February 21, 2018

Book Review: The Big Scrum

These days it’s pretty tough to get a job without an edge.

Back when Teddy Roosevelt recruited men for his Rough Riders, one word set you apart. Football.

In the midst of an escalating conflict with Spain in 1898, letters pledging support in arms poured in. Roosevelt could afford to be selective. Among the men he chose was Dudley Dean, “perhaps the best quarterback who ever played on a Harvard Eleven” as well as men who rivaled Dean in pigskin prowess. This week, take the handoff of “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” by John J. Miller.

Read this book because:

1. Football and TR grew up together.

Roosevelt suffered from asthma and other ailments as a youth. That’s when he first read about a primal game some say was founded in 1823. The game was football. Tom Brown’s Schooldays reads “It’s no joke playing up in a match, I can tell you. Why, there’s been two collar-bones broken this half, and a dozen fellows lamed.” (28, Big)  Where’s the training table when you need it? Everyone, it seemed, played his own version of the game.

Harvard’s game was called “Bloody Monday.” The Crimson’s objective was to “kick the other and bark their shins as much as possible.” (58)  Roosevelt was a Harvard freshman in 1876 when he saw the first-ever contest with 11 players on each side.

2. Talk about blood sport! That was football before Roosevelt and his friends grabbed hold of the game.

Sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks. There is the potential for serious accidents with cars, but efficiency supersedes the minimal risk. Football offered spectators enjoyment and participants gained physical fitness, but without any sort of protective equipment in the middle of a free-for-all, public outcry continued to rise. Surely there had to be better entertainment options. Newspapers blared “They saw real fighting, savage blows that drew blood, and falls that seemed like they must crack all the bones and drive the life from those who sustained them.” (107)  Roosevelt again and again championed football as part of his “strenuous life,” but cries of greed and eligibility issues would not subside on college campuses.

At the White House, Roosevelt told a group of Ivy Leaguers that “Football is on trial. Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.” (187-88)  The six guests left the two-hour meeting with the basis of what would ultimately become the NCAA.

3. At the height of politics, the pigskin was never far from the leader’s mind.

After the football committee meeting, The New York Times wrote, “Having ended the war in the Far East [and] grappled with the railroad rate question, President Roosevelt today took up another question of vital interest to the American people. He started a campaign for reform in football.” (191)

Following an ugly fight between Harvard and Penn players, Roosevelt invited Crimson coach Bill Reid to the White House for lunch. Nevermind that the luncheon also included German ambassador Baron Speck von Sternberg and others. When they were finished dining, Roosevelt said to the others, “Will you please go out on the porch for a few minutes? I want to have a talk with Mr. Reid.” (195)

Pick up “The Big Scrum” and you won’t stop short of the end zone.


Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.