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Walter Camp And His Gridiron Game

July 2024
18min read

Man and boy—as player, “coach of coaches,” and keeper of the rule book— he was the guiding genius in the crucial, formative years of college football


The spectators could see the elevens hurl themselves together and build themselves in kicking, writhing heaps. They had a general vision of threatening attitudes, fists shaken before noses, dartings hither and thither, throttling, wrestling and the pitching of individuals headlong to earth; and all this was an exceedingly animated picture which drew from them volley after volley of applause.... 

Judges, reporters and so on saw something more. They saw real fighting, savage blows that drew blood, and falls that seemed as if they must crack all the bones and drive the life from those who sustained them.

Came a crush about midway of the field. All the maddened giants of both teams were in it, and they lay there heaped, choking, kicking … gouging and howling. One smaller man lay under them. He held the ball hugged to his breast....His chin rested upon it and his white face looked out from the ruck as the face of a man might look who was on the rack....

A New York reporter thus described the Yale-Princeton football game of 1884 at the Polo Grounds, but he hadn’t seen anything yet. That was the year in which Princeton first rolled out its juggernaut V, or “wedge,” formation as an opening play. From then on, as other teams copied and sharpened the wedge, American “redmeat” football was to grow redder and meatier until popular revulsion brought a change. The game became gory to a point where even that chesty champion of ruggedness, Theodore Roosevelt, felt that something must be done about it. But not until 1906 were wedges outlawed, and the forward pass legalized, thus ending football’s Dark Ages and ushering in its Renaissance.

For that is what the “modern” game really was, a rebirth—a return to the artful, open-field ways of running, kicking, and ball handling which had characterized American football through the years after 1869 when it was evolving out of British soccer and Rugby. And it is a curious but historical fact that the man most responsible for football’s “red-meat” era, and for the long delay in its passing, was a most refined and gentlemanly sportsman who admired and exemplified speed and skill far more than brawn and violence: Walter Chauncey Camp, Yale ’80.

When Camp was entering his teens, baseball had already been established as the national pastime. Football was considered a disreputable form of mass brawling indulged in by town mobs on public greens or by college classes on “rush” days. Walter, the polite and somewhat gawky son of a schoolteacher, was a natural at baseball and also at track, yet at the Hopkins School in New Haven he skipped these genteel sports in favor of vulgar football. Interminably, even in spring and summer, he practiced kicking with such few mates as he could get to join him.

What inspired him was the sight of Yale College stalwarts practicing for and playing their first organized football “matches” at New Haven’s Hamilton Park. Princeton and Rutgers had staged the first intercollege games down in New Jersey in 1869, joined the next year by Columbia. In 1872, when Camp was thirteen, Yale unbent to let its students invite Columbia up for a contest, which Yale won three goals to none.

As American college boys then knew it, football was the London Association version, nicknamed “soccer,” played with a round ball of black rubber which replaced the inflated pig bladder used since time out of mind. It was a game (as soccer remains today) consisting entirely of running, dribbling, kicking, or “heading” the ball, with no catching or carrying it (except by the goal tender) and no tackling or other avoidable body contact. In England, meantime, there had been a shift to the very different, much rougher game played at Rugby School. In this, a ball shaped like an ellipsoid (patterned after the old “pigskin”) was hand-passed, caught and run with for “touch-downs” or kicked for “goals”; tackling the ball carrier was not only legal but basic. Yale got its first taste of this style of play from David S. Schaff, class of ’73, who had schooled for a while at Rugby.

In their first game with Princeton, at Hamilton Park in ’73, the Yale players startled their visitors with furious Rugby “rushing” and “bucking.” During an intermission occasioned by the ball’s bursting and a long search for another one, the Princetonians cooked up some rushes and bucks of their own and won the game 3-0. That was the first Big Three football game. In the second one two years later, Yale went up to Springfield, Massachusetts, and took another trimming, 4-0, this time at the hands of Harvard, which had learned Rugby tactics from McGill and other Canadian teams.

