Walter Camp: The Father of American Football

This episode we fire up the DeLorean and head back to explore the life and career of Walter Camp, the Father of American Football.

He was an excellent halfback at Yale University in the late 1800s, but his biggest contribution to the game of football was leading the charge to make the game a mainstay in the country.

Walter Camp worked tirelessly to make rule changes to the game to make it more appealing and resemble what you and I now know as the National Football League.

This was the first episode of The Football History Dude podcast.

The Father of American Football's Early Life

The Father of American Football was born on April 7, 1859, in New Britain, Connecticut. Our hero’s name is Walter Chauncey Camp. He attended Hopkins Grammar High School in New Haven, Connecticut as a young man. Yale was the college of choice for our hero, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1880.

While at Yale it was said he was given the honor of class poet, which I believe helped him convey his message to the masses when he would inevitably end up suggesting monumental rule changes to the game of football.

Upon graduating with his bachelor’s degree from Yale, our hero attended the Medical School of Yale to pursue his dream of being a doctor. He would later realize he had more interest in sports, and the millions of NFL fans around the world will end up being grateful for this life audible he called.

In 1882, he gave up his dream of being a doctor and started working at the Manhatten Clock Company. A year later he would start with the New Haven Clock Company, where he would rise through the ranks to ultimately becoming the President in 1903.

An article from the New England Historic Society had a fitting quote that stated, “leave it to a clockmaker named Walter Camp to turn a chaotic excuse for a brawl into the game of precision and time limits we now know as football.”

Walter Camp's Playing and Coaching Days

Camp played Varsity for Yale as a halfback from 1877 to 1882. He was apparently small (156 pounds), because there was a quote from Nathaniel Curtis to then Yale captain Gene Baker that stated, “you don’t mean to let that child play, do you? He will get hurt.”

It makes me wonder how much the diminutive size of Camp played into the yearning to generate innovation and propose safety changes to the game of football. While at Yale, Camp was the captain of the team in 1878, 1879, and 1881.

This was the equivalent of a head coach during these days because there was not a true designated head coach. Walter would end up becoming part of the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1880, which allowed him to participate in many of the meetings that would ultimately change the game into what it looks like today. In 1888 he served as Yale general athletic director, head advisory football coach, and chairman of the Yale football committee.

He held this position up until World War 1, which at the time was called The Great War. While serving as the treasurer of Yale’s Financial Union, Camp helped the school accumulate $100,000, which would help aid in the construction of the Yale Bowl in 1914. This stadium was the first bowled stadium in America, and it helped pave the way for other bowled stadiums to be built.

Camp would go on to become the first official head coach of the Yale team from 1888 to 1892. Due to his clock making background, he provided order and designed practices for each player that were tailored to the position the player played. This was somewhat a revolutionized way to practice.

What made it more impressive was he allegedly was not able to attend the daily practices, because he was tied up in his executive position at New Haven Clock Company.

It was said his wife, Alice Graham Sumner, would take detailed notes at the practices for Camp to peruse and make decisions on what the team should focus on moving forward.

Advancing the Game of Football

Although Camp’s playing and coaching days were relevant, the real reason why he has been dubbed The Father of American Football lies within his administrative work for the game. He was at the center of many rule changes that advanced the game to what it is today.

Many of the changes were done at a meeting place called The Massasoit House in Springfield, Mass. There was a deep history to this house, which you can see at this link. The group that met at this house to make rule changes to the game of football was called the Intercollegiate Football Association.

Camp participated in this association and rose through the ranks to become a very influential participant. Prior to the game being changed, the main rough and tough sport on college campuses was rugby. However, Yale and Harvard had agreed to play football instead. This is probably closely related to Camp being able to be so influential to the advancement of the game, considering he was a big contributor at Yale.

Harvard was the first team to reject the rugby rules of a “scrum” or “scrummage,” which was when the ball placed in the middle of the field and all the players would mass around trying to kick the ball out. The difference was Harvard decided to “heel it out,” referring to when a player uses his heel to kick the ball back to teammates.

This was a beginning to make a change, but what came next was the beginning of Camp’s involvement. One of the first rule changes Camp helped change was making the standard 11 players on the field for a team. He did not bring this rule change to the table, as it was originally brought forth on October 9, 1878. Parke Davis did give credit to Camp for being the main driver for the change, and the fight was ultimately won on October 12, 1880.

This was the beginning of many rule changes proposed or pushed by Walter Camp that would ultimately lead to the game we know as American Football and the NFL. Also, in 1880, the rule was imposed to abolish the “scrummage” in favor of the scrimmage line. Now we were getting closer to the game looking it does today.

However, a game between Princeton and Yale in 1881 would lead to more changes. The game was a snooze fest. Both teams were undefeated leading up to the game, and of course, neither team wanted to lose. To prevent loss, both teams “sat” on the ball, leading to what would end up becoming the “block game.”

This was of course very boring, so another rule change would come up. Camp would propose a rule change that would be the initial set of downs. His new rule read as the following: “If on three consecutive fairs and downs a team shall not have advanced the ball five yards, nor lost ten, they must give up the ball to opponents at the spot of the fourth down.”

This rule was accepted on October 12, 1882. It would forever change the game to become more modernized and exciting. Another disparity in excitement was the scoring system. In a game between Princeton and Yale, Camp scored an 80-yard touchdown; and in another play, he took the ball from the “scrum” and dashed for a 2nd touchdown.

