Coming to America: The Canadian Rugby Exhibition of 1909
Most football fans know that Teddy Roosevelt called for football reforms in 1905, and his intervention encouraged 1906 rule changes that included legalizing the forward pass. A host of other safety-oriented rule changes came in 1906, but proved inadequate, requiring more tweaking of the rules in 1907, 1908, and 1909. Yet, at the end of the 1909 season, the newspapers reported that thirty-two Americans died from football injuries during the 1909 season, including a West Point cadet in a game versus Harvard. While we would not attribute all those deaths to football today, football was an exceedingly rough game, and the headgear and pads of the time were inadequate. Looking for input to make American football safer, the editors of the New York Herald invited two top Canadian rugby teams, the Hamilton Tigers and the Ottawa Rough Riders, to play an exhibition in New York City.
By 1909, American football and Canadian rugby had evolved along distinct paths from their common parent, English rugby. Broadly, Canadian rugby used downs and striped fields as in football, but the action remained rugby-like, so there were fewer significant injuries than American football, and deaths were almost unknown.
The teams met at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on December 11, 1909. The crowd, estimated at 5,000 to 20,000, included key authorities in the American football community, including Walter Camp, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Percy Haughton, and coaches or athletic directors from Army, Navy, Penn, Brown, Williams, and others.
Other than the New York-based Canadians in the crowd, most spectators were unfamiliar with the Canadian game's rules and nature of play. For example, American football allowed the center to snap the ball using his hands starting in 1892, while the Canadian game still heeled the ball.
A key difference in the sports was that American football had allowed interference (aka blocking) since the mid-1880s while Canadian rugby would not do so until 1920. Canadians moved the ball using multiple laterals on rugby-style sweeps, and by punting and drop kicking from anywhere on the field of play. The sweeping laterals and punting mid-play appealed to the crowd because the combination led to open play and long runs.
American football favored highly structured plays based on power blocking, not the freestyle play of rugby. With limited exceptions, Americans snapped the ball and quickly gave it to a back who kept it until the end of the play. Other than reverses, American football teams seldom lateraled on sweeps until 1940 when Don Faurot introduced the option play as part of his Split T offense.
The ball was run up the middle at times in Canadian rugby at times, so the game had its rough-and-tumble moments, but lateral movement on the larger Canadian field was more common.
The images show most Canadian players wore rugby shorts, some wore football pants, a few used head harnesses (predecessors of helmets), and others had leather pads stitched atop the shoulders of their jerseys (hence the term, shoulder pads). While far short of the padding worn in American football in later years, American players of the period were more-heavily padded than their Canadian counterparts.
The American experts interviewed after Hamilton's 11-6 victory enjoyed Canadian rugby, particularly its open play. Still, they argued that the American spirit would lead to a rougher game, even when played under Canadian rules. The spontaneous laterals of rugby were exciting, but unappetizing because they lacked the "science" and structure of American plays. Chance played too large a part in the Canadian game, reinforced by reduced emphasis on retaining possession of the ball given the more frequent punting. The football editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed it up by writing:
...despite the many good features the Canadian [game] surely has, it lacks the concentration, brilliancy and science possible to display in the American college variety. It is less fierce in its style, less daring in its execution, but there are fewer clashes and murderous plays than have sifted into the present college game in this country.
Rule Changes of 1910
The exhibition appears to have spurred several rule changes. Representatives from more than 80 schools met in New York City two weeks after the Tigers-Rough Riders game and charged the rules committee with making the game safer. The rules committee subsequently did not copy Canadian rules per se, but changed several rules that achieved aspects of Canadian play through other means.
For example, the Canadian rules gave referees the power to send players with even minor injuries off the field, which contributed to player safety. For the 1910 season, American football shifted from two thirty-minute halves of play to four fifteen-minute quarters, tripling the number of stoppages in play that allowed trainers to assess the condition of their players. They also permitted players who left the game to return at the beginning of a subsequent quarter. (Previously, substituted players could not return to the game.)
The open play of Canadian rugby likely influenced several other rule changes as well. In 1903, American football restricted the person receiving the ball from the center from carrying the ball across the line of scrimmage until they were five yards right or left of the center. A comparable rule applied to the forward pass at its introduction in 1906; passes had to be thrown from at least five yards right or left of the center. To help referees monitor compliance with these rules, the American field was marked with lines five yards apart in both directions, creating a checkerboard pattern.
The restrictions on running and passing five yards on either side of the center were lifted for the 1910 season, allowing for the elimination of the perpendicular lines. The field markings returned to their 1902 status. More important, allowing the player who received the snap to run inside or outside helped open up the game by allowing more variation in play design. This became evident after Pop Warner introduced the Single Wing offense at Carlisle in 1912, with Jim Thorpe providing the triple threat.
The attendance of many American football authorities at a Canadian rugby exhibition demonstrated an openness to new ideas, to finding methods to make football safer. American football had already borrowed the three downs to make ten yards rule from Canada in 1906, but they did not copy another Canadian rule this time. Of course, only some safety reform could come from rule changes. Much of the advance of football safety in the early 1910s came from coaching and player innovations that took advantage of the new rules. Advances in the passing techniques and schemes were particularly important to making the game safer.
Canadian rugby, meanwhile, showed some appetite for moving toward the American game, but WWI stalled the potential changes. Canadian rugby adopted many elements of American football in the 1920s and early 1930s, bringing the games closer together while retaining rules and approaches that make the Canadian game unique.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to my newsletter or check out my books.