Football Urban Legends Revealed #19

This is the nineteenth in a series of examinations of football-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, we learn the story of how a future U.S. President essentially saved the game of football, reveal whether the creator of basketball also invented the football helmet and discover what future Hall of Fame quarterback was given away by a league commissioner because his current team was too good!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous football legends.

Let’s begin!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: The annual Army-Navy Game drew two separate U.S. Presidents directly into the planning of the game and, ultimately, the future of football itself.


As you spend today voting for your state’s various elected officials, let us look back at a time when the highest elected official in the country, the President of the United States, ended the Army-Navy football rivalry nearly as soon as it began! And then marvel at how a later President both saved the rivalry and, in many ways, the game of football itself!

I don’t think that I really need to tell you that the early days of football barely resemble the game that we know today. Not that football today is exactly a gentleman’s game, but in the early days the games were played practically without rules – and without mercy. A good comparison to football in the early 1890s would be looking at professional boxing before their various rules (most famously, the Queensberry rules) were put into place – just a vicious, bloody mess. However, it was a popular vicious, bloody mess!

As the various universities in the country began to institute football programs in the 1870s (as the sport slowly evolved from rugby), the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis was one of the earliest schools to adopt the sport. The United States Military Academy at West Point did not begin to play football until 1890, which was when the Naval Academy challenged them to a game. That game in November of 1890 sparked a tradition that continues to this day, the legendary “Army-Navy Game.”

That first game was mostly a pick-up game, and it was viewed by about 500 people (as you might imagine, Navy won handedly, which would make sense seeing as how they had been playing the sport for over a decade at that point) but soon the game became a bit of a sensation. The 1893 game was attended by over eight thousand people! However, this upswing in popularity also brought with it significant drawbacks, namely that with the popularity also brought fanaticism. And when you put two opposing fanatical groups against each other, well, you might as well be flicking matches at powder kegs. The highlight/lowlight of the 1893 Army-Navy game happened when an Army-supporting brigadier general and a Navy-supporting rear admiral got into an argument over the game (which was a hotly contested low-scoring game won by Navy 6-4, bringing their record to 3-1 in the four match-ups). The argument escalated to the point where the two men decided to have a duel!!! Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the duel was called off, but still, in many ways, the damage was done.

In February of 1894, President Grover Cleveland actually called a special cabinet meeting to discuss the Army-Navy Game. By this point, the superintendent of the Military Academy, Oswald Ernst, had already conducted his own investigation into football at West Point. Ernst was an old school military man (he was a Civil War veteran, even!) and he found the notion of his cadets careing so much about football games to be unsettling, but he ultimately determined that the games did no real harm – except, of course, the Army-Navy Game, which he found to be a “bad influence” and that the excitement over the game was far too out of control. He recommended to the Secretary of War, Daniel S. Lamont, that the games be cancelled in the future. So, at the cabinet meeting, Lamont brought this to the attention of the others present and by the end of the meeting, Lamont and Secretary of the Navy Hillary A. Herbert agreed to end the rivalry.

How they did it was a bit interesting. Rather than outright canceling the game, they both just issued general orders that both the Military Academy and the Naval Academy could only play football games at their home fields. Since neither could go on the road, well, then they very well couldn’t play each other, now could they?

So it went for a number of years. Even though Army and Navy could not play each other, their respective programs still continued to grow and the sport became more and more popular. In August 1897, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy made an impassioned plea to the Secretary of War to allow the game to resume.

Here is the text of that letter:

My dear General Alger:

For what I am about to write you I think I should have the backing of my fellow-Harvard man, your son. I should like very much to revive the football games between Annapolis and West Point. I think the Superintendent of Annapolis, and I dare say Colonel Ernst, the Superintendent of West Point, will feel a little shaky because undoubtedly formerly the academic routine was cast to the winds when it came to these matches, and a good deal of disorganization followed. But it seems to me that if we would let Colonel Ernst and Captain Cooper come to an agreement that the match should be played just as either eleven plays outside teams; that no cadet should be permitted to enter or join the training table if he was unsatisfactory in any study or conduct, and should be removed if during the season he becomes unsatisfactory; if they were marked without regard to their places on the team; if no drills, exercises or recitations were omitted to give opportunities for football practice; and if the authorities of both institutions agreed to take measures to prevent any excesses such as betting and the like, and to prevent any manifestations of an improper character—if as I say all this were done—and it certainly could be done without difficulty—then I don’t see why it would not be a good thing to have a game this year.

