Feb 3, 2018

Ghosts of Football Past

In anticipation of Super Bowl LII (Go Eagles), we're revisiting an old episode about the surprising history of how the game came to be. It's the end of the 19th century -- the Civil War is over, and the frontier is dead. And young college men are anxious. What great struggle will test their character? Then along comes a new craze: football. A brutally violent game where young men can show a stadium full of fans just what they're made of. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn -- the sons of the most powerful men in the country are literally knocking themselves out to win these gladiatorial battles. And then the most American team of all, with the most to prove, gets in the game and owns it. The Carlisle Indian School, formed in 1879 to assimilate the children and grandchildren of the men who fought the final Plains Wars against the fathers and grandfathers of the Ivy Leaguers, starts challenging the best teams in the country. On the football field, Carlisle had a chance for a fair fight with high stakes -- a chance to earn respect, a chance to be winners, and a chance to go forward in a changing world that was destroying theirs. 

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JAD ABUMRAD: All right. Should we get -- should we -- ? Yeah.


JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: And today, just for kicks we're gonna start in a park. So let me set the scene.


ROBERT: Please.


JAD: Couple days ago, we gathered a bunch of Radiolab listeners in McCarren Park in Brooklyn.


JAD: You guys are amazing for coming out today. Thank you so much.


ROBERT: This is a random set of listeners.


JAD: Random set of listeners. Whoever showed up as a result of a few tweets and Facebook postings. Got about 70 people. It was a super cold day. Park was covered in snow. And we had brought everybody there to help us make some noises that we would use in this segment. Like ...




JAD: Gasping. Or ...




JAD: Chanting. Or -- it was amazing. You'll hear them throughout the hour. But when people got there, we hadn't actually explained to them why we wanted them to make these noises. So just to start things off, I just asked them a couple questions.


JAD: Okay. So ...


JAD: Questions of the moment.


JAD: First let me just ask. How many of you guys like football?




JAD: How many of you guys hate football?




JAD: This was not a shocking revelation.


ROBERT: No. Kind of expected.


JAD: How many of you guys think that football will disappear in the next 10 years?




JAD: But these anti-football sentiments, I believe they say more about you and I and our fans than the game.


ROBERT: Although I -- in fairness, I mean there are a lot of people who -- I would even consider myself a -- a -- I watch for the ads.


JAD: Okay. Whether you watch for the ads like you or whether you love the game like I happen to, or loathe it like some others, football right now ...


ROBERT: Is huge!


[SPORTS CLIP: It is the national pastime. Ratings through the roof.]


[SPORTS CLIP: 97.5 million viewers.]


[SPORTS CLIP: Sunday's game was the most watched event in American television history.]


[SPORTS CLIP: Super Bowl Sunday has become a national holiday.]


JAD: Its massive.


ROBERT: It's massively popular. That's not the same as ...


JAD: I actually think it's massively interesting, also. Here's a way to think about it. Sally Jenkins, the author of the book The Real All-Americans, she puts it this way. Imagine a thousand years from now, maybe ten thousand, maybe a hundred thousand years from now, we're all gone. All our history has been forgotten. All the silly trifling games we play have been lost to time. Imagine the future human beings looking back on us.


SALLY JENKINS: Let's say, you know, some archaeologists goes around digging. They're gonna find these really, really huge stadiums. [laughs] That's what they're gonna find. Okay?


JAD: Yeah.


SALLY JENKINS: And they're gonna understand just like we understand about the Greeks what was really important to us.


JAD: Okay, so here's the thing Radiolab listeners. We're gonna do an entire hour on the game of football. In part, because it just seems to be that there are a lot of questions in the air about football right now, about what it really is and what that means about us. What it might or could or can't become.


ROBERT: Am I gonna like this?


JAD: Absolutely! This -- in a way, this whole hour is for the people like you who really don't care about football. And I am willing to wager that at the end they will care more. Particularly because of this first story which comes from Sally Jenkins who just heard. It comes from her book, The Real All Americans This is a story, not about the game as you might think of it now, but about where it came from. It didn't come from the people you'd expect.


ROBERT: Okay, I'm folding my hands. And you see here, in my lap, and I'm going to listen to this.


JAD: Okay, you want to get in the three-point stance?


ROBERT: 71! 71 Hike! We're ready to begin.


JAD: And this is a story about the beginning.




JAD: Or not quite.


SALLY JENKINS: I mean, football -- football is as old as sort of the Celtic civilizations. I mean, you can trace primal games of you know, Danish invaders kicking skulls around the shores of England. I mean ...


