December 14, 2017

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


The President, the Packers, the Pain

President Obama had a good time yucking it up with the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers at the White House on Friday, yet didn’t hesitate to confess that it was all a little painful because the Commander-in-Chief, like most good and kind folks, is a Chicago Bears fan.

The Packers were good sports when the President joked that the next stop for Aaron Rodgers and his friends would be “Ditka’s house” which is either the residence of the former Bears coach or the afterlife destination for Chicagoans.  Maybe it’s both.

Green Bay’s trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was the little burg that could’s first since winning the Super Bowl after the 1996 season, back when Brett Favre hadn’t retired even once and Bill Clinton held the keys to the Oval Office.  What do you think Bill and Brett talked about?

Jim McMahon was a backup quarterback on that ’96 Packers team and he put mold on the cheese by actually wearing his old Bears jersey to the White House that day.  McMahon’s rebellion wasn’t meant as an insult to the Packers but rather as a tribute to his teammates from the 1985 Bears who never got a trip to the White House after the Bears swallowed the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.  That’s because two days after that game, January 28, 1986, the Shuttle Challenger crashed.  And, properly, it was decided that it was not a good time for a President – even the genial Ronald Reagan – to be talking football.

Having a championship football team visit the White House may seem like executive silliness but perhaps it should be viewed as Presidential duty.  A century ago football was on the same path that boxing is on now, barreling towards irrelevance if not extinction.  In 1905 alone, 18 football players died across the country and the game was pilloried as brutal, vile and unnecessary.  So, because there was nothing else for him to do, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House for a naked game of “mall ball” on the South Lawn.  Just kidding.  Roosevelt called in the football royalty to urge them to tone things down and, a year later, the American Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee introduced modifications including the forward pass and the elimination of mass formations and gang tackling.  And football is still around.

If there were an 11-dollar bill Theodore Roosevelt would be on it.

What NFL team will visit the White House in 2012?  President Obama doesn’t have it in him to endure another visit by the Pack so, if you’re a Democrat, you’ll root for anyone but Green Bay.  Does that mean Republicans are Packer-backers?

What about the years beyond?  Can you picture Ron Paul taking a handoff from Cam Newton?  Michelle Bachmann presented with a Cleveland Browns jersey?  Mitt Romney congratulating the Los Angeles Jaguars?

The future is as fascinating as a run to daylight.

It’s an open field.