These stirring events resolved unmuscular young Walter Camp to build himself up for football at Yale, through a spartan regime. He foreswore his mother’s cookies and cakes. Every evening he rode a trolley to the town’s outskirts and took long, lonely cross-country runs. Every morning in his bedroom he performed secret calisthenics (the like of which he would one day bequeath to his country, though he never dreamed this then). When he entered Yale as a seventeen-year-old freshman in 1876, he weighed only 156 pounds but could dodge, leap, and run like a spooked deer. They put him at once into the varsity backfield.

That autumn Harvard went down to play Yale at Hamilton Park. As the teams took the field, Harvard’s bearded captain, Nathaniel Curtis, took one look and asked Yale’s captain Gene Baker: “You don’t mean to let that child play, do you? … He will get hurt.”

Baker replied: “Look to your business. He is young but he is all spirit and whipcord. He’ll take care of himself—and you, too.”

On one of the first plays Camp caught Curtis by the arm, threw him heavily, and was never again taken lightly.

Yale managed to win that second Harvard game 1-0, but young halfback Camp found the Rugby ball very tricky to handle and kick. He took to carrying an “oval” with him wherever he went, even to classes, constantly juggling and dandling it to teach himself not to fumble, practicing punts and drop kicks on the run. He got so good that he would star for Yale six years, three of them as captain (a unique record).

A closer look at Walter Camp, man and boy, reveals how varied were his gifts. As a youth he was leanly handsome, with long features and intense dark eyes shaped like a fox’s. He had a quiet voice and persuasive charm, coupled with innate presence and authority—the very archetype of Frank Merriwell. Besides playing football, he swam, rowed, wrestled, and ran on Yale’s varsity teams, and represented the school in the first intercollegiate tennis tournament. Playing baseball against Princeton in 1880, Camp hit the first ball pitched to him for a home run. Then, outguessing the pitcher, he did the very same thing his next two times at bat. Scholastically he always stood close to the top in almost all his classes. A man of many parts, he was also class poet.

But football was his central passion and lifelong study. When he was elected captain in his junior year, his quarters in Durfee Hall became the campus shrine, and his word the law. If disputes within the team arose, he would gravely state his position and leave the room with a solemn promise to resign if the vote went against him. He always won, and in later years described as his “happiest moment” a time when the team backed him up in kicking out a player who had broken training. The offender had only stayed up to see a show, but when Camp caught him sneaking home after the team’s curfew, the Captain waked up everyone else and held court instanter. (Apparently he relented later on, for the penitent culprit was reinstated.)

Camp was re-elected in 1879 and again in ’81 (as a postgraduate medical student). He could have made it four years straight had he not withdrawn in favor of his friend Bob Watson in ’80. In 1882 he played in only three games before damaging a knee. But he was ready to quit then anyway because he agreed in principle with a five-year eligibility rule that was being contemplated that year, largely with him in mind.

Michigan’s football team visited Yale in 1881; Yale won easily, but the westerners taught Camp something: vocal signals. Hitherto all Yale’s plays had been “called” by silent, furtive gestures of captain or quarterback. The next year, when Yale’s quarterback barked, “Look out quick, Deac!” or any one word from that sentence, it meant that Twombly would start a play to the right and pass to Peters. “Play up sharp, Charley!” or any part thereof, meant Terry around left end.

As a player, Camp was described as having “just a little less fat and a little more wind” than anyone else. He could pass, punt, drop-kick, tackle, and run hard throughout two forty-five-minute halves, unrelieved by any substitute, up and down a 140-yard field. In a day when stand-up fights were common and players jumped on downed opponents to cripple them, Camp avoided roughness. But he knew how to defend himself and was stoical when hurt. So far as his personal scoring totals were concerned, he had heroic disappointments which under later, more liberal rules would have been triumphs. In ’77 he made two touchdowns on long runs against Princeton, but neither was converted by a kicked goal and so did not count. In ’78 his 35-yard drop kick against Harvard, which would have won the game, was blown dead in the air by the final whistle. The next year, his 45-yarder against Harvard was nullified by a Yale offside.