ROBERT: That's not football. That's just skull-kicking.


SALLY JENKINS: Exactly. But organized football's really a creation of the 1860s and '70s in this country. It's a post-Civil War creation. Comes along just really a couple of years after, you know, the last great conquering armies settle the West.


JAD: Basically she says, you had these kids whose parents had fought in the Civil War and then some of them had gone west to fight the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Apaches. And now those wars were winding down, which oddly enough created kind of an issue for young men at the time.


ROBERT: If you're a young student, say back east at a fancy school like Harvard, how are you gonna prove your own toughness? I mean, your older brother, your father they maybe fought at Gettysburg, Battle of Little Bighorn.


JAD: What the hell have you done?


DAVID ADAMS: The American frontier experience was over. There was this feeling among a lot of intellectuals that -- that American men were losing their masculinity. They were being feminized in a sense.


JAD: And so, according to historian David Adams who you just heard, those kids were desperate for opportunities to man up.


DAVID ADAMS: There was this cult of manliness.


JAD: Around this time says David Adams, you see a bunch of violent sports take off. And in particular, for our purposes, you see these kids at Harvard and Yale getting together and knocking the snot out of each other in this game that's kind of like rugby, but just more violent.


CONRAD CRANE: The game used to be basically brutality.


CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: The origin of football was such a profoundly different game.


JAD: Writer Chuck Klosterman, and before him historian. Dr. Conrad Crane.


CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: You know, a first down instead of 10 yards was only five yards.


CONRAD CRANE: You had three downs to get five yards.


CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: And basically all the teams did was sort of slam into each other and try to move the ball incrementally. It was almost as if every play of the entire game was a goal-line stand. You know, the metaphor people always use when discussing football of course is military. It's the idea of taking land and giving, like -- well, the origin of football that was even amplified.


JAD: There were formations and strategies and that kind of thing, but it was pure, like, right out of Napoleon's military playbook. I mean, where you -- you concentrate your force.


ROBERT: Yeah, my shoulder next to your shoulder next to his shoulder. It's like a line.


JAD: Yeah, you bunch up all -- all your men, and then pierce the other guy's army.




JAD: That was the basic idea.


ROBERT: And so you just end up with piles of guys.


JAD: Yeah, and inside those piles?


CONRAD CRANE: There's all kinds of things that go on in those scrums. I mean, there's kicking, there's biting, there's gouging.


SALLY JENKINS: Eye-gouging and crotch kicking, and ...


JAD: Wow!


SALLY JENKINS: Head-wrenching.


ROBERT: Remember, we're talking about Harvard boys doing this.


JAD: I have to work to imagine that because I think of Harvard and Yale now and I think of, like, I think of ...


SALLY JENKINS: Pencil-neck geeks?


JAD: Yeah, I don't think of them as big guys.


SALLY JENKINS: Well, at the time they were the -- I mean, there are all these wonderful stories about these chops that they would eat for dinner. I mean, they were drinking milk by the gallon and the Ivys were the great power of the time physically as well as intellectually.


JAD: But then along comes this school, this tiny little school founded in 1879 in the middle of nowhere, that if you're a football fan or just a fan of American history kind of changed everything.


JAD: Where was Carlisle?


SALLY JENKINS: Carlisle was in Pennsylvania, right -- very close to Gettysburg.


ROBERT: Well, let's go there. So -- so tell me about Car -- what is the -- when is it formed? And what was it there?


SALLY JENKINS: The Carlisle Indian School is formed by a former -- well actually, he was an active military officer at the time named Richard Henry Pratt.


JAD: Big guy. Shock of white hair. Large nose.


SALLY JENKINS: Pratt had serve gallantly, quite gallantly in the Civil War. And then he had actually served out west in Oklahoma Territory. He had fought American Indians himself.


JAD: And it was after winning a lot of those fights, too many of those fights really, we're talking 1870s now, that Pratt had a change of heart. And he -- he suddenly became concerned about the very people he had just been fighting.


CONRAD CRANE: The fact of the matter is that Indians were in a very, very desperate situation. The bison were almost extinct. They were being pushed onto reservations and population had fallen to -- to its almost all-time low. Pratt and a lot of other policymakers came to the conclusion that something had to happen fast or Indians would literally become extinct. They would, in fact, become the vanishing race. And so Pratt ...


SALLY JENKINS: He comes to Washington with an idea.


JAD: His idea was to start a boarding school specifically for American Indian children that was kind of a radical experiment.


