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Camp's legacy lives on in the Game

By Nola Breglio

Last Saturday, coach Jack Siedlecki gathered his team around him on the hallowed field of the Yale Bowl. The Elis had just defeated Princeton in a hard-fought, high-scoring battle. All heads were lowered in silent prayer for a few moments. The Yalies in the crowd who had rushed the field in jubilation stood frozen around the huddle, waiting for the silence to end. The players gradually raised their heads to see their coach standing before them, red-faced and grinning broadly. He had tears in his eyes as he shouted to his team and to the gathered throng, "This program is back!"

The Yale program, the winningest in college football history, may indeed be back. When Siedlecki made his inspiring pronouncement to his team last week, it wasn't just a congratulatory gesture to rally the troops during what could be the Elis' first winning season since 1991. The coach's speech resonated in a far more meaningful way, for Yale is the place where it all began. It was here that Walter Camp, Class of 1880, designed the game of football as we know it today.

Admittedly, Yale is no longer the mecca of football. Forced by dwindling attendance in 1982 to move from Division I-A to Division

I-AA along with the rest of the Ivy League, the Bulldogs have received less and less attention--the last time a Yale game was nationally televised was in 1981. But running back Rashad Bartholomew, SY '01, who transferred to Yale from Division I-A Air Force, maintained that publicity is the least of his worries. "I just love the game," he said. "I just want to play. Forget about coverage. If you play great, you'll earn it regardless."

Defensive end Peter Sarantos, MC '00, voiced similar sentiments. "Yale was the best program in the nation way back when," he said. "What better way to say it's possible to win than to draw on the past. If we've done it before, we can do it again."

This weekend at the 115th annual Yale-Harvard contest, a chance at a share of the Ivy title is on the line for the Elis. "Yale men always play to win," Camp once wrote. "Play fair, but play hard and never give up. Yale is deadly earnest." These words will echo in the Bulldogs' ears on Saturday.

A page of history

When Walter Camp played in his first Yale-Harvard contest as a freshman in 1876, the Harvard captain scoffed at the slightly-built Camp. "You don't mean to let that child play, do you?" he asked the Yale captain, "He is too light. He will get hurt." The Yale captain looked at Camp and retorted, "Look to your business. He is young, but he is all spirit and whipcord." Camp went on to tackle the Harvard captain early in the match. He later wrote of the incident, "To my freshman eyes his head had apparently cracked open and I ran to our captain saying, `I don't want to play anymore. I've killed a man.'" Luckily, the Harvard man came to consciousness moments later, stunned by the spunky Camp.

This unlikely neophyte was to become the

architect of football. Camp invented most of the rules that distinguish American football from English rugby, including the scrimmage, the quarterback and center positions, the 11 men to a side rule, tackling below the waist, downs and distance rules, the safety, interference, numerical scoring, penalties, and the neutral zone. In addition, Camp was instrumental in the institution of the forward pass, and he edited every football rulebook until his death in 1925.

Camp's role in shaping football extended far beyond just writing the rules. The New York Times once called him the "Prophet of the Age of Athletics." He spent a total of 49 years as a player, coach, and athletic adviser at Yale. During that period, the Elis were far and away the most successful football program in the nation--over one span of 38 years, Yale lost only 14 games.

Camp was even called upon by President Theodore Roosevelt for help. "I want you to make the game not soft, but honest," Roosevelt wrote to Camp. In a four-hour meeting, the two men devised new strategies to reduce the large number of injuries being sustained from the game--in 1905, The Chicago Tribune reported 73 deaths from football-related injuries. Camp was always the man the nation called upon to shape and to remedy the game.

While Camp shaped the game, America fell in love with it. Roosevelt wrote to Camp, "Of all the games I personally like football the best, and I would rather see my boys play it than see them play any other."

It is this rich history that has maintained Yale's reputation as the home of football, even as the team's national prominence has faded. "Many media members call Yale when they have questions about football in general and its origins," Director of Yale Sports Publicity Steve Conn said.

The sons of Eli

Before Camp knew it, he had created an American cultural phenomenon. While at Yale, famed American painter Frederic Remington, Class of 1880, played with Camp and painted several works depicting Yale football. One of these hangs on the wall in the wood-paneled office of Athletic Director Tom Beckett. "That is the Yale football team in its early stages, and that painting is probably worth two or three hundred thousand dollars," Beckett explained. "I don't know how many other athletic directors would be able to say they have an original Remington in their office."

It was this historical and cultural significance that drew Beckett to Yale. "Yale football is something that historians of the game always look at to find out what happened and why and where and when," he said.

To that end, Yale tries to instill a sense of history in its recruits. "We take kids into the trophy room and out by the arches," Siedlecki explained. Beckett added, "While you're looking at Yale you feel the tradition.... You start to say, `My goodness, look what's all around here,' and start to be enveloped by the notion that this is where the game started."

