“I hereby grant you unconditional permission to play on the third Eleven,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote his namesake wishing to continue to compete on the Groton gridiron after breaking his collar bone. “Now do not break your neck unless you esteem it really necessary. About arms and legs I am less particular, although on the whole I prefer that even they should be kept reasonably whole.”
The pixelated hero of Ken Burns’s documentary airing as though on a loop for the last few weeks on PBS played cowboy in the Badlands after the death of his mother and wife on Valentine’s Day in 1884. He charged up Kettle Hill during the Spanish-American War. He killed 512 animals with son Kermit while on safari in Africa. He delivered a speech with a wannabe assassin’s bullet lodged in his chest. He partook in a deadly expedition of the unexplored River of Doubt in South America that gave him malaria and endless stories.
Unsurprisingly, a man such as this loved football.
“Of all the games I personally like foot ball the best,” Roosevelt wrote football founding father Walter Camp in 1895, “and I would rather see my boys play it than see them play any other.” Football, the 26th president believed, played as one of those crucial passage rites prodding boys into manhood. So when the game came under attack during a brutal 1905 season that witnessed 18 player deaths, the president used his office to save the sport he so admired.
“I want to talk over certain football matters with you,” Roosevelt wrote Yale gridiron guru Walter Camp 109 years ago today. The White House summit called by the president served as the most high-profile in a series of events that ultimately established the forward pass, created the neutral zone, banned forward motion, and, perhaps most importantly, prevented pigskin powerhouse Harvard from inducing a follow-the-leader phenomenon by taking their ball and going home after that deadly 1905 season. The rough sport, as it had in the 29 years since Roosevelt watched his Harvard classmates fall to Camp’s Yale team in a fifteen-on-fifteen game strangely won by a field goal to two touchdowns, again changed dramatically.
The latest challenge to the sport comes strangely from the violent activities of players off the field rather than on it. “The NFL has an obligation not only to their fans but to the American people to properly discipline anyone involved in domestic violence or child abuse and more broadly, gain control of the situation,” an official in the present administration recently told CBS News. “Many of these professional athletes are marketed as role models to young people and so their behavior does have the potential to influence these young people, and it’s one of the many reasons it’s important that the league get a handle on this and have a zero tolerance.” The remarks, ignoring an NFL arrest rate just 13 percent of the peer group’s societal average, follow interviews over the last two years in which the president expressed reluctance about allowing a hypothetical son to play football and compared the sport to boxing.
Roosevelt took a different approach to the crisis threatening America’s Game long before it had really become America’s Game. Adopting the “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach he articulated but didn’t always adhere to, the 26th president worked stealthily behind the scenes to ensure reform and his alma mater’s commitment to football during a period when Stanford, Columbia, and other schools declared “game over” on the sport. He held up a recalcitrant rulemaker’s promotion at the Naval Academy and met privately with Harvard’s coach in an effort to outmaneuver school president Charles Eliot’s push to abandon the game.
Obama and Roosevelt, unlike Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy, never really played football. Alike in that one way, the pair approached the crises facing the game from wildly divergent perspectives. The Rough Rider didn’t talk. He did. He didn’t grandstand. He worked behind the scenes for results rather than credit. Most significantly, Roosevelt did this because he had a deep passion for the game; his twenty-first-century successor does not do all this because he prefers golf, basketball, and much else.
The differing passions may be partly explained by the different progenies and parentages. Obama, who raises two beautiful daughters, spent a few weeks of his life with his father. Roosevelt, who raised the most remarkable presidential brood in American history, called his dad “the best man I ever knew.” He wanted to pass on greatness, which he knew didn’t necessarily run biologically in families.
Roosevelt, as active a father as he was a president, wished for his sons to grow up to be men rather than mere males. His example set a nerve-wrackingly difficult standard to attain. But the lives of his two girls and four boys left a legacy as family patriarch more impressive than his legacy as political patriarch. The man on Mount Rushmore was a better father than a president.
His letters sent to his son more than a century ago but read today by strangers in the Library of Congress convey this. “I believe in rough, manly sports,” he wrote son Ted. “But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of one’s existence.” Sports served as preparation for life rather than life itself. “Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant,” he explained, “and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.”
Roosevelt didn’t buy into the propaganda surrounding football in 1905 in part because he fielded his own spy on the gridiron who contradicted the sensationalistic media reports. “All that talk about the Yale boys laying for me was a lie,” freshman son Ted, who had just played in his last football game, wrote to his dad in the White House. “They played a clean, straight game and played no favorites. I met a good many of them whom I knew after the game and we had a friendly drink together. They beat us simply by outplaying us.”
Son Theodore played the rough game; later, in Europe during the World Wars, he played a rougher game. Gassed and shot during the Great War, a limping Ted landed a quarter-century later on Utah Beach with his son, the only father-son duo to invade on D-Day. Before exhibiting courage under fire as the oldest man to storm the beach on June 6, 1944, Ted Jr. learned physical courage as an undersized boy lining up against bigger boys at Groton and Harvard. Sports, as his father counseled, weren’t his life. They served as a good preparation for it.
Life plays rougher than football. Boys like Ted Jr. accustomed to getting up after getting knocked down on the football field tend to do so on the battlefield, in the workplace, in relationships, and much else. President Roosevelt, on his back as a sickly child, as grieving husband and son on Valentine’s Day, and in the South American jungle, understood the importance of fighting after falling. He grasped the lesson of football.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.