CONRAD CRANE: Children would be taken, removed for several years at a time. They would be stripped of their, what was called their savage heritage and they would be civilized.


JAD: I.E. They would be white-itized.


BARBARA LANDIS: It was -- it was forcible assimilation. Pratt had a slogan: Kill the Indian, save the man.


JAD: That's Barbara Landis.


BARBARA LANDIS: Carlisle Indian School biographer.


JAD: We went up to Carlisle to talk with her and her colleague Cara Curtis. And they told us that Pratt basically made that pitch ...


BARBARA LANDIS: Kill the Indian, save the man.


JAD: ... not just to Congress, but directly to American Indian families all over the country.


ROBERT: I want your son. Is that -- how does that work?


CARA CURTIS: I want your children because ...


BARBARA LANDIS: White people are gonna keep coming and coming. They want to settle in your lands. They want to take your lands. And you need to learn how to deal with these people. So we need to teach your children how to speak English.


JAD: We need to teach them how to communicate with the white man, so that when the white man comes and tries to get you to sign away the Black Hills you won't fall for it again.


BARBARA LANDIS: And it was a convincing argument.


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: Well you know, back in those days you're talking about survival over here.


JAD: Would you mind introducing yourself?


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: Okay, my name is Joe American Horse. I'm 79 years old, and I'm a grandson of Chief American Horse.


JAD: Joe lives near the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He's Lakota. And he told us the story about his grandfather who was a famous Lakota chief. In the 1890s, his grandpa led a delegation of American Indians to Washington.


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: Well, he went to Washington, DC. And he was down there, but he said there was a lot of people down there.


JAD: Joe says his grandpa had this moment where he was just stunned by how many white people there were. His phrase was, "They're like ants."


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: And pretty soon they're gonna come to our area. So he had the idea of trying to send his kids to school so they can intermingle or, you know, intercept, whatever.


JAD: Basically, Joe says his grandpa just had this realization.


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: We can't -- we can't go back. We got to go forward.


JAD: And it seemed to him Carlisle was the way forward.


JAD: So where are we going now?


BARBARA LANDIS: This is our photo archive.


JAD: As kids were admitted, here's how it would work. They would come in, and they'd immediately have their picture taken on arrival. Then they'd be given an extreme makeover which would also be photographed.


BARBARA LANDIS: Okay, this is Tom Torlino.


JAD: Wow. So this is -- this is Tom Torlino as he -- as he comes in.




ROBERT: Barbara showed us a picture of a Navajo kid looking maybe 18 years old.


JAD: This is 1882.


ROBERT: This is when he arrives. So he's got kind of dark skin, high cheekbones.


JAD: He has long hair.


BARBARA LANDIS: Here you can see ...


ROBERT: Earrings.


ROBERT: He's wearing an elaborate necklace. Looks like it might be made of bone.


JAD: And he's wrapped in a blanket.


ROBERT: And then ...


JAD: And then here he is in a suit with clean-cut hair.


JAD: In the second picture, his hair is very short. Not long.


ROBERT: No blanket.


JAD: He's wearing a three-piece suit.


ROBERT: Sitting there with a cravat and a spread collar and parted hair.


JAD: Wow. It's like in a snapshot you have Tom Indian, Tom white man.


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: Like my Aunt Sophie.


JAD: Joe American Horse said his family saw that transformation firsthand.


JOE AMERICAN HORSE: Aunt Sophie was there in Carlisle for five years, and when she came back she looks like a white woman. You know, she had a real tiny waist and a bonnet and everything. And she can't speak Lakota.


JAD: She forgot.




JAD: But just think about this for a second. Just think about this. We spoke with one guy Professor Eric Anderson who teaches at Haskell, he's also part Pottawatomi. Just imagine the parents, he says, the first time they see their kids.


ERIC ANDERSON: Parents are seeing their students marched around in essentially the uniforms of what had not very long before, for many of the tribes, been the uniform of the enemy.


JAD: At the very least ...


ERIC ANDERSON: I think that would be startling.


JAD: In any case, according to Sally Jenkins, after the kids were recropped and redressed, Pratt would run them through a bunch of drills.


SALLY JENKINS: I mean, Carlisle was a little military academy. And the Indian kids were so unhealthy at first. They had been put on an unfamiliar diet. They had been sleeping indoors for the first time in their lives, and a lot of them were getting sick.


JAD: I mean, we know that in the 39-year history of the school at least 200 kids died of disease or poor health or even homesickness.