If you think favorably of the idea, will you be willing to write Colonel Ernst about it?

The letter must have worked, because in 1899, during President William McKinley’s first term as President, the game resumed. The solution to the heated rivalry was that the games would be held at a neutral site. Franklin Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was chosen and the rivalry was renewed!

McKinley ran for President again in 1900, and as his running mate, guess who he chose? The same fellow who wrote the above cited letter, a gentleman you might have heard of named Theodore Roosevelt.


In 1901, now President himself (due to McKinley’s tragic assassination earlier that year), Roosevelt instituted the tradition of the President (when attending the Army-Navy Game) of watching the game from different sides of the field for each half, thereby splitting his support between the two teams (this was a bit unconvincing when future President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended games, as he was a graduate of West Point – he actually played in the game for Army in 1912!).

In 1905, Roosevelt once again came to the aid of football. You see, while concerns were alleviated about the conduct in football games in the short term in 1899, by 1905 they had returned with a vengeance! Football was considered just far too violent. Nineteen collegians were killed in football games in 1905 alone! Heck, Roosevelt himself had a personal stake in the issue, as his son Ted (who he mentioned in the letter above) had his nose broken playing for Harvard in a football game that year. There were some calls to ban the sport entirely at schools. Roosevelt, though, felt a better solution would be to simply regulate it.

So in October of 1905, he called together at the White House the presidents of five major institutions (Army, Navy, Harvard, Princeton and Yale) and had them form the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), which was officially established in March of 1906. That organization later changed its name in 1910 to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is what it remains called to this day. The policies determined by the NCAA would change the game of football forever, both college football and, by osmosis, the burgeoning professional game, allowing them to become the mainstays of American culture they are today.

Thanks, TR!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Did the inventor of basketball, James Naismeth, also invent the football helmet?

STATUS: A Lot of Truth to it, but I Lean False Overall

The world of collegiate sports in the late 19th Century was practically like the Wild Wild West, with the fast and loose invention (and application) of rules as the games that we now know today were first coming into existence. During a time when sports like football and basketball were in their infancy, the games played would barely be recognizable to us today. As a result, the last decade or so of the 19th Century was a Golden Age for sports innovators. Collegiate athletics were going through a boom period and they needed people to come up with sports to meet the growing demand.

One of the most famous sports innovators is Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Naismith was an Instructor in Physical Education at the Young Men’s Christian Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts when he invented basketball. Obviously, though, if Naismith was an instructor before he invented basketball, he must have been involved in other sports. One such sport that Naismith was heavily involved in was football, which itself was still in the early years of making its transition from rugby to its own unique sport.

This leads to a great story about the early days of football and Naismith, which is specifically; did James Naismith also invent the football helmet?

The answer is open to interpretation – so read on to learn the facts and see if you agree with my conclusion!

James Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario in 1861 (his parents had moved to Canada from Scotland a decade earlier). His parents died when he only nine years old and he was raised by his grandmother and an uncle, Peter. He enrolled in McGill University in Montreal in 1883 and was a star athlete at the school. Upon graduation in 1887, he entered the Seminary at McGill. During this time, he worked as an Instructor of Physical Education. He played and taught football, rugby, lacrosse and gymnastics while at McGill. Towards the end of his time at the Seminary, Naismith began to question his impending role as a minister. He was a very religious man, but he began to feel as though he could have a greater impact on the lives of young people as a physical education instructor who would deal with new people every year rather than a minister at a church who would have the same basic constituency.

