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Book Review: The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation

Don't stop me if you've heard this one. Some foreign guy who's never seen American football before happens to be walking by practice. A football comes near him. He picks it up and boots it so hard everyone falls about the place. He joins the football team, becomes a nationally known celebrity, wins the games, gets all the chicks, and it's coming soon to a movie near you.

Thus is the story of Wisconsin kicker Pat O'Dea, which would make for a good movie, and perhaps will someday. At present it makes the foundation of a really good book. Dave Revsine's The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth Of A Football Nation covers college football from 1890 to 1915.

Books of this nature have a tendency to take themselves too seriously, leaning towards a dry academic style that leads a reader to potential dehydration. Revsine, a host on BTN, delivers a book written in a narrative style that is very informative while remaining entertaining.

Revsine uses the story of Wisconsin kicker Pat O' Dea as the duct tape that holds his narrative together.  O'Dea played at Wisconsin from 1896-1899 and was one of the early stars of the game, starring as a placekicker. The rules of football in those days favored kickers. A touchdown was worth only two points while a field goal was worth five. There was no forward pass and the ball was rounder so it would roll farther as teams fought for field position. Even the field was longer.

O'Dea became known as the "Kangaroo Kicker" and his exploits were known far and wide, made more prevalent by a media that loved to tell a tale.  It wasn't as if O'Dea were a slouch, but Revsine's recounting of his tale makes it clear that there were as many liberties taken with O'Deas' prowess as you would taken when telling your life stories to your son.

Revsine does a football and the corresponding media coverage into the context of the time at which they occurred.  He educates his audience on how the media functioned, for example - how penny newspapers came about, the foundation of the term "muckraking", and how easy it was for a story to be embellished to create what we would call "buzz".

Amos Alonzo Stagg and Walter Camp play prominent roles in Revsine's narrative. Both are recognized as larger than life individuals who helped build college football into a national pasttime.

Stagg was the head coach at the University of Chicago from 1892-1932. The University of Chicago, founded in 1890, recognized that football could help the university market a name for itself. Stagg found that the population of Chicago made it easier for the university to make more money selling tickets than traveling to places like Madison, Wisconsin and manipulated both his opponents and his schedule accordingly, playing 44 of 47 games at home between 1897 and 1899.

Marketing. Money. The Big Ten Football Championship trophy is named the Stagg Championship Trophy. The irony should be obvious.

Walter Camp was the head coach at Yale and is known as the "Father of American Football".  Yale in the early days was a giant in college football, and Camp controlled the rules committee that determined how the game would be played. 19 football players were killed during the 1905 season, yet Camp did his best to block rules changes that would might the game safer because those rules changes would have hurt Yale's chances on the gridiron.

Legend has it that Teddy Roosevelt intervened in 1905, demanding rules changes that would make the game safer. Revsine makes it clear that Roosevelt didn't do as much as he's given credit for; that the game remains as deadly as ever until changes made after 26 players died in 1909. Revsine's accounting of the era from 1906-1912 and the changes that occurred is very well done.

A constant theme throughout the book; that none of today's problems are new. As Revsine brings up scandal after scandal the reader cannot help but relate them to today's discussions of amateurism, money, corruption, player safety and manipulation.

Three things about Revsine's book:

  • He makes it crystal clear that college football's problems are the same today as they were in 1900. Revsine doesn't beat you over the head with it. It's nearly a subconscious thought as you move through the story he's telling.
  • His research is exceptional.  It took Revsine four years to write the book. It shows.
  • It covers the early history of college football in such a way that isn't boring as hell. It is a fun read.

Normally I'd recommend a book like this to college football fans that want to learn more about the history of the game, but in this case, I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a good story centered on the sport. It's not boring (I'm getting redundant, I know), as you'd expect from a book on history. It's got good humor, and it's got an excellent narrative.

The holidays are coming. Consider The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation on your gift list.