In 1883, Camp, a top student in his other courses, failed in anatomy and surgery and decided to give up medicine. He had been forcing himself to enter the dissecting and operating rooms, and now this paragon of muscle and courage confessed to a friend, “I can’t bear the sight of blood.” He got a job selling clocks, and that remained his profession for forty-two years thereafter.

There were were no college coaches in those days. The captain was king, with ex-captains suffered to come back and offer advice. Ex-Captain Camp was accepted by a long line of lesser captains as Yale’s unofficial, unpaid, unquestioned chief mentor and arbiter. When his business duties interfered, another Camp got into the coaching act. In 1889, dignified, mustachioed, sartorially impeccable Walter married a pretty New Haven girl named Alice Sumner. Sister of Yale’s popular and distinguished sociology professor, William Graham “Billy” Sumner, Alice had been reared in the college’s intellectual circles and was not at all familiar with its he-manly football element. Nevertheless, during her husband’s enforced absences selling clocks, “Allie” Camp, with the full approval of the captain and players, attended daily practice. Notebook in hand, she trotted up and down the sidelines, and every evening gave Walter a detailed rundown on what each player had done, or failed to do. Her mother’s house, where they lived for a couple of years after their marriage, became Yale’s nocturnal football headquarters. Later this holy of holies was shifted to the Camps’ first home, on Gill Street, later still to the old New Haven House (where the Hotel Taft now stands) in Room 117, the one otherwise reserved for drummers.

At these meetings, Camp was an increasingly august presence. He “coached the coaches” and filled the players with reverence and awe. The tradition that he fostered, and that other colleges all over America strove to approximate, was ultimately epitomized in a celebrated two-sentence fight talk delivered to one of his teams by the great latter-day Yale coach, “Tad” Jones: “Gentlemen, you are now going out to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.”

(The spectator viewpoint was similarly immortalized by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, one of whose grandsons became Yale captain, from his pulpit in Brooklyn one Sunday in 1883: “I stood yesterday afternoon to see Yale and Princeton at football. I always did hate Princeton, but I took notice there was not a coward on either side, although I thank God that Yale beat.”)

In his impeccable personal conduct and language, Walter Camp curiously and humorlessly contradicted the murderous, bloodletting aspects of “his” game. He was fond of saying, “Mind will always win over muscle,” and “What a gentleman wants is fair play, and the best man to win.” During a hiatus in Yale-Harvard relations between 1895 and 1897, he got together with Harvard’s non-playing, chess-minded genius, Lorin Deland—the very man who had dreamed up the controversial flying wedge—to write a book of football history and instructions (which Deland’s talented wife Margaret, the novelist, illustrated for them). Two excerpts are characteristically euphemistic:

If your opponent takes trifling liberties with you, such as slapping your face, let all such actions merely determine you to keep a close watch on the ball.

Don’t fail to try to take the ball away from an opponent whenever he is tackled. Make a feature of this, and you will succeed oftener than you anticipate.

One has to suspect that Camp had at least the tip of his tongue in his cheek. For he did have a certain grim humor. One season he failed repeatedly to get a promising but overeager Yale end to wait, play wide, and stop rushes aimed out around him. Camp had workmen sink heavy posts beside the practice field, with a heavy wire stretched between. He planned to attach the end’s belt to the wire with a chain leash, but the embarrassed lineman said: “Take that thing down. I get the idea.”

As football fanned out to other colleges in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the bulk of its teachers were former Yale players who had learned the game under Camp. Most celebrated of these was Amos Alonzo Stagg, a cobbler’s starveling son from West Orange, New Jersey, who, after pitching Yale to five baseball championships, turned to football as a divinity student, made Camp’s first two All-America teams at end, and went on to preach football instead of gospel at Chicago. Yalemen taught by Camp were the first football coaches engaged by no less than eleven other colleges, among them Frank Dole at Pennsylvania, John Crowell at Trinity (now Duke), Charley Gill at Dartmouth, Henry Williams at West Point, Tom McClung at California. Camp himself was Stanford’s first coach, in 1892. He returned there in ’94 and ’95 and was succeeded by a Yale man named Harry Cross.