Both kicks were missed, meaning the touchdowns essentially didn’t count. The team got 0 points for both magnificent plays. This must have fueled the fire for Camp because he would then proceed to suggest a scoring system based on numerical values.

At the Convention on October 17, 1883, he secured the system that would begin to look closer to what it is today. Initially, a touchdown was worth 2 points, a safety was 1 point, a kick after touchdown was worth 4, and a kick from anywhere on the field was worth 5 points.

It would be changed 2 months later to a touchdown worth 4 points, a safety worth 2 points, a kick after the touchdown would be 2, and a kick from anywhere on the field would be 5 points. Another rule change in 1890 would make it legal to snap the ball by hand, although it would remain legal to snap the ball by foot until 1913. It was stated that Camp was allegedly against the forward pass initially, but he eventually gave in and agreed to go along with the change.

Wonder what he would have thought about the last Super Bowl record-breaking passing game? These were some of the more significant rule changes that Camp helped push to pioneer the advancement of the game, but there were many more.

Contributing to Player Safety

Many of the rule changes Camp pushed helped strike some excitement and order into the game, but perhaps a more contribution was Camp’s desire to improve player safety. As stated earlier, I wonder if his diminutive size had anything to do with this. Football back in the late 19th century before Camp looked nothing like it does today.

It was reminiscent of something from the Medieval Times called European Mob Football. This was basically just a huge brawl of blood, sweat, and tears. The only rule was no manslaughter or murder. Think about that. The game was so brutal that they had to put a rule in play to convince you not to murder someone.

In fact, a Harvard tradition started in 1827 where the freshmen would play the sophomores in an annual game that would end up being called “Bloody Monday” for its horrific nature. Ultimately the violence led to the nearby towns pressuring administrators to shut down the game, so it ended up being banned.

An article I read suggested one of the ways how brutal and unforgiving the game was at the time. It described players wearing nails and other objects in their shoes and clothing to inflict pain upon the opponent. Let’s just say something had to be done, or it was possible the game would be lost forever. Camp spearheaded a deep dive into the dangers of the game in 1891.

It took him a few years, but he ended up publishing in the Football Facts and Figures: A Symposium of Expert Opinions on the Game’s Place in American Athletics (Classic Reprint)(affiliate link) in 1894 that the game was indeed very dangerous. However, he also contended there were physical and mental benefits to the players of the game. Thus, he began a quest to keep the game alive while improving player safety.

This document alone wasn’t enough to persuade the public, because violence raged on in the game in the ensuing years.

It kind of came to a head in 1905 when 18 young men died, and Teddy Roosevelt (President of the United States at the time) summoned representatives from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton to the White House to try to figure out a way to make the game safe enough to prevent it from being shut down.

Walter Camp was one of these men, and he would prove to be a critical participant in the move to improve player safety. One rule prior to Camp was in the 1880’s it was allowed for players to hit un-helmeted players with closed fists three times. This seemed a bit extreme to me, and it was rightfully abolished. Another rule change was required after a move called the “flying wedge” was invented by Yale players that resulted in many deaths.

A flying wedge would take multiple linemen, and they would target one player, who was often basically wearing no padding. As chairman of the rule committee at the time, Camp would abolish this move from occurring.

This is reminiscent of what happened in 2009 for the wedges being removed from kickoffs in the current NFL.

Camp's Marketing Genius

Adopting rule changes for innovation and safety are the primary reasons why Walter Camp is the Father of American Football. He was also good at marketing the game in various ways.

Possibly the biggest contribution he made to the game as far as appealing the general masses was the creation of the All-American teams. He partnered with Caspar Whitney in 1889 to create the inaugural All-American team and then would end up publishing in the magazine Colliers under his name alone from 1898 until his death in 1924. Caspar Whitney was a Harper’s Weekly (affiliate link) sportswriter that was considered to be the first to name Walter Camp the Father of American Football back in 1892.

After Camp’s death, Grantland Rice would succeed him in publishing the All-American teams. Some other contributions to enhancing the knowledge of the regular person for the game of football was Camp wrote the football section of the 10th and 11th editions of the Britannica Encyclopedia, and he developed a mass audience by editing the annual “Spalding’s Official Intercollegiate Football Guide (affiliate link).” In all; Camp authored over 250 magazine and newspaper articles, nearly 30 books, and even wrote some of the first celebrity exercise guides. 

Honoring A Legend

Walter Camp passed away on March 14, 1925. Throughout his lifetime, he was recognized many times for being the Father of American Football. In 1951, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame.

He continues to be honored today through the Walter Camp Foundation, which awards the College Player of the Year with the Walter Camp award. The voting is performed by NCAA Division 1 coaches, per the Walter Camp foundation guidelines. O.J. Simpson was the first to win the award in 1967.

At the beginning of this episode, I told you the Father of American Football was at least partially responsible for the outcome of World War 1. Walter Camp was the athletic advisor for the United States military. He created a workout regimen for the soldiers called “The Daily Dozen” which was an 8-minute workout consisting of 12 exercises and it was the first morning exercise show on the radio.

I would like to think that this workout routine helped keep our troops in shape at least a little bit, and that little bit of an edge could have possibly helped the United States of America win the Great War.

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