SALLY JENKINS: And so Pratt was constantly trying to get the kids outside. And at a certain point he had hired some teachers.


JAD: And Sally thinks that one of those hires ...


SALLY JENKINS: Probably one of the first dormitory masters.


JAD: This guy who had formerly taught at an Ivy League school. He showed the Carlisle Indian kids this game that the kids at Harvard were playing. Maybe he thought it would toughen them up, who knows? But suddenly they're playing football. Now keep in mind, this is, you know, at a point, we're talking 1882, where football's barely a thing. Not so many schools had teams.


SALLY JENKINS: There wasn't such a thing as a head coach back then. They were volunteer coaches who tended to be students or ex-students.


JAD: But the Carlisle kids self-organized, level the field, start to play. They even start to scrimmage some kids across town. And at one of those games, according to Barbara ...


BARBARA LANDIS: Stacy Matluck, who is a Pawnee student at Carlisle, later became a Pawnee chief, he broke his leg playing football, and Pratt said, "That's it. No more football."


JAD: Because in his mind he was trying to civilize these kids, and football was doing the opposite. But a short time later, says David Adams ...


DAVID ADAMS: Approximately three dozen Carlisle boys came into Pratt's office and they said, "We want to play football."


JAD: Do we know what they said exactly?


DAVID ADAMS: We don't have -- we don't have the exact words, but Pratt says at one point, he says, "Well, they stood around my desk." And I'm quoting here. "Well, they stood around my desk, their black eyes intensely watching me." He says, "The orator gave practically all the arguments in favor of our contending in outside football, and ended up requesting the removal of the embargo."


JAD: According to his memoir, Pratt was sort of bowled over by the eloquence and passion of the appeal. So he said, "Okay ..."


DAVID ADAMS: "You can play if you do these two things. One," he says, "Never slug. People who are looking on will say 'There, that's the Indian of it. Just see them. They are savages and you can't get it out of them.'" Okay. And the other one was, "You have to beat the best teams in America."


JAD: And at that early point in American football ...


SALLY JENKINS: Far and away, the most powerful team was Yale.


JAD: Which brings us to October 24th 1896.


SALLY JENKINS: It's -- it's a raw fall day in New York.


JAD: They played in New York?


SALLY JENKINS: Yes, at the old Polo Grounds.


JAD: Apparently, there was about 4,000 people in the stands, including ...


SALLY JENKINS: A handful of newspaper men. New York newspaper men.


ROBERT: Really?


SALLY JENKINS: I mean, it was a big story.


ROBERT: How did they publicize it? What did they say?


SALLY JENKINS: Well, the newspapers became incredibly intrigued.


[NEWSPAPER CLIP: "On one side were the undergraduates of an old and great university. They represent physically the perfection of modern athletics, and intellectually the culture and refinement of the best modern American life. On the other side, was the aborigine, the real son of the forest and plain. The red skin of history, of story, of war, developed over near as the case may be by education."]


SALLY JENKINS: And if you read the newspaper stories, they're written as -- they're written in this kind of bloodcurdling shot through with Indian cliches, you know?


ROBERT: Here come the Redskins.


SALLY JENKINS: Here come the Redskins.


DAVID ADAMS: Right, right.


JAD: According to David Adams in one paper ...


DAVID ADAMS: There is a reference to yodeling. The writer said that the fans were yodeling in that Indian fashion.


SALLY JENKINS: I mean, try to put yourself in the shoes of a New Yorker in the early 1880s. Your contact with an American Indian was in a Wild West Show. It was theater. And here comes a football game, and all of these American Indian kids run onto the field. And there's literally an instance in one of the first games where someone in the audience says "Well, they look just like our boys."


JAD: Because of course, that's what Pratt wanted. Now one thing that was immediately clear to everyone in attendance when they saw the Carlisle players was that they were physically outmatched.


[NEWSPAPER CLIP: "Their average weight is 164, exactly 20 pounds lighter to a man."]


SALLY JENKINS: The impression going in is that it'll be an absolute smear job.


JAD: Or at the very least, the odds are heavily against them. But three minutes into the game, in the midst of a big pile up. A Yaley fumbles the ball. It comes squirting out. Carlisle guy picks it up, and runs the entire length of the field, 63 yards, and scores a touchdown. Now, nobody had scored on Yale in seven games. They were furious. So what they do is they use their bulk to slowly push the pile down the field twice to take the lead. And with three minutes left, Yale is up 12 to 6, Carlisle has the ball. Carlisle running back charges the pile and gets clobbered. Falls backwards, And just as he's about to hit the earth, he laterals the ball to a teammate who grabs it, runs around the scrum the entire length of the field and scores!


