the violence in the sport, and organization now known as the NCAA.
These reforms, including the creation of the forward pass, birthed the game of football many enjoy today. Decades later, after Roosevelt’s death, Reed would say that “President Roosevelt saved the game” and “except for this chain of events there may be no such thing as American football as we know it.”