Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 81

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 81


This is the grave of Walter Camp.

2016-05-07 11.45.00

The so-called “Father of College Football,” Camp was born in 1859 in New Britain, Connecticut. Even at a very young age, Camp became interested in the new game of football. At the age of 14, he attended the founding meeting of the sport and then played for Yale from 1876 and 1882, playing both as an undergraduate and while at Yale Medical School. He worked for a few years at the New Haven Clock Company, which his family owned, and in 1888 became head coach of Yale. He did not coach for long. He stayed at Yale until 1892 and then moved to Stanford, where he coached briefly in late 1892 and then in 1894 and 1895. Despite being only 36 years old, he retired with a record of 79-5-3 and went back to the clock company. But he continued staying in the game, creating many of the basic rules of the sport, writing books on the topic, and becoming the sport’s foundational figure. As early as 1880, he fought for the creation of the line of scrimmage, helping to separate the game from rugby. He created or co-created the snap, the four-down offensive system, the standard lineup of offensive players, the 2 point safety, the number of players as 11, and the yard marker. He would be on the college football rules committee for 48 years.

Camp also cheated up a storm. He had a slush fund of $10,000 for whatever he wanted, including hiring ringers for key games and bringing in players who were not students and were feted like grandees. He was involved in the creation of the NCAA, which happened after Theodore Roosevelt became concerned that the deadly violence associated with the sport could lead to its eradication. Camp promised to be involved in getting rid of the most violence parts of the sport, but he did nothing. 26 players died in 1909 alone. And of course we know the legacy of the NCAA on college sports to the present, with its refusal to compensate players while teams make millions, something Camp also certainly would collude with were he alive today.

Camp later worked as an athletic advisor to the U.S. military during World War I and wrote many books on the virtue of exercise. He died in 1925 at the age of 65.

To the best that I can tell, Camp has never been portrayed in the movies, which seems a little surprising. I kind of figured he would end up in some silent film about college football, but I guess it never happened, at least according to IMDB.

Walter Camp is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

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  • efgoldman

    while at Yale Medical School.

    Odd. Did he ever get his MD or practice medicine?

  • michaelrbn

    Walter Camp commemorative postage stamp:


  • Richard Hershberger

    Camp became interested in the new game of football

    This isn’t quite right. American intercollegiate football play is traditionally, and mostly but not entirely correctly, dated to 1869. Most schools played a kicking game similar to Association football, and as things got more organized they looked to the Football Association for guidance. Harvard, however, played a carrying game. They therefore didn’t play with the other schools. But then in early 1874 they played two games with Montreal’s McGill University, one under the Harvard rules and the other under the somewhat similar Rugby Union rules (only slightly modified). The Harvard boys were enchanted and adopted these rules. They commenced lobbying other schools to try them. Tufts was the first to crack, then Yale in 1875, and Rugby soon became the standard for college ball.

    So when young Walter Camp showed up at Yale in 1876 full of piss and vinegar, they weren’t playing a new game. They were playing an old game. It merely was new to them. This was important, because they couldn’t quite figure it out. The formal rules were rather mysterious, existing to settle disputes between sides that knew how to play the game, not to describe how to play it. The Americans lacked the oral tradition that British clubs worked from, so they started fiddling with the rules to try to make it work, resulting in American football. Camp was a central figure in this process. Calling him the “Father of American Football” is plausible, so long as we understand the process.

    • dpm

      Rugby wasn’t really that old, though, because there was a chaotic mess of different ball games in the UK, out of which modern football and rugby emerged between the 1840s and 1870s. The rugby clubs and some public schools objected to a merger of all codes, especially to the football rules’ ban on hacking (kicking the shins). Did the early US football game permit hacking?

      • Richard Hershberger

        The Rugby Union wasn’t that old, but football had been played at Rugby school for a long time before that. When the version played there took on its characteristics is not clear, fairy tales about William Webb Ellis notwithstanding.

  • Joe_JP

    Not to be confused with the actor with a single movie on IMDB.

  • keta

    Erik writes:

    And of course we know the legacy of the NCAA on college sports to the present, with its refusal to compensate players while teams make millions, something Camp also certainly would collude with were he alive today.

    The following is from a terrific 2011 Atlantic Monthly piece on the formation, and shameful machinations, of the NCAA:

    A newspaper story from that year, illustrated with the Grim Reaper laughing on a goalpost, counted 25 college players killed during football season. A fairy-tale version of the founding of the NCAA holds that President Theodore Roosevelt, upset by a photograph of a bloodied Swarthmore College player, vowed to civilize or destroy football. The real story is that Roosevelt maneuvered shrewdly to preserve the sport—and give a boost to his beloved Harvard. After McClure’s magazine published a story on corrupt teams with phantom students, a muckraker exposed Walter Camp’s $100,000 slush fund at Yale. In response to mounting outrage, Roosevelt summoned leaders from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to the White House, where Camp parried mounting criticism and conceded nothing irresponsible in the college football rules he’d established. At Roosevelt’s behest, the three schools issued a public statement that college sports must reform to survive, and representatives from 68 colleges founded a new organization that would soon be called the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A Haverford College official was confirmed as secretary but then promptly resigned in favor of Bill Reid, the new Harvard coach, who instituted new rules that benefited Harvard’s playing style at the expense of Yale’s. At a stroke, Roosevelt saved football and dethroned Yale.