SALLY JENKINS: Carlisle scores a touchdown that would have tied the game. But it's called back by a referee who was a Yale man.




SALLY JENKINS: The call was that the referee claimed that a whistle had blown. The play dead.


JAD: Oh.


ROBERT: And what was the crowd's reaction?


DAVID ADAMS: Well, they were -- they were furious.




DAVID ADAMS: There was booing and hooting.


SALLY JENKINS: Everyone knew it was a terrible miscarriage of justice.


ROBERT: And some of the Carlisle players said oh, we're gonna walk out of here. We are leaving this game. But according to David, at the last moment Pratt runs down from the stands comes onto the field and says, "Wait a second, wait a second. Wait. Don't forget rule number one. Be a gentleman."


DAVID ADAMS: Pratt did not want this game to end because of their tempers, even though they'd been wronged by that call.


ROBERT: So the Carlisle boys finish the game. And when they walk off the field ...


JAD: They get a standing ovation.


SALLY JENKINS: Carlisle wins incredible respect and renown in the aftermath of the game. In fact, one of the newspaper men ...


JAD: After another Carlisle-Yale game where something similar happened ...


SALLY JENKINS: Wrote something to the effect of "Carlisle could beat 11 Yale men, but they couldn't beat 11 Yale men and a Yale referee."




SALLY JENKINS: Yes. After the Yale game of 1896, Pratt is committed. Pratt believes that it's the greatest thing that can happen to his school. It is an instant way to do what he's been struggling to do for 15 years at the Carlisle school, which is to prove the value of these American Indian kids against their white peers.


JAD: To prove the value or to quote "civilize" them?


SALLY JENKINS: Well, both. To civilize them but also to prove that given education and equal opportunity, they were the equal of their -- of their white peers. I mean, he was for all of his forcible assimilation methods which were -- remain extremely cruel and destructive, he truly believed in the concept of racial equality.


JAD: The complicatedness of Pratt and of the whole Carlisle idea kept smacking us in the face as we were putting this show together. I mean on the one hand, there were clearly students who felt that Carlisle was prison. And in fact, Barbara Landis, when she took us on a tour of the grounds of the former Carlisle Indian School, she said that kids would even set fire to the buildings.


BARBARA LANDIS: Yeah, some did burn down, which is kind of typical on Indian campuses. A lot of fires and burning buildings.


JAD: Why?


BARBARA LANDIS: It's a form of resistance.


JAD: On the other hand, when we started looking around for original archival recordings of some of the earliest Carlisle players, pretty much the only recording we could find ...


[ARCHIVE TAPE, interviewer: This tape we would like for it to be as much of your making as possible.]


JAD: Was this oral history with a guy named ...


[ARCHIVE TAPE, interviewer: Your name, your full name is ...]


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: Albert Andrew Exendine.]


JAD: Albert Exendine. The interview was done in the early '70s when he was 88. He entered the school.


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: Just before 1899.]


[ARCHIVE TAPE, interviewer: You were 15 years old.]


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: Yes, ma'am.]


JAD: Can't really play you too much of this because the audio quality is really bad. But in the interview, Pratt comes up.


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: R.H. Pratt. P-R-A-T-T.]


JAD: And Exendine talks about him with a great deal of affection and gratitude.


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: We called him the father of Indian education.]


JAD: We call him the father of Indian education.


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: Oh, he was a wonderful man.]


SALLY JENKINS: So he's a tough figure, Pratt. He's got a very mixed legacy. I mean, I like to say Pratt was his country.




SALLY JENKINS: Whatever you think of him, he was his country.


JAD: So, okay. So 1896, he gets the bug. Like, he sees football's good PR.




JAD: What happens next?


SALLY JENKINS: Well, he hires -- he begins looking around for coaches, full-time coaches to come in and coach the team. And he winds up with a Cornell grad named Pop Warner. Glenn "Pop" Warner.


JAD: Now, Pop Warner was an interesting guy.


ROBERT: Is this Pops right here?


JAD: Just to give you a visual.


JAD and ROBERT: Whoo! Look at him!


JAD: Barbara and Cara showed us pictures. Looks kind of like Mike Ditka if Mike Ditka had Einstein's hair.


SALLY JENKINS: Pop's a little bit of an outlier. He's got these Texas roots. He's a bit of a rogue. Can be kind of vulgar.


BARBARA LANDIS: He liked to party a little bit.


