Review: The Big Scrum - How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

My immediate thought when I first saw this book was that it would be a sugary glory story about how Teddy Roosevelt dashed in to save college football. In other words, full of more fluff than substance and more myth than reality.

I could not have been more wrong.

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved College Football is an excellent, well-written book based on an extensive amount of historical research done on the over a ten-year period by author John J. Miller.

The early days of football were marred by extreme violence, with many young men losing their lives because of the brutality of the game. The game was so dangerous that a movement began, lead by Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, with the purpose of abolishing football altogether. Teddy Roosevelt, who believed that the game developed character, sought to save the game, inviting the coaches of the three biggest football schools (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) to the White House in 1905 and imploring them to find a way to reduce the violence while saving the game.

Miller's book tells the extensive story of how it all happened. 

Miller does an excellent job of providing background on the opposing factions, making sure the reader understands why, for example, Eliot was so opposed to the game, Roosevelt was for it, and men like Walter Camp stood in the way of progress. Miller also provides an excellent review of how the game evolved as rules changes didn't always have the desired result that the overseers were looking for. 

What's amazing is that the story that lead to the formation of a game we all love so much hasn't been told this well before.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Miller's research into the early games of that involved a ball. Rather than be satisfied with detailing the evolution of football from rugby, Miller provides a rigorous search through human history, citing Greek, Roman, and Egyptian references. He talks of Roosevelt's encounter with the Pareci Indians of the Amazon, and Roosevelt's description of a game they played where opposing teams would keep a ball in play by butting in with their heads. Miller's account of "mob" or "folk" football in medieval England is enlightening (as well as funny) as he talks about entire towns who would compete in trying to deliver an inflated pig's bladder (the origin of "pigskin") to a pre-ruled destination of a rival town. The reader is introduced to the Royal Shrovetide Football Match, which has apparently been played since the 1200s (who knew? I sure didn't!) and whose very few rules include - "Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited" - as if anyone needed to be told.

Who's is The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved College Football for?  If you're a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, I'm willing to bet this book deals with a piece of Roosevelt's life that has so far been untouched by history buffs concerned more about his political life, his presidency, and how it affected the United States. It's doubtful other historians have consider Roosevelt's involvement in football worth their time. (I admit - I'm not a big "president" guy when it comes to history.) 

If you're a college football fan who also happens to be a history buff, then this book is a must read. Miller's writing is far (as in light years) from the dry tome of John Sayles Watterson's "College Football", while providing context to an age in which football players were more apt to be permanently disabled than to make any money playing a sport. 

Bottom line - The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved College Football is an excellent book. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about how football was saved from the brink of destruction, and how it evolved to become (mostly) the game we know and love today. 

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