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Presidential Huddle

November 2011 to February 2012

football-1Indianapolis proudly welcomed Super Bowl XLVI!  

In conjunction with the festivities, the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site featured "Presidential Huddle" as part of the museum tour.  Over the years, the presidency has changed along with the rules of football, gear and safety.  The exhibit explored the ties between presidents and American football.  Which Commanders in Chief played the game in college?  Who was an assistant coach at Yale?  What future Chief Executive tackled a future Heisman Trophy winner?  Which president played a hand in changing the rules of the game?  We answered these questions and discovered many more connections between the country's greatest game and its highest office.

Football related artifacts and images included those of TR, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Ford, Reagan, Bush and Obama.

Football: A Short History

There were many versions of football being played in the mid-1800s. Most were modeled after games being played in Europe such as rugby and soccer. By the 1870s colleges and universities in America were meeting to standardize the rules. Harvard played the "Boston game," a version of football that allowed carrying the ball. The first edition of "The Game"—the annual contest between Harvard and Yale—was played on November 13, 1875, under a modified set of rugby rules known as "The Concessionary Rules."

Walter Camp is considered the father of American football. Camp played football at Yale and helped evolve the rules of the game away from rugby and soccer rules. Throughout the 1880s they continued to adjust the rules, established the line of scrimmage, and transformed the game from a variation of rugby or soccer into the distinctly American game of football. During President Benjamin Harrison's time, college football expanded greatly with 43 teams by 1900.

Football of the day entailed men pushing their way through masses of players. Frequent pile-ups would hide punches and jabbing elbows from the referees. In 1905, eighteen players died. Concerned citizens fought to prohibit football.

On October 9, 1905, two days after the highly publicized brutal beating of Robert "Tiny" Maxwell in the Penn-Swarthmore game, President Roosevelt summoned representatives of the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton—the universities who first played the game and who also set the rules of play) to the White House. Roosevelt convinced them that the rules needed to be changed to eliminate the foul play and brutality. Roosevelt saw merit in the game. He felt that it built bodies, could build character, and created a sense of team spirit and the desire to never give up.