Camp had been placed on the intercollegiate football rules committee as a junior in 1878, and he remained on it until his death in 1925. Committeemen from other colleges came and went, but Yale’s Camp became perennial. Throughout most of the game’s formative years, 1879-94, he was chairman. It was truly said of him, “He had a patent on football. It was Camp’s game and he made up the rules as he went along....”

As a football legislator, Walter Camp did not have a particularly bold or inventive mind. But he was keenly analytical, laboriously methodical, and crafty enough to keep his own counsel until others had said their say. When they got around to saying, “Let’s hear what Walter thinks about it,” he was ready with closely reasoned proposals.

His aim from the start was to bring order and strategy into the confused, often clumsy extemporizing of Rugby-style play. In 1880 he got the teams limited to eleven men (down from fifteen), a number that had been found more wieldy when a touring team from Eton visited Yale in 1873 and happened to be short four players. While Princeton and Harvard experimented with their line-ups, Camp immediately deployed his in the pattern—seven linemen, a “quarterback” (Camp’s term), two halfbacks, a fullback—that prevailed until relatively recent years, when the T formation revolutionized the game again.

Also in 1880, Camp introduced—and put through—American football’s most radical and far-reaching departure from Rugby. He got the tangled “scrum” replaced by an orderly, artful “scrimmage,” where one team was given possession of the ball to start with and could run off set plays until it fumbled, kicked, or had a pass intercepted (only laterals allowed). In a scrum the ball was (and in Rugby still is) rolled in by an official under the feet of the close-ranked opposing rush lines, who then wrestled to get the ball out to their running backs. Camp’s scrimmage provided an orderly and honorable outlet from the struggling mass by putting the grounded, motionless ball into play by the offensive “snapper-back” (center), who toed it or touched it with his foot and then handed it to the “quarter-back,” who then had to pass or hand the ball to another back before moving forward himself.

It was soon found that a weak team, if it never kicked, passed, or fumbled, could hoard the ball indefinitely from a strong team, and thus obtain a dull, scoreless tie. After Princeton did this to Yale in ’80 and ’81 in what became notorious as the “blocked games,” Camp in 1882 invented the yards-and-downs system. Now a team had to yield the ball if it did not gain five yards, or lose ten, in three plays from scrimmage. In case of ties, touchbacks behind the goal line for “safety” (to retain the ball and bring it out to the 25-yard line) would count against a team resorting to them.

When this radical plan was debated in the rules committee, a historic colloquy is supposed to have taken place.

CABOT OF HARVARD: How, Walter, do you propose to tell when five yards have been made?

CAMP: We shall have to rule off the field with horizontal chalked lines every five yards.

PEACE OF PRINCETON: Gracious! The field will look like a gridiron!

CAMP: Precisely.

Up to now scores had been tallied by “goals.” Four touchdowns equalled one goal, but in case of a tie a kicked goal took precedence; or that team won which resorted to the fewest “safeties.” This was so confusing that in 1883 Camp got a point-scoring scale adopted. A goal kicked from afield was five points. Reflecting the new emphasis on running plays from scrimmage, a goal kicked after touchdown was awarded four points, and the touchdown itself counted two. A safety counted one point, for the opponents. This scale would be rejiggered over the years, but the basic idea remained. It was one more first for Camp.

In 1879, Princeton had begun sending runners ahead of the ball carrier as “interference.” This violated the old “offside” rule basic to both soccer and Rugby, which forbade offensive players going ahead of the ball. But Princeton’s trick was promptly imitated instead of challenged. In 1884 when Princeton came up with its murderous wedge—the whole team massed as a V with the ball carrier inside its apex—this too was copied at once. In 1885 Camp tried to curb such ponderous, bruising maneuvers by putting through the first penalty rule—a loss of five yards for crossing the scrimmage line before the ball was snapped. But this was evaded, and wedging got worse instead of better, and in his next attempt at policing the game Camp unwittingly made matters worse yet.

Until this time the ball carrier could be tackled only at the waist or above. Usually, he was grabbed right around the neck and, finally, dragged to earth. Camp thought play would be cleaner if tackling were legalized down to the knees. He put through such a rule in 1888, but its effect was precisely opposite to what he had intended.