After grappling with this decision for awhile, he ultimately decided to pursue a career in physical education over the ministry. In 1890, he moved to Springfield College in Massachusetts (then called the Young Men’s Christian Training School) to complete his masters in physical education. It was here that he met Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was also pursuing his Masters at the Young Men’s Christian Training School. Stagg was a pioneer in the development of football, becoming an inaugural member of the College Football Hall of Fame, but also, through his relationship with Naismith, was also a pioneer in the development of basketball, becoming an inaugural member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, as well! It is pretty amazing to consider that Stagg and Naismith, two of the most notable sports pioneers of the 19th Century, both happened to attend the same school in the same year. Not only that, but both men were former divinity students!

Stagg attended Yale University, where he played football (he was a member of the very first All-America football team in 1889) and studied to be a minister. Like Naismith, though, he determined that his future was as a physical instructor, not as a spiritual one. Stagg, a dominant baseball player at Yale, also turned down a job pitching for the New York Giants to pursue a career in teaching. Both Stagg and Naismith found a kindred spirit in the Dean of the Physical Education Department at the Young Men’s Christian Training School, Dr. Luther Gulick. All three men were in their 20s at the time, and Gulick was very supportive in giving them each the freedom to innovate and invent sports while at the school. Both Naismith and Stagg would join the school as instructors in 1891 after completing their studies (both finishing a two-year program in a single year).

Likely inspired by Stagg’s presence at the school, Gulick suggested that they form the school’s first football team, with Stagg as the head coach (around this time, Stagg also became the first paid football coach, as he would coach a secondary school once a week on top of coaching the Young Men’s Christian Training School). Thirteen students were chosen to play on the inaugural team from the fifty-seven members of the student population, and Naismith was one of them. He played center, just like he had played at McGill. The team became known as “Stagg’s Stubby Christians,” because while they were a good deal less accomplished than Yale, Harvard and all the Eastern “powerhouses” of the time, they competed against them all and played them tough. It was during this time that the story of Nasimith’s football helmet invention came into play.

As you might imagine, playing center for a team that is constantly overmatched by its opponents is, to say the least, painful. Naismith would be repeatedly brutalized. Constant blows to the head gave him a perichondrial hematoma, better known as “cauliflower ear.” Basically, his ear swelled up due to all the blows to the head. It was so bad that years later his bruised ear was actually listed on his passport as an identifying feature!! Things took a turn for the worse when, after getting kicked in the face during one game, Naismith had short term memory loss, not recognizing anyone around him. After recovering, Naismith had to think of some way to help himself out of this situation. His solution was, with the help of his girlfriend, Maude (who later became his wife), to use some pieces of flannel as ear muffs. They were basically effective. Later on, Naismith would use pieces of leather for the muffs.

So, the question becomes – is that a football helmet?

The next question is – did people start using Naismith’s invention (which came around 1891)?

To the first question, I don’t know if I would call it a helmet, and to the second, no, they really did not.

Similarly, U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman Joseph M. Reeves was told that if he received another blow to the head he would die (death is often a good motivator to invent protective measures), so Reeves went to a local blacksmith to get a contraption made out of moleskin that would allow him to compete in the 1893 Army/Navy Game. It was basically a cap (Reeves would later use the idea for aviators caps during the early 20th Century).

Is Reeves, then, our winner?

Again, like Naismith, I don’t know if what he wore would be considered a “helmet,” and once again, no one started wearing caps like Reeves, so I’d be hard pressed to credit him with starting something when it appears more like a one-time/one-person situation.

Finally, George Barclay of Lafayette College decided in 1896 that he did not want to risk getting injured (more specifically, he did not want cauliflower ears), so he went to a local harness maker and had him build him a harness for his head (in fact, that’s what they called them at the time – a “head harness”) made out of three thick pieces of leather fastened together along with a strap that you would wear around your chin.

Barclay seems to be the “winner,” as his device is pretty clearly a helmet and his device actually began to be adopted by other players until it became a common piece of equipment by the end of the decade (although for decades some players chose to play without helmets for some odd reason).