CARA CURTIS: He liked to gamble.




JAD: Really!


JAD: And that is exactly what he does in spectacular fashion when he gets to Carlisle.


SALLY JENKINS: Because Pop Warner looks at his squad and he realizes that ...


JAD: Sure, they're fast, they got heart.


SALLY JENKINS: But they're underweight and they're small.


JAD: Way small.


SALLY JENKINS: You know, while they might occasionally force a tie with a Yale if they, you know, half killed themselves physically, they weren't gonna beat the Ivy Leagues on any kind of consistent basis without -- without doing something different. And there was a very fine line between innovation and cheating.


ROBERT: [laughs] I see.


SALLY JENKINS: And Pop Warner starts exploiting that line absolutely as hard as he can. And he comes up with the trick play.


JAD: For example, 1903.


SALLY JENKINS: Pop Warner devises the hidden ball trick.


ROBERT: What is that?


SALLY JENKINS: The hidden ball trick is the quarterback takes the ball, and actually behind this huge pile of men tucks it under another guy's sweater.




SALLY JENKINS: While the big pile of men is struggling in the mud in the center of the field not knowing quite where the football is but believing it's somewhere in the middle of the pile, here's this kid who squirts around the end with the football hidden under his jersey, and he's 30 yards downfield before anybody realizes it.


ROBERT: And how does he keep the ball from falling out of his jersey onto the ground?


SALLY JENKINS: I think they actually sewed the jersey so that the ball would stay in there without falling out.


ROBERT: So they made a cheating pocket?


SALLY JENKINS: They made a cheating pocket.


ROBERT: Was that legal? Did they got -- did they get a legitimate touchdown?


SALLY JENKINS: Was it legal, you ask? Pop Warner would have said there was nothing in the rule book against it. Another thing he does which actually works brilliantly, is he sews footballs onto the front of their jerseys which were really bulky sweaters at the time. He sews leather football-shaped patches onto the front of their jerseys in order to try to disguise who's got the ball.


ROBERT: Really?


SALLY JENKINS: Against Harvard. And the Harvard coach goes insane.


ROBERT: Well, I would, too! I mean, a semi-pregnant player?


JAD: That's amazing!


ROBERT: But Harvard did not take this lying down. Harvard retaliates by painting the footballs the same color as their jerseys. It's maroon everywhere. So when they held the ball against their chest, the ball basically, well, you can't see it.


SALLY JENKINS: I mean, they all broke the rules. American football is essentially a rule-breaking experience, as opposed to British football which didn't have referees.


JAD: At least initially, British football ran on the honor system. But with American football, the refs were there practically from the beginning. And she says it was largely a response to the brutality of the game, but also to the kind of rule-bending that you saw from Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians.


SALLY JENKINS: Every time Pop Warner came up with an innovation, the next year there was a rule against it. So immediately the Ivy League would get together and pass a rule and say, "Okay no more of that." And that's how the rule book really burgeons in American football. And it's thanks to Pop Warner's slights of hand.


JAD: And Pop Warner's greatest sleight of hand, and maybe the Carlisle Indians' most soaring moment -- and I mean that literally, happened at a moment when the game almost disappeared. That's coming up.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: Start of message.]


[DAVID ADAMS: Yes, this is David Adams.]


[CONRAD CRANE: This is Conrad Crane. And I got an email message asking me to read credit text.]


[DAVID ADAMS: Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]


[CONRAD CRANE: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.]


[DAVID ADAMS: More information about Sloan at ...]


[CONRAD CRANE: www.sloan.org.]


[DAVID ADAMS: Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR.]


[CONRAD CRANE: Okay, there it is. Hope you can use that. Take care. Bye.]


[ANSWERING MACHINE: End of message.]


JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. And getting back to our story on the Carlisle Indian School and the birth of the modern game of football. One of the most important moments in this story happens at a time when football it was right on the edge of disappearing. Talking about 1905.




JAD: This was the most violent year in football to this point. 19 people died on the football field.




JAD: One-nine.


ROBERT: One death is a lot. But 19? That's crazy.


JAD: Yeah. Because what would happen is that Carlisle would try and do these things to sort of open up the game. The Ivys would consistently respond by making the game more about brute force, more about violence. And so you had all these deaths. And suddenly all the major programs were spooked. You know, Columbia pulls their -- their football team. Harvard even thinks about doing that.


ROBERT: And so, and this is kind of odd. Into the fray steps the President of the United States of America, Teddy Roosevelt. Because he was a fan, according to Conrad Crane.


