Roger R. Tamte is a patent attorney and scholar of early American football who has studied Camp for many years. He recently answered some questions with us about his new book, Walter Camp and the Creation of Football.
Q. Who was Walter Camp and how did you first become interested in his story?
Camp was involved in American football from its start, watching the first Harvard-Yale rugby game in 1875 as a prep-school senior in New Haven, Connecticut, then continuing involvement as a Yale player and captain, and after college as a rule maker, coach, and author. For many years he was widely recognized as the central figure in American football, “father” of the game and the person who was looked to when there were questions or issues about it.
In addition to his sports-related work, Camp was employed by a world-wide clock company headquartered in New Haven and served as its chief executive for 20 years.
About twenty years ago I began to research the history of football as a hobby, and soon became aware of the absence of any book that described the origins of American football in a full and satisfying way. The research led me to Camp, who had been only a name to me, and I learned of the major and interesting role he had played in football, including his critical role in formation of the game.
Q. What are some of the key ways Camp contributed to the transformation of rugby into American football?
Camp was central to the game’s development from his college days through the rest of his life. Although essentially all student rule makers during the game’s first ten or fifteen years exited rule making upon graduation, Camp continued, and his expertise made him welcome. Camp studied the game deeply and kept records analyzing play and the effect of rules on play, which impacted his rule making and management of the game. He was the game’s first serious coach, asked to take charge of the Yale team from 1888-1891 and coaching Yale in some degree for most of the following years until 1916. He also was the game’s publicist, editing and writing an annual guide and rulebook, writing books and magazine articles that taught the game, and originating and annually naming All American teams.
Q. What rule change was in Camp’s words “more important than all the rest of the legislation combined”?
The system of downs and distance – four downs to gain ten yards (which for many years was three downs to gain five yards) — was an absolute unknown when Camp created it. As natural as the idea may seem today, it was quite unobvious when Camp suggested it. His fellow rule makers thought it was crazy and unworkable and tried to prevent its enactment. But with assistance from the rules committee chairman, the rule was enacted on a trial basis, whereupon it quickly proved itself and re-made the game. The rule introduced new specific goals for each play in the form of specific yardage gains needed to maintain ball possession. The offense’s compelling need for yardage gains (or the defense’s need to prevent yardage gains) is central to the game and stimulate the extraordinary study, planning and practice that distinguish and are essential to American football. Also, the yardage goals and the contest that will be fought over them create tension and interest that help make the game compelling for viewers: knowing the yardage needed, viewers watch with awareness and suspense.
Q. Many of the proposed rule changes became the topic of hot public debate. What proposed rule change became so public that President Theodore Roosevelt took sides?
A style of play developed in the late 1800s in which blockers massed together by moving linemen into the backfield, stacked one behind the other, to smash forward for short yardage gains. Many viewers disliked mass play, saying it hid the ball and the action and caused injuries. A need for rule change was recognized but disagreements within the rule-making committee, which required unanimity on new rules, stood in the way. Camp wanted to encourage more open play by doubling to ten yards the distance to be gained in three downs, while others argued for weakening the defense by requiring defensive ends to play back five yards or by introducing forward passing, which was barred under a held-over rugby rule. The failure of the rules committee to act over several years angered the public and provoked calls in the early 1900s for a new rules committee.
President Roosevelt didn’t take sides on particular rules, but in this particular crisis he supported those who wanted more change than Camp was advocating. Eventually, with Roosevelt’s involvement making a difference, the rules committee was enlarged and committee procedures changed to allow decisions by majority vote. Camp’s ten-yard rule was approved, but a start on forward passing also was approved.
Q. What do you think Camp would think of the sport as it’s played today?
It’s hard to say, given today’s hugely changed world of sports. Camp would certainly appreciate today’s increased player skills and sophistication of play. He quickly became enthusiastic about forward passing and was unhappy when new Yale coaches did not make Yale’s play more modern. On the other hand, he publicly excoriated colleges of his day for the emphasis and large resources put into intercollegiate football. Instead, he wanted increased athletic opportunities for the whole student body. Although today’s colleges have broadened student opportunities for athletic competition and exercise, there is vastly greater emphasis on competitive intercollegiate football, and Camp would probably be upset about that emphasis.