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Book Report: The Way We Played the Game

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Sunday, October 19, 2008

High school football was a very different game in the early 1900s. Injuries, broken bones, broken teeth and even deaths often resulted from games that were little more than organized brawls.

In the 2002 book, The Way We Played the Game, author John Armstrong takes the reader through the 1903 season of the Benton Harbor High School football team in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The book is a fictionalized account based on a true story.

In 1902, the Benton Harbor football team lost in the state finals to Ishpeming, a town from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The state championship game at that time was a match up between the best team from the Upper Peninsula and the best team from the Lower Peninsula. Ishpeming won the game 35-12 and earned their third consecutive state title, but it was not without controversy. Gambling on high school sports was common at the turn of the century and rumors circulated after the game that the referee had placed a $50 bet on Ishpeming to win the game.

In 1903, Benton Harbor hired a new coach, Clayton Teetzel, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 1900. He played football for three seasons at Michigan and was also on the track team. His job was to get the team back to the state finals and this time, win it all.

The game of football was very different back then. At the time, the forward pass was not even a part of the rulebook. (It would not become a part of the game until 1906) Players played both offense and defense because once they came out of the game, they were not allowed to go back in. Team's had only three downs to go five yards for a first down, a touchdown was worth five points and players didn't always wear helmets. In addition, coaches were not allowed to communicate with the players on the field while the game was going on. They simply sat on the bench and watched the game unfold. It was the quarterback who was in complete control of the game. He called all the plays and made any adjustments needed during the course of the game. Coaches could only talk to their players at halftime and during time outs.

Teams also used a no-huddle style of play where back then. After un-piling from a play, they simply lined up and ran another play as fast as they could. The team that was in the best condition usually prevailed.

Also, there were only two game officials working games in 1903, a referee and an umpire. Therefore, players were able to get away with many illegal tactics on the field such as slugging, elbowing and other vicious acts, often after the play was over, without getting caught.

But the book is more than just about how the game of football was played in 1903. It also does an excellent job of describing what the life of a football player in general was like at the turn of the last century. Players took the train to their away games and the "bus" that took the team and its equipment from the train station to the football field was drawn by horses. Cars and trucks would not be a common sight on the roads for several more years.

The main character in the book, quarterback Fletcher Van Horne, often studied his playbook in bed at night by the light of an oil lamp after insuring that the furnace in the basement was stoked with coal for the night.

Often times, after taking the train to the town where the game would be played, the Benton Harbor team, its fans (known as rooters) and even a small marching band would parade through town from the train station on their way to the playing field. Football fields were not located at the high school as they are today, but were often located in a town park. The visiting school sometimes rented rooms in a local hotel for the players to use as a locker room. They would change into their uniforms prior to the game and then use the rooms afterwards to clean up before the return train trip home.

The 1903 season for Benton Harbor consisted of games with other Michigan high schools including South Haven, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Ann Arbor. Benton Harbor also played two high school teams from the Indiana towns of Elkhart and Goshen. They also took on teams from the University of Notre Dame and Kalamazoo College.

Note: High school teams often played college teams back in the early days of football. In fact, I recently attended a game at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and noticed in the game program that WMUs first football victory was also in 1903 and it was against Wayland High School, which is located north of Kalamazoo.

The team from Notre Dame was made up of a group of students from Brownson Hall. It was common in those days for students of various college residence halls to form football teams and play against other Hall's on campus as a form of recreation. They would sometimes scrimmage with the varsity squad and if a player was good, he might get noticed and be asked to try out for the school's varsity team. When Benton Harbor played Kalamazoo College, they actually played the varsity squad, and lost 11-5.

In fact, that was the only game Benton Harbor lost during the entire 1903 season on their way to a second straight appearance in the state championship game. But after defeating Ann Arbor to win the Lower Peninsula title, Benton Harbor was disqualified by the Interscholastic Athletic Committee for using a player who was 21 years old. Many high schools used older players, or even players from other schools, and the rule was seldom enforced. However, the committee (based in Ann Arbor) decided to enforce the rule this time. Benton Harbor did go on to face a team from Escanaba, the winner of the state's Upper Peninsula title, in what was billed as an "exhibition" game. The Michigan state high school football championship game in those days was run by the University of Michigan Athletic Department and was played at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor on Thanksgiving Day. However, after Benton Harbor defeated Escanaba 22-18, the team was officially named state champions anyway.

Johnson wrote The Way We Played the Game after discovering a box of old, faded newspaper clippings that his late grandmother had saved about the Benton Harbor football teams of 1902-1904. She was a teenager in Benton Harbor during that time.

I really enjoyed this book, and not just because it takes place in the western part of Lower Michigan, which is where I live. I have been to most of the towns Johnson talked about in the book, but you do not have to be from Michigan to enjoy this glimpse into the early beginnings of American football. The book also includes several great pictures of the actual team from 1903.

In the end, the book shows that, while many elements of the game were very different back then, some aspects of the game are pretty much the same today as they way were over 100 years ago. Running to advance the ball, punting, kicking field goals and extra points have not changed all that much since the beginning. The passion that the players and fans have for the game was also much the same as it is today.


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