Now the ball was given, not to the burliest carriers, but to fast, light, shifty men like “Snake” Ames of Princeton, around whom wedges were formed and interlocked more tightly than ever. To break them up, linemen like Yale’s one-man juggernaut, “Pudge” Heffelfinger, devised the gentle art of broad jumping high at the wedge’s apex, cleats first. And in 1893 Harvard unveiled a flying wedge, which added momentum to mass. Members of the offensive team lined up in a V formation extending far behind the line of scrimmage. As the ball was snapped, they converged and ran full steam ahead. The “ugly and uncouth” type of play which Camp had always deplored now became even more brutal as other teams, particularly Pennsylvania’s, shot off their wedges like thunderbolts.

Argument over the momentum plays and over the use of graduate and subsidized “ringers” (a young professor at Wesleyan named “Tom” Wilson joined Camp in opposing them), broke up the original Intercollegiate Football Association, which would not be re-formed until many years later as the Ivy League. Harvard and Yale severed relations. A conference called by the University Athletic Club in the year 1894 outlawed flying wedges, but smaller mass-momentum formations—“guards back,” “ends back,” and “turtle back”—were promptly invented; these were knots of men formed behind the line to revolve and unwind and grind through the opposition. The game remained brutal and bloody. The public was revolted by what the press openly called butchery. Only “college spirit” drew recruits to a sport which they now dreaded.

A particularly severe wave of injuries and fatalities in 1905 brought matters to a head. The Army-Navy game was called off. Congress threatened action. President Roosevelt called representatives of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale (which meant Camp) to the White House to discuss “what’s wrong with football.” In 1906 a meeting of twenty-eight colleges summoned by New York University and Army formed a new football conference, which became the National Collegiate Athletic Association and soon wrested domination of the game from the Big Three. Camp went along with this development in a subordinate role but soon emerged as the N.C.A.A.’S permanent secretary. He thus had a hand in football’s renaissance as the modern game. Progressive rules changes between 1906 and 1910 outlawed interlocking interference, established a neutral zone between the scrimmage lines (which Camp had long favored), and legalized the forward pass (which Camp had long opposed as a last-ditch, shoestring maneuver, not entirely manly).

The crafty gray eminence who since 1878 had dominated Yale football became at last the victim of his own power and success. Graduate jealousies, and some unaccustomed losses to Harvard, brought his resignation in 1910 as treasurer of the Yale Field Association, the only formal title he had ever held. But he left a fat surplus to the treasury, which became the nucleus of a fund for the great Yale Bowl. (First of its type in the nation, it was built mostly by alumni subscription and christened by a crushing Harvard victory, 36-0, in 1914.) Camp continued loyal and available to Yale at all times and was saddened to see the Blue’s fortunes fall, in all sports, for several years after his departure. He did not share one whit in the gloating of Harvard, where a bright football era was simultaneously dawning under Percy Haughton, and where the Lampoon wrote in epitaph:

After thirty years of glory, full of honor and renown, Camp went back to making clockworks and the star of Yale went down!

In fact, Camp went, not back to the New Haven Clock Company, where he had long since risen through the sales and financial end to become president and board chairman, but to his own writing and to running the N.C.A.A. Besides his lucrative Football Guide, he wrote several books for boys and a sapient how-to book on bridge-whist. Then there were his perennial All-America selections.

“All — —” teams are decried today as foolishly fictional, but when Camp started them in 1889 with a publisher named Caspar Whitney,* they were taken quite seriously. They not only helped advertise the game nationally, but served as its own criteria of excellence. At first the choices had to be all Yale, Harvard, or Princeton men: nowhere else was football played nearly as well. But as the game spread, so did the field of choice, and Camp’s selections were anything but whimsical. Over the years he built up and conducted a voluminous correspondence with coaches all across the country. He started each season with a squad of 100 or more recommended prospects, to which he added names as he followed individual performances via minute reports of every game. After relinquishing his duties at Yale in 1910, and down to the year of his death, he traveled the land from September through December personally watching candidates in key games and making his own notes. His final choices were not based primarily on individual prowess but were made to weld, as if it were faced with an actual, crucial game, the team he felt would most surely win. For example, he put Walter Eckersall, Chicago’s triple-threat back, at end on one of his teams: without Eckersall his otherwise all-powerful team would lack a kicker.