    As an organization the NCAA has been a shitshow right from its inception, and the article will leave you marvelling at how such a shitty, weak-kneed entity ended up wielding such out-sized influence over college sports.

  • Colin Day

    $10,000 slush fund? According to Mark Yost’s Varsity Green (p 38) it was $100,000.

    • Warren Terra

      Maybe Yost’s number is inflation-adjusted? According to some random online calculator popular with Google, one dollar in 1900 is the equivalent of almost $30 today – and $1 in 1920 would have been $10 when Mark Yost was writing his book.

      • Colin Day

        The articles quoting the McClure’s make no mention of the $100,000 being inflation adjusted, indeed one article says that it would be worth $2.5 million in 2017 dollars.

        “A gentleman never competes for money, directly or indirectly” he intoned in ” Walter Camp’s Book of College Sports,” all the while controlling a reputed $100,000 (about $2.5 million in today’s dollars) slush fund for athletic “tutoring.” Yale, like all other competitive football programs, shamelessly imported ringers for key games (no doubt for the “love of the game”) who found themselves matriculated at different universities weeks or months later.

        slush fund

  • N__B

    Where’s Hank Williams Jr?

  • mch

    Why is it that these ball games were, if not invented, then regularized in the Northeast in the same period? American football in New Haven, basketball up aways on the Connecticut River in Springfield a few years later? Baseball in some form or other was older, so it seems, but the momentum of its genesis was in the Northeast. (The first intercollegiate baseball game between Williams and Amherst in 1859 — the same year Darwin published The Origin of Species.)

    There are lots of obvious reasons the Northeast led the way (prominently: advanced industrialization and numerous academies, colleges, and universities — cue the upper Midwest). But questions that interest me include:

    Were there rugby/football leagues prior to/at the same time as their appearance at academies and colleges, the way versions of baseball had leagues (of, say, firemen)? Baseball has gotten so much attention to its longer, and non-collegiate, history, but football? Please, some bibliography.

    • Warren Terra

      Looking at the origins of organized sport in England, the obvious answers have to do with having the institutions that could support the sports leagues (schools and industrial employers), and affordable rapid transport.

      • mch

        Ah, affordable rapid transit. An element I hadn’t considered. But whence “football” in America? And what was its “informal” history prior to Camp? (Really, this history is not a part of American lore the way baseball history is, despite the decline in baseball’s status. Is it significant that baseball prides itself on detailed and argumentative history of itself, while football has no “origins myth,” and basketball’s origins myth is thin?”)

        A part of the reason I am interested: Wesleyan University in CT (my daughter’s alma mater, and I am sort of it love with today’s college, even if it calls itself a university) went from being a co-ed college to a men’s college again between 1909 and 1912, due to concern about men’s masculinity (and women graduates’ lesser fundraising potential). Football was taking over on the ground even as baseball was flying high in creating national leagues. Something interesting is up here, including competing notions of masculinity.

        • Richard Hershberger

          Keep in mind that most, or all, of the baseball prehistory in American lore is bullshit.

          As for why American football arose in the northeast, it was because organized football arose as a college phenomenon, and most of the colleges were in the northeast. Pre-modern football was played widely, but very locally. The northeastern colleges offered a codified version with a lot of prestige attached to it.

          Four competitive communities of baseball clubs arose independently in the 1850s, in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, each playing their own version. The New York version won out mostly because New York City was large, supporting a boatload of clubs, and was a major cultural center, with a sporting press far more developed than anywhere else. Throw in some bluff and bluster, calling an association of NY-area clubs the “National Association of Base Ball Players.” People bought it, and the result is that the modern game is a modified version of the New York game.

          I don’t know all that much about basketball. I know it was developed to be an indoor winter game. New England winters would encourage this, but not really any more so than, say, Michigan. I don’t know if there were any structural reasons why it happened in one and not the other place.

          We can add softball, which started as an indoor winter version of baseball. There were various experiments with the idea. The group that figured out how to make it work were in Chicago. It was called “indoor base ball” for some years, until it moved back outside.

          • mch

            Thanks, Richard. Very helpful.

            I would note that there were baseball leagues in Springfield, MA before the CW, if I recall my dates correctly. I came across them somewhere online — pictures (probably from shortly after the CW) suggesting that baseball “uniforms” developed out of firemen’s of the day…. (Those unruly, competing firemen companies.)

            I’m still interested in the competing notions of masculinity that these different sports might have promoted, perhaps largely in response to the suffragates but also other phenomena, like greater numbers of women graduating from hs and college and entering the workforce.

            I have a letter written to my grandmother in Tazewell, VA from a childhood friend who had moved to SD (her father was a railroad executive, mid-level). Fascinating letter on many fronts, including her enthusiasm for “our boys” — the hs football team — and her love of playing basketball, though she really wishes girls could play by “boys’ rules” in school. (A reference, I assume, to the “three-bounce rule,” which was still in effect for girls in NJ as late as 1968, when I graduated from hs. Must not jostle the ovaries with dribbling!)

            As for competing notions of masculinity: the heyday of boxing in the same period football grew, no?

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