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The Opening Kickoff - A Book Review

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the 2014 book, The Opening Kickoff, author Dave Revsine tells what college football was like in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Those were the days before the forward pass was a legal part of the playbook. Most of the book centers on the University of Wisconsin and a star player they had by the name of Patrick O’Dea.

O’Dea was from Australia and a phenomenal kicker, both at drop kicks and place kicks. He played for Wisconsin from 1896-1899 and was known as The Kangaroo Kicker. He is credited with a then record 62-yard field goal against Northwestern in November 1898. He also had a 110-yard punt against Minnesota in 1987.

Walter Camp, the Father of American Football once said of him, “O’Dea put the foot in football as no man ever has and as no man probably ever will again.”

In a game against Illinois in November 1899, O’Dea kicked a 57-yard field goal following a fair catch off a punt. The catch was made near the sideline and, since there were no hash marks to bring the ball back toward the middle of the field in those days, that was where the kick was attempted from. The extreme angle, coupled with the great distance, made it a sight to behold for those in attendance.

O’Dea went on to be the head coach at Notre Dame from 1900-1901 and at Missouri in 1902. He then dropped out of sight, living under a different name for about 30 years, leaving many to believe that he was dead. He did not resurface until 1934. O’Dea was elected to the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1951 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1962. The day after his Hall of Fame selection was announced in 1962, he passed away at the age of 90.

One interesting aspect of the book that I found was in reading about various attitudes that existed toward the game of football over 100 years ago. Surprisingly, they are not all that different from ones that can be heard today. For example, in 1893, the New York Herald commented on a college football game being played on Thanksgiving Day in New York City between Yale and Princeton. The newspaper reflected on how people had become obsessed with the game when it printed; “No longer is the day one of Thanksgiving to the Giver of all good. The kicker now is king and the people bow down to him.” The New York Times also had an opinion that day on the game; “It (Thanksgiving) is not what the Puritans made it, and while the traditional name cannot be easily displaced…it has plainly lost its old meaning. Suggestions of a new designation would be timely, but “Football Day” will not do.”   

The Chicago Tribune was often very critical in its editorials of the brutality in the way the game was played, which it referred to as slugball. Even famed boxer John L. Sullivan had an opinion on the game. After attending a Harvard-Yale game in the 1890s, which was particularly brutal, he commented; “There’s murder in that game.”  

Still other newspapers made fun of the attempt to change the rules of the game even after 18 players died from football related injuries in 1905. There were many who were against any rule changes that would take the rough and violent nature of the game and make it less manly. The Yale Dailey News was especially satirical when it suggested that all tackles in the future should require a defender to first wave a flag and utter the statement, “Tweedledum, tweedledee, I now tackle thee.”

Also talked about in the book are the relationships between several of the schools that played in the Western Conference, which was the forerunner to the Big Ten Conference. Schools like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg led the Chicago Maroons and whatever he wanted, he usually got. This caused much friction and many disputes at times between the Western Conference schools.

If you are a fan of the Wisconsin Badgers, you will want to read this book. I admit that I had never heard of Pat O’Dea before, but I found his story to be quite fascinating. 

About the Author

Dave Revsine spent 10+ years working as a studio analyst at ESPN and since 2007 he has been the lead studio host at The Big Ten Network.


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