The All-America teams nationalized Camp as well as his game. Through his writings on sports training and discipline he attained stature as a physical educator, an apostle of fitness and of the wish to excel. Thus in 1917, when it was found that less than half of the young American men drafted for military service were fit for it, Camp was asked to tackle the situation. He made studies at a naval training station and came up with an odd conclusion: not too little exercise, but too much, was the trouble. Their setting-up drills, based on Swedish routines, were just too exhausting for the soft recruits. Instead of getting tougher, they got tired and prone to sickness. Camp explained his solution:

Twelve simple movements were found to meet the needs, so the young men would resist fatigue as well as contagion. Having worked out these movements, I tried them on classes of men, emphasizing that they were to be done lightly and naturally, more in the spirit of refreshment than with lips compressed, lungs heaving and the muscles tightly flexed.

He called this simple regimen the Daily Dozen, and after it was instituted throughout the Navy, with evident benefit, Camp was called to Washington. The nation’s capital was full of nerve-racked, sleepless civilians trying to help Camp’s longtime friend Tom (now better known as Woodrow) Wilson win the war. Camp was asked if he couldn’t somehow condition these people, too.

He began by inviting volunteers to meet him at 7:30 A.M. on the lawn behind the Treasury. Scores of bigwigs complied, including Cabinet officers, though they feared the worst. This lithe, erect martinet “of rubber and steel” would probably forbid them to smoke and drink, put them on diets, exercise them half to death. Instead he asked only that they lay aside their hats and coats, follow him in his twelve “simple movements,” and come back again next day. This they all did, in great wonderment. They kept coming, with apparently gratifying results.

Now the originator of the Daily Dozen came into great demand throughout the country. He responded by visiting city after city to speak and demonstrate before business and health groups, going everywhere on a voluntary basis. One night on a train, the conductor told Camp that a distinguished-looking male passenger was suffering tortures from insomnia. Could Camp do anything? Leading the sufferer forward to the baggage car, Camp put him through a Daily Dozen and then assured him, “Now you’ll sleep.” And he did, too. Whereupon the conductor is supposed to have asked Camp, “Are you a doctor?” Camp, smiling wryly, is said to have replied, “Well, almost.”

Promoters swarmed around, urging Camp to found a health institute and get rich. Camp conscientiously and scornfully refused “to capitalize my reputation in amateur athletics.” With blatant bodybuilders like William Muldoon, Eugene Sandow, and Bernarr Macfadden in mind, he said: “I don’t want to be one of these wooly-headed physical culturists.”

He finally consented to write one article for American magazine . He entitled it “Take a Tip from the Tiger,” using that feline as an exemplar of health and fitness through gentle stretching and flexing. In the article he gave to the American public, for no return beyond his modest writer’s fee, the entire Daily Dozen routine, complete with illustrations and instructions, alliteratively captioned for easy memorization.

One night in his sixty-sixth year, after a football rules committee meeting, Walter Camp died in his sleep at a New York hotel, suddenly, peacefully, inexplicably. His life and work are memorialized in an entrance arch, subscribed for by scores of American colleges and secondary schools, through which generations of spectators have approached the Yale Bowl.

When an inscription was sought for that arch, the minds of football men went back to a historic plaque at Rugby which immortalizes an English schoolboy named William Webb Ellis. One evening in 1823, impatient to score before the five o’clock curfew should ring, Ellis revolutionized Rugby by taking the ball and the law into his own hands, and the Ellis plaque reads:


But Walter Camp did more than revolutionize American football and make Yale its dominant power for more than thirty years. By practice and example he did so much more that football itself seemed almost incidental, and the word was omitted from his memorial. The graven words on the Camp Arch say with simple grandeur:


*Camp continued to name All-America teams for thirty-five years in Collier’s magazine; Whitney for a time picked his own for Harper’s and Outing .


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