From its humble roots, dating back to 1869 and a meeting of students from Rutgers and Princeton, to today’s billion-dollar spectacle, college football has grown along with the United States.
The game is woven into the fabric of Americana, and not just for its ubiquity in 21st century pop culture. College football has either reflected the history of the nation, or directly influenced it routinely in the last century.
On this July 4, reflect on these four games from college football history, which in their own manner, are indelible within American history.
Saint Louis vs. Carroll College, Sept. 5, 1906
College football reached a crossroads at the turn of the 20th century. With media banging the drum, detractors decried the game for its violence, players receiving monetary compensation or useless education – if any education at all.
The situation became so dire that, after 19 deaths in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt publicly intervened. The President who advocated speaking softly while carrying a big stick wielded that stick forcefully in his calls for reform.
Roosevelt, a proponent of athletics after overcoming his own childhood illnesses through an active lifestyle, wanted to see football improve.
Much like calls for safety reform today, traditionalists bemoaned that changes to the game would end it altogether. Roosevelt dismissed the notion, per a 1905 Washington Post article.
“I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games, or that those who take part are occasionally injured,” Roosevelt said. “But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body, but of damage to the other man’s character.”
Among the many reforms enacted that saved college football was the introduction of the forward pass.
Saint Louis University archives credit head coach Eddie Cochems with “secretly practicing the art of the forward pass,” and unleashing it via Bradbury Robinson, whose first completion was a 20-yarder to Jack Schneider.
Consider the 1906 game between Saint Louis University and Carroll College a chapter in the rich legacy of The Roughrider, and Robinson ostensibly the forerunner to the air-raid offense.
Michigan vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 20, 1934
Five presidents played college football at varying levels, though Gerald Ford stands out tops among this group. A star at Michigan, Ford’s No. 48 was originally retired until 2012, when it became an honorary distinction for the Wolverine assigned to wear it.
No. 48 does not simply hold significance at Michigan because Ford was an All-American, or for his later political career. Ford’s example as a student-athlete shines 81 years after he took an important stand in defense of a teammate.
Georgia Tech demanded Michigan bench end Willis Ward, a black student-athlete and one of the premier Wolverines. When head coach Fielding Yost initially planned to acquiesce, Ford threatened to quit the team.
Yost and Michigan brass supported Ford and Ward, and the Wolverines beat the Rambling Wreck, 9-2.
As a congressman three decades later, Ford was a champion of the civil rights movement.
A documentary entitled “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” chronicling the landmark Michigan-Georgia Tech affair, premiered in 2011.
1942 Rose Bowl: Duke vs. Oregon State in Durham, N.C., Jan. 1, 1942
Dec. 7, 1941: A date which will live in infamy.
Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s address to Congress the day after the Empire of Japan bombed the American Naval station in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, established the tone for what was to come in the ensuing four years. The United States faced its greatest challenge as a nation.
In its own, small way, the 1942 Rose Bowl Game – played almost a month after Roosevelt’s famous address – embodied the American spirit during World War II.
Duke and Oregon State circumvented the issue of public gatherings being banned on the West Coast by moving the Rose Bowl Game from Pasadena, Calif., to Duke’s campus in Durham, N.C.
Underdog Oregon State beat Duke, 20-16, behind a pair of touchdown passes from Bob Dethman and the all-around play of retroactively named MVP, Donald Durdan.
For many involved in the 1942 Rose Bowl, the game was a last hurrah before going into battle, including Duke head coach Wallace Wade.
Some of the Blue Devils and Beavers crossed paths overseas. Wade encountered Oregon state lineman Sam Czech three years after the Rose Bowl Game as part of the same infantry unit near Villers-la-Bonne-Eau in Luxembourg.
Duke’s Charlie Haynes and Oregon State’s Frank Parker were two more former Rose Bowl competitors who were allies in the war.
Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times once wrote about how Parker carried Haynes to a farmhouse after discovering the former Blue Devil quarterback badly injured in the Arno Valley campaign in Italy. Medics were able to save Haynes’ life.
Army vs. Navy in Baltimore, December 1944
Last season’s Army-Navy Game returned to Baltimore on the 70th anniversary of the perhaps the most significant installment of the series in its history.
In 1944, Army brought its No. 1 ranking and unblemished record to the Charm City to face second-ranked Navy. At stake, almost assuredly, was a national championship.
However, this particular Army-Navy encounter was, “the biggest game of World War II,” according to author Randy Roberts, via Baltimore Magazine.
Roberts’ book, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation, examines this most historic entry into the most American of all college football rivalries. As he notes, this de facto national championship was played midway between the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day, the most crucial stretch to American victory in World War II.
Army completed the first of three national championship seasons with the win over Navy. The Cadets were undefeated in that three-year stretch with the backfield tandem of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard captaining the team.
Both Davis and Blanchard won Heisman Trophies.