CONRAD CRANE: He liked football. He liked the manly aspects of it, the tough aspects of it. But nobody liked people dying.


ROBERT: And then there was his kid.


CONRAD CRANE: His -- his son was playing and getting beat up pretty badly as well.


JAD: Broke his nose, slit his eyebrow.


ROBERT: In one game he got knocked out cold. So after the violence of '05, the President calls the presidents of all these colleges and so on to Washington. And according to David Adams, he basically tells them ...


DAVID ADAMS: That the rules had to be rewritten. It had to become a little bit more safe at least, or it would be banned.


JAD: And out of that we see a couple of rule changes. First, the schools decide in order to loosen up the pile so to speak, they're gonna tinker with the down yardage ratio.


CONRAD CRANE: Instead of going from three downs to gain five yards, it becomes three downs to gain 10 yards. The ...


ROBERT: Three downs to get ten yards or four downs to get ten yards?


JAD: Four would come a couple years later.




JAD: But the second rule change, which is maybe the most important for our story, is for the first time they legalized the ability to move the ball through the free-floating air that surrounds us all. Okay.


ROBERT: So where do we go -- what's the next ...?


JAD: So if I could -- if I could place you in a moment, unless there's a moment before this you'd like to hit. I believe November 23rd, 1907.




ROBERT: Oh, yeah.


SALLY JENKINS: Big moment.


JAD: Okay. Can you set the scene?


SALLY JENKINS: Well, the scene from the standpoint of broader American history, things have gone airborne.


ROBERT: You mean Wilbur and Orville Wright?


SALLY JENKINS: I'm talking about not just them, but I'm talking about hot air balloons. There are aeronautical experiments happening really all over the world. In France everyone is experimenting with flying machines. Things are going up in the air.


JAD: But not so fast with football, because when the rule committee had made that rule about forward passing they had also hedged a little bit saying if you throw a forward pass and your receiver doesn't catch it you are penalized 15 yards, which back in the day was a monster amount. So nobody threw the ball. It was too risky.


ROBERT: But, story goes as soon as that rule got passed, Pop Warner goes back to his garage. It's always a garage of course, with a ball. And he starts experimenting. And he started thinking okay, what would be the most efficient way to toss this thing?


CONRAD CRANE: People have to understand that the footballs in those days are not the footballs we have today with the nice, whatever, the oblate spheroid or whatever they call it with nice points and things. These are rugby balls.


JAD: Sort of imagine a deflated basketball.


CONRAD CRANE: They're thicker in the middle. They're not as well-shaped. They're really tough to get your hand on to throw right.


JAD: And in 1906, there's a tiny bit of tape in Albert Exendine's oral history where he talks about this. In 1906, he says Pop called all the players together. He tells them ...


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: I think, boys, you will have to learn to spiral the ball.]


JAD: He says, "I think you're gonna have to learn to spiral the ball."


[ARCHIVE TAPE, Albert Exendine: "... to spiral the ball."]


JAD: Because if you throw the ball on the spiral it gets 10 times less air drag than if you throw it end-over-end.


ROBERT: Plus it's easier to catch.


JAD: Yeah.


SALLY JENKINS: They start experimenting with it a little bit in 1906, but they come out in 1907 as a throwing offense.


JAD: Which gets us to that game. November 23rd, 1907, Carlisle plays the University of Chicago. Last game of the season. We're in Chicago. And the Chicago team is arguably the best in the nation.


ROBERT: The best. I don't think it's even arguable.


JAD: Well, Carlisle's good at this point, though.


ROBERT: Yeah. But Chicago's like Stagg Field, whoa!


JAD: And there are 27,000 people in the stands.


SALLY JENKINS: Well, what happened was the Chicago players had decided to try to defeat Carlisle's innovative forward passing by just knocking the crap out of their receivers every time they came off the line of scrimmage.


JAD: And so Carlisle's greatest receiver, Albert Exendine, our guy, had been stymied the entire game, because the minute the ball was snapped the Chicago players would ...


SALLY JENKINS: Hit him and try to throw him down or knock him out of bounds. So Pop Warner said to Exendine, here's what we're gonna do. Next time they hit you out of bounds, sneak around the bench and get back on the field.


JAD: By some accounts, this was Exendine's idea. But whoever thought of it, on the next play Albert Exendine as expected ends up out of bounds, but he keeps running.


SALLY JENKINS: He runs around the back of the bench.


JAD: Runs around the spectators, maybe around the band.


SALLY JENKINS: And comes back on the field.


JAD: Right at that moment ...