Most of the players, however, said that Camp's legacy and Yale's rich history were not pivotal factors in their decisions to attend Yale; rather, they became aware of it bit by bit once they arrived on campus. "I really didn't know too much about the tradition until I got here," captain Corwynne Carruthers, MC '99, admitted, "But we've won more games than any other school in the history of football. It's a prestigious tradition to be a part of--it's like a family. Now that we've started winning again, it means a lot more."

As wide receiver Jake Fuller, BR '00, explained, "Back when Walter Camp played and coached, there weren't a lot of football teams, and there was a lot of national publicity for Yale. Now college football is such a big thing. When you come here you understand that you're going to play for a program with a lot of history and a lot of tradition that plays good football. But we're not going to go to a Bowl game, and we're not going to be on television all the time."

National fame is not a realistic goal for a Yale football player in 1998, and this affects the type of recruits who decide to attend Yale. In many cases, the Yale name alone is not a strong enough pull to offset the University's decline in athletic visibility.

Star quarterback and Heisman trophy finalist Brian Dowling, BK '69, acknowledged that he probably would not have come to Yale if he had been deciding today." The competition is not what it was," he said, " Today I would take a good long look at Stanford and maybe Notre Dame or Michigan, places where I could still get an education and play at an upper competitive level of football." Yale's all-time leading receiver, John Spagnola, TD '79, agreed. "Would I still come today? I'm not so sure. Over the last decade the program has stumbled," he said.

Carm Cozza, Yale coach from 1965 to 1996, coached Dowling and Spagnola. "The glamour isn't here that we once had," Cozza said. "In 1981, we had over 70,000 people in the Bowl when we played Air Force and Navy, and we beat them. I think a lot of that has left. The players see so few people in the Bowl, and that's hurtful," he said. Dowling agreed. "When Coach Cozza recruited me, he asked, `Wouldn't it be great to play in front of a full house at the Yale Bowl?' But these days it's 15,000 on a good day, and, in the Bowl, that looks pitiful."

For God, for Country...

For some Elis, however, Yale's illustrious history is meaningful enough to compensate for thousands of empty seats.

Quarterback Joe Walland, TD '00, admitted that the legacy of Walter Camp influenced him in his decision to come to Yale. "I wanted to go somewhere with a good tradition," he said. "It makes me feel good that so many football legends through the years, like Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill, PC '69, have received this honor. Even if I wasn't playing and didn't have a role on this team, it would still be a great honor just to be a part of the Yale football team."

Kicker Mike Murawczyk, MC '01, who broke the Eli single-season record for field goals with his 11th of the season on Sat., Nov. 14, reflected, "Yale football, you can't even really describe it. Everyone's heard of it, it's a big deal. Even now, though we're not getting 60 to 70,000 people at our games, when you say you play Yale football people think about it. It's something very special."

Spagnola reflected on how Camp's tradition fired him up in game situations. "Camp is often credited with bringing the forward pass to football, and he certainly inspired me to go to my coach and tell him to throw me the damn ball," he said.

Gateway to the future

The Elis have had an inspiring season this year, and are reminded of Yale's history every time they pass through the Walter Camp Gateway and march into the Yale Bowl. The huge monument looms as a dramatic and imposing entrance to the stadium, the place where the game began.

"We didn't talk about it much, but every time the players went to practice, they knew that football started here as we know it today," Cozza said, "They knew that the feeling they had when they walked through the portals and went out into the Bowl was something special that every player that ever put on a Yale uniform had to feel."

"Whenever I walk through the Gateway it's a spectacular sight. I think, `Football started here,'" Carruthers said. Fuller added, "You see those huge pillars and you see the name walking through the gate.... Every time I step into the Bowl I get an unbelievable feeling." Tight end Brian Scharf, DC '99, explained, "When people say `Walter Camp,' or you walk under the Gateway, you think, `Wow, he was here.' You think, `I get to play in The Game.'"

Camp once proclaimed, "There are two kinds of men in the world today. One kind when they want anything, sit down and hope for it. The other kind pull up their belts a hole tighter and go out after it. Any victory in life is worth everything it costs if it comes through determination and the use of brains." These were the words of a man who commanded some of the most dominant teams in the history of football, a man who invented the game for the school he loved most, and a man who imagined that his Bulldogs would remain atop the football hierarchy as long as the game was played. This weekend, when the Crimson and the Blue clash, Camp's words will resound just as powerfully as they did 100 years ago.

On Saturday, when Yale and Harvard renew their age-old rivalry, divisions, television contracts, and Heisman trophies will seem insignificant against the backdrop of the history that frames The Game and its creation.The Elis have a chance--with help--to claim a share of the Ivy League title, a feat they have not accomplished since 1989. This Saturday, the school that was home to the father of American football can reassert itself as a force in the Ivy League. Siedlecki's squad can channel its rich history and a thrilling 1998 season into one climactic performance and inform the nation that Yale football, indeed, is back.

Center graphic of Walter Camp courtesy of Yale Manuscripts and Archives.

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All materials © 1998 The Yale Herald, Inc., and its staff.
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