- The Opening Kickoff, the Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation by Dave Revsine
Played by different rules in its early decades than it is today, college football in the 1890s and early 1900s appears as Neanderthals do to modern humans—similar but not the same. When it comes to scandals and brutality, the parallels between early football and today’s game are somewhat closer. Critics of football then focused on deaths and serious injuries, lack of academic integrity, and football’s unsportsmanlike reputation. Thus, the author of this volume proposes: “Those who wonder why we can’t ‘just go back to football the way it used to be,’ might be surprised that, in fact, we have” (xv). If Dave Revsine overstates his case (after all, the twentieth century was filled with gridiron scandals), he still has a point. We can hear that distant echo, even in the twenty-first century.
Revsine, a host for the Big Ten Network, takes a twenty-five-year period, 1890–1915, to explain the growth of the often troubled but popular sport. He begins with a signature game, the Princeton-Yale Thanksgiving game in New York in 1892. Princeton famously snapped a Yale thirty-seven-game winning streak, 6–0. This game enables the author to introduce the hullabaloo, the crowds, the wagers, and the structure of the early game (the flying wedge was still legal). The author also touches on problems with violent play and injuries that would grow more controversial in the 1890s and early 1900s. Like much of the book, “Football Day” (the title of the first chapter) is filled with detailed descriptions and narrated in an easy, albeit nonacademic style.
Those of us who are familiar with this era of college football can predict where the story begins and where it will lead. Anyone who describes early football has to reach back into the 1880s to Walter Camp, the “father of American football,” to acquaint the reader with his impact on football at Yale and especially on the rules of intercollegiate football. In addition, the author must touch on the explosion of interest in football, which grows hand-in-glove with the burgeoning newspaper technology. Already in the cross-hairs of critics such as President Charles Eliot of Harvard, the college game becomes the bad boy of academic life, as the brutality leads to deaths and serious injuries. Finally, when the 1905 season arrives, President Theodore Roosevelt briefly intervenes, and the reform conferences lead to the ICAA, forerunner of the NCAA. After a brief crisis in 1909–10, football emerges as a somewhat safer and a definitely more interesting game, not unlike the sport as it is played today. In 1913, the iconic game between Army and Notre Dame, in which the forward pass comes of age, completes this formulaic approach to early football. None of this story is new—and some events such as the Army-Notre Dame game are overblown, but the author’s detailed account is thoroughly researched and well written.
One part of the book veers from the broader narrative. The author’s lifelong obsession with an Australian-born kicker, Pat O’Dea, results in a story within a much larger story. O’Dea, who kicked for Wisconsin from 1896 to 1899, appears first in alternating chapters, then is briefly integrated into the tumult of early midwestern football. As colorful as O’Dea’s career turns out to be, the “kangaroo kicker” does not always fit into the wide lens focused [End Page 278] on football’s unruly adolescence. Still, the epilogue in which O’Dea mysteriously resurfaces decades after his playing career provides a surprising twist for a book that otherwise might lack a lively conclusion.
The author’s research stands up well. The book contains episodes in early football that other writers and scholars have often mentioned but not explained in detail. One example is the death of Georgia’s Richard Von Gammon in a game between Virginia and Georgia in 1897. Revsine enlivens the story of...