College football as we know it was nurtured through its infancy at Yale and Harvard about 120 years ago. As we cross our fingers for the 118th incarnation of The Game, maybe we can find some small measure of inspiration in the skeletons in our athletic closet.
In 1904, Harvard’s Graduates’ Magazine published the results of an exhaustive scientific evaluation of the Crimson crew team. Nervous alumni could finally wipe the sweat from their faces with their ascots; the latest crop of Harvard men was equipped to take up the white man’s burden, after all, it proclaimed.
The study evaluated the oarsmen based on all relevant physical information — “life expectancies, occupations, insurance acceptances and rejections, pulse rates, urine analyses” — it was a thorough job. It concluded that the sample of Harvard stock was “superior in the matter of perpetuating the best elements of the American race.” In effect, all the sleepless nights at the Porcellian Club over “the question of race decline” were for naught.
Cambridge had good reason to be worried. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, was a waif. William James was a waif. So was Henry Adams. Someone must have slipped something in the Mayflower stock along the line. Eliot was desperate; he had turned to a Yale man, Dudley Sargent, to endow Cantabs with the “manly virtues” and supervise the Hemenway Gymnasium. But even miracle workers need time.
No matter how hard Sargent exercised his charges, somehow they just could not stand up to the paragons of manliness in New Haven. No matter how much girth he coaxed out of the Crimson’s muscles, students there were still, well — wimpy.
“In the Harvard man there is a greater development of the chest muscles; while the Yale man has a larger chest-girth, though the lower border of the pectorals is hardly noticeable,” he reported in one of his regular manliness reports in the Graduates’ Magazine. Scientists of the time certainly believed there was something different in the physical compositions of Yale and Harvard men. And they did not dispute that the Yale man was manlier.
By the turn of the last century, football was the undeniable measure of men, and Yale led the brutal charge. The Elis were undisputed champions of the bloody gridiron in those days. It was the rule, with only a few exceptions, that Walter Camp’s Yale teams never lost. Such was the case in 1900, when perhaps the greatest Yale team ever finished its season by humiliating Harvard 28-0, racking up 555 yards that Game.
For the first time, fans tried out a new song, “Boola Boola,” in the stands, violating the long-established notion that it was unfair to the visiting team to cheer at all.
Yale men were known across the East as ogres who would not stop short of total victory. And they were admired for it; no one was manlier. The man Eliot brought in to shape up the Harvard football team in 1905 resigned after only two years. He lost only three games in his tenure — impressive considering the records of previous Crimson squads — but two of them were to Yale. He went on to fail in business, writing to his wife: “I know that you want a masculine man and that it must be a humiliation to you to see others earning so much more.”
The Oxbridge tradition of “gentlemanly amateurism” was out the window. In the absence of war, football was the next best thing and a necessary outlet for manly impulses. The new gentleman was required to win at all costs.
It is said that 21 players died nationally in football accidents in 1904, 18 in 1905 and 30 in 1909. And only Harvard men seemed to have flinched at such statistics. In 1905, the faculty there once again tried to ban the sport. Even President Theodore Roosevelt fretted over the lopsided Game scores against his alma mater and the tactics Yale used to achieve them.
My great-great-grandfather, an end on the 1883 Princeton squad, described a run-in with a Yale man in quintessential terms: “I tackled and downed a huge Yale player. Evidently much disgruntled by this rude interruption in his progress toward our goal, as we were getting up from the ground, he made use of an uncomplimentary epithet directed at me personally, and at the same time scooped up a handful of mud and smacked me full in the face with it, and it was not a gentle smack either.”
He probably rolled over in his grave the day I unpacked my stuff on Old Campus. But that’s OK because Yale today looks nothing like the one he knew back in the old days. We’ve forgotten that Cambridge had to import Yale men to teach its charges a thing or two about being manly, and even then it didn’t work out so well. We’ve forgotten that we were the ones who made it all right to boo and jeer the other team. We’ve forgotten that we were once the titans of the gridiron, and that was in a day when no pads were worn and the mortally wounded were dragged from the field.
Indeed, things have changed. This year, it is Harvard that is one game away from a flawless season. Ours has been forgettable. But we must forget about all that for two days. We must resort to the mud-slinging tactics our forebears made legendary. They may be violent and unsavory, but conventional ones have failed this season. Nothing less than our manliness is at stake.