SALLY JENKINS: Hauser, the quarterback of Carlisle ...


JAD: Lets loose a vicious spiral.


JAD: Can I have you read something?




JAD: Hold on.


JAD: This is Sally's description of that moment from her book The Real All Americans.


SALLY JENKINS: For a moment, it was a frozen scene in a staged drama. The ball hung in the air, a tantalizing possibility. Could Exendine reach it? Would he catch it or drop it? Defenders wheeled and stared down field. Spectators watching from the stands found that the breath had died in their collective throats. The spiraling ball seemed to defy physics. What made it stay up? When would it come down? In that long moment, 27,000 spectators mashed together on benches and crammed on platforms may have felt their loyalty to the home team evaporate in the grip of a powerful new emotion. They may have noticed something they never had before: that a ball traveling through space traces a profoundly elegant path. They may have realized something else. That it was beautiful.


SALLY JENKINS: The ball struck its human target. Exendine caught the pass all alone and trotted over the Chicago goal line. The stadium exploded in sound and motion. It was the game breaker. The rest was just anti-climax. The final score was 18 to 4 for Carlisle. But the very next year, the Ivy League passes a rule that you can't leave the field and then come back on to it.


JAD: Oh, that's where that rule came from.


SALLY JENKINS: Yes. That's where that rule comes from.


JAD: And I've got to say that that description of the ball in the air is -- is timeless, in a way.


ROBERT: Beautiful.


JAD: That's exactly why football is still beautiful at times.


SALLY JENKINS: That's -- that's when -- Carlisle in 1907 is when American football becomes the sport that you watch today.


JAD: Oh, wow. This is -- is this the field?


BARBARA LANDIS: This is the field.


JAD: This is the field! Can we get out?




JAD: After we'd spent an entire day looking at pictures of, you know, Albert Exendine and Pratt and Pop Warner and Delos Lone Wolf and Tom Torlino and all these Carlisle players, Barbara and Cara took us to the field where they practiced.


JAD: Right. So this is the Carlisle Indian School football field covered in snow. It's like, 10 degrees out here. Really, really bright sun coming off the snow. And it's just empty.


JAD: And we just kind of walked around and tried to imagine all the stuff we'd just seen in photos.


ROBERT: It was a little bit like walking among ghosts.


JAD: Yeah. That's the sound of the flag blowing in the background. I remember standing on that field and having this thought that I couldn't quite articulate. But later, Eric Anderson, that professor from Haskell, who's a member of the Pottawatomi Nation, he sort of put his finger on it. And essentially said that, like, there's a lot of room on a football field. I mean, there's room for anger and war and violence, but there's also room for pride and a kind of coming together, that's not a Pratt coming together where one side gets erased, but it is a coming together.


ERIC ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, there is a middle ground. Clearly, it's more than a game. The stakes are higher than that. You know, will we as Indian people be accepted on our own terms and also in our ability to meet you halfway? Will we be accepted through this as the vehicle? It's clearly more than a game.


JAD: A lot of people to thank for this episode. We had original music made for us for that episode from Morgan O'Kane. You can hear him right here playing the banjo. That's MorganOKaneMusic.com. Check him out. Also, we had original music from Austin musician Shaky Graves. And the Albert Exendine tape that we played is from the research division of the Oklahoma Historical Society.


ROBERT: Thanks also to the Cumberland County Historical Society and the US Army Heritage and Education Center, where you can go and see tons of photos from both archives, or you can come to us.


JAD: On our website, Radiolab.org, we have a ton of old archival football picks, a ton of those before-and-after pictures from the ...


ROBERT: Amazing.


JAD: Really amazing. And we also have a link to Sally Jenkins's book, which is highly recommended, The Real All Americans. That's on our site Radiolab.org.


ROBERT: Thanks also to Reggie Kathy and to Scott Graham. To Noah Robbins to Michael Chernus to Matt Della Pina, Cole Wimpy, to J.R. McCarthy to Nick Capodice.


JAD: Colin and Michelle Campbell.


ROBERT: Ed Haber.


JAD: And special thanks, very special thanks to our amazing volunteer cheer squad that came out and weathered the Brooklyn cold to scream and holler and bring this story to life. And speaking of that, very special thanks to Brenna Farrell who found the story and produced it with us. And production support from Damiano Marchetti.


ROBERT: Well, that's a lot of people to have thanked. But we will have -- we will have more to listen to and more people to thank in the second half of our program.


JAD: Yeah, we're gonna take a distinctly modern view on football coming up.