LORAN SMITH: Football safety isn’t a new concern

Football was nearly ruled illegal in Georgia in the late 1800s

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

Visitors to Georgia’s Butts-Mehre Building are usually taken by the tribute plaque to Richard Vonalbade Gammon, who lost his life in a game between Georgia and Virginia in 1897. People are intrigued upon learning that immediately after his death, the Georgia legislature passed a bill banning football in the state of Georgia.

Many are familiar with the story. The death of Von Gammon, as he was commonly known, caused a big uproar throughout the state and had an impact on the game nationally. The governor refused to affix his signature to the bill, passing it into law, when Von Gammon’s mother made an impassioned plea to the governor not to sign the bill so that her son’s friends could continue playing the game he loved.

Five years later, football experienced 18 fatalities nationwide although only three of those involved college players. Nonetheless, the hue and cry was to do something to make the game safer. Players still played without helmets. The high incident of fatality and other injuries led to the forward pass. The rules at the time certainly inhibited the embracing of the passing game. You could throw the ball over the line of scrimmage “only five yards to either side of the center.” An incompletion brought about a 15 yard penalty. If a pass fell incomplete, without the offense touching the ball, possession then went to the defensive team. Most coaches felt that the passing game was for sissies.

Even today, when football is an air-it-out game, you hear coaches parroting the view that the best way to win in football is to run the football and stop the run.

As the passing game began to gain acceptance it also influenced placekicking. Drop kicking the ball in the early days was standard. The ball was more rounded, shaped similar to a basketball. To accommodate the passing game, the football became longer and evolved into the oblong ball we see today. Drop kicking soon became a thing of the past.

The first notable advocate of the passing game was Glenn “Pop” Warner, Georgia’s coach for the 1895 and 1896 seasons. His next stop after coaching between the hedges was at Carlisle, the famous Indian School. Carlisle’s players usually competed against players who were 30 or more pounds heavier. Warner became an advocate of end arounds, reverses and flea flickers. He relied on deception to great advantage. The passing game progressed from those days, but the forward pass was accepted reluctantly by college coaches.

The advent of the passing game was brought about by all the fatalities, Von Gammon’s being prominent in the outcry to ban football. President Teddy Roosevelt, who played football at Harvard, threatened to abolish the game by executive order. This brought about the outlawing of the flying wedge which had been prominent since the beginning of the game and was a factor in the death of Von Gammon.

In an attempt to open up the game, by eliminating the flying wedge, and spreading the formations which enhanced passing concepts, there remained a problem. Harvard was restricted in how much it could widen the field which is why the width of a football field today is 160 feet in length and 53.3 yards in width. At the time, Harvard had begun to play in its new colonnaded stadium which had been built as a gift of the Class of 1879 on its 25th anniversary.

To widen Harvard’s football field would require destruction and rebuilding of Harvard stadium. President Roosevelt didn’t want to go that far, but the officials of college football got the message. Make the game safer or else.

A footnote in Georgia history suggests that the first forward pass took place in a game with North Carolina in Atlanta in 1895. North Carolina in punt formation had such a rush from the Georgia defense that the punter in desperation “flung the ball over the line of scrimmage.”

The ball came down in the arms of a startled teammate who ran for a touchdown. Obviously, it was an illegal play, but the official allowed it to stand because, he said, “he didn’t see it.” College football, with the concussion issues, is facing serious challenges again when it comes to the game’s safety.