In fact, the “head harness” was in use all the way up to the 1910s (with some minor changes, like ear flaps being added), when the next major progression in helmets was made by University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, who came up with the idea of making a helmet that would have protection in-between the helmet and the player’s skull (the notion being to “cradle” the player’s head rather than allowing direct impact). Besides the addition of plastic and face guards since then (and making the helmets sturdier), that’s basically the football helmet used to this day.

So what do you think? Would you credit Naismith as the inventor of the football helmet? It is worth noting that the Naismith Museum specifically does not credit Naismith with creating the football helmet, and they provide a pretty detailed biography of his life.

Later in 1891, Naismith, under “orders” from Dean Gulick to come up with a new game that could be played indoors, invented the game of basketball (Stagg would help develop the game, specifically inventing the idea of it being a five-player game, and in fact, Stagg would play in the first public exhibition of basketball in 1892 with the students of the Young Men’s Christian Training School playing against the instructors – Stagg would score the only bucket for the instructors in a 5-1 loss). “Inventor of basketball” is already a sizable legacy, but it is one that I do not believe expands to include “inventor of the football helmet.”

Thanks to Rob Rains and Hellen Carpenter’s excellent James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball for a lot of the information used for this piece! And thanks to the Naismith Museum!

FOOTBALL LEGEND: The commissioner of the All-American Football Conference awarded Y.A. Tittle to the Baltimore Colts to promote balance in the league.


Y.A. Tittle was an outstanding quarterback prospect during his years at Louisiana State University.


In 1948, Tittle was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions with the sixth pick overall.

However, the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference (one of the more successful challengers to the National Football League) also selected him in the first round of the 1948 AAFC draft. In a great 2009 interview with Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tittle explained why he decided to sign with the Cleveland Browns:

The first professional football game I ever saw, the Browns played in it. [Cleveland coach] Paul Brown had me flown in and the Browns treated me like a king. I watched the game from the sideline. I was overwhelmed. After it was over, coach Brown took me back to the hotel and I signed a contract. He told me the Browns thought Otto Graham would only play one more year, and that I could learn from him for one season. It wasn’t true about Otto, of course. He played for many years after that

Otto Graham, of course, was the legendary quarterback for the Browns, who at this point had already won the first three championships of the AAFC (and were on their way to winning their fourth).


The commissioner of the AAFC, Jonas H. Ingram, decided that the disparity between the good teams and the bad teams in the AAFC was responsible for their sagging attendance, so he insisted that the top two teams, the Browns and the New York Yankees, give away players to the other teams. Since the Browns already had Graham, they were told to give Tittle to the Baltimore Colts.


Thus, Tittle began his career with the Baltimore Colts, and he did help make them fairly respectable.

When the AAFC folded, a few teams were absorbed into the NFL, including the Browns and the Colts. After one year in the NFL, however, the Colts folded (later on, a new franchise named the Colts would play in Baltimore – that’s the team that still plays today in Indianapolis) and Tittle was put into the 1951 draft where he was taken by the San Francisco 49ers.

Tittle went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL for the Niners and the New York Giants (who he famously led to three consecutive title games).

Thanks to Dennis Manoloff and Tittle for the information!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is

-Brian Cronin

3 Responses to “Football Urban Legends Revealed #19”

  1. James Jackson on April 15th, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    JFK was not a graduate of the Naval Academy. He received his Bachelors from Harvard in 1940. He was deemed medically unsuitable for the Army, but through political influence was able to join the Navy in 1941.

  2. Thanks, James. I actually corrected that mistake when I initially posted it at the LA Times, but I totally forgot to correct it before I posted it here. Thanks for the pick-up, I’ll fix it.

  3. Thanks for posting this extremely useful dose of data. Your ideas on this specific subject matter are remarkable and therefore I’m sure that a lot of these tips will certainly affect a number of other individuals out there. One more time many thanks for posting.

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