A century ago, football was an even more brutal sport than it is today, featuring games that left dozens dead on college and prep school gridirons. With the very existence of the sport in jeopardy, President Theodore Roosevelt entered the fray and urged radical reforms that ultimately saved the sport and gave birth to the modern game.
With little protective equipment, players sustained gruesome injuries—wrenched spinal cords, crushed skulls and broken ribs that pierced their hearts. The Chicago Tribune reported that in 1904 alone, there were 18 football deaths and 159 serious injuries, mostly among prep school players. Obituaries of young pigskin players ran on a nearly weekly basis during the football season. The carnage appalled America. Newspaper editorials called on colleges and high schools to banish football outright. “The once athletic sport has degenerated into a contest that for brutality is little better than the gladiatorial combats in the arena in ancient Rome,” opined the Beaumont Express. The sport reached such a crisis that one of its biggest boosters—President Theodore Roosevelt—got involved.