Widely regarded as the founder of American football, Walter Camp is an institution all unto himself. In his lifetime, he won three national titles with Yale and invented the annual college All-American team. But of course, arguably his greatest achievement was his book, American Football. At the time, it was the game's gospel and continues to provide readers with an insight into his thinking on the sport. On record, the last game he ever attended was between Saint Mary's and Santa Clara, two colleges in the midst of a long-dead rivalry. Let's pull back the curtain on Camp's final game as he watched from the stands while two teams waged a war that resembled his game while showing traces of the bright future ahead.
"When Rugby football was first adopted in this country, there was a strong feeling that it would never make progress against what had been known as the American game" - (American Football)
The crowd was getting bigger at San Francisco's Ewing Field on that Thanksgiving afternoon of 1924. All year long, fans from both Saint Marys and Santa Clara anticipated the contest that was known as the Little Big Rivalry. Sure, Cal and Stanford shared one of the biggest rivalries in the sport at the time, waging the Big Game at season's end since 1892, but both the Saints and the Broncos firmly believed that their rivalry was just as important.
Out stepped Walter Camp into this madness of humanity. Like a king looking upon his kingdom, he observed the swelling crowd, the largest ever at the ballpark. It is somewhat unclear why he was all the way in San Francisco, but considering the fact that he had been Stanford's coach nearly 20 years earlier, there is reason to believe that he still had connections in the area.
"Many an error in instruction or coaching arises from terming the tactics adopted under these the conditions defensive and offensive." (American Football, pg 27)
From the very moment that the toe hit the leather, "Slip" Madigan's Saints seemed to have mastered the Notre Dame shift that had so dominated football at that time. Meanwhile, Santa Clara was caught completely off guard. Of course, film study was non-existent in those days. Still, unlike today, newspapers dominated the market in those days and would have provided valuable information in those ancient times. As Saint Mary's began to strive toward the end zone, it quickly became clear which team was better prepared.
The Run Game
"The chief factor of modern football is team play and the point towards which team play is principally directed is the interference for the runner" -(American Football, pgs 179-180)
The Saints pounded away at the Broncos from the very first snap, wearing down the men from the Mission City. Future 49ers head coach Red Strader led the charge, rushing for 211 yards behind a dominating line, living Walter Camp's ethos to the letter as Saint Mary's built a commanding three-touchdown lead going into the fourth quarter.
"A player may throw or pass the ball in any direction except towards the opponents' goal. If the ball be batted or thrown forward, it shall go down on the spot to opponents." -(WCBF, pg 174)
Facing such a daunting deficit going into the final quarter, the Broncos were faced with a decision that all footballers must face at some point in time: to fight or not to fight, that is the question. To their credit, the Santa Clarans fought back, chucking the football all over the field while going against so much of what Camp taught.
As a result, the Broncos completed 12 of 25 passes in the third quarter alone, astronomical numbers for that era. Saint Mary's was caught flat-footed as the Broncos never attempted a pass less than 15 yards downfield. As a result, the Saints surrendered a touchdown. However, that's all that their defense would allow the rest of the afternoon.
Kicking into the Future
"Being bound by no traditions and having seen no play, the Americans took the English rules for a starting point and almost immediately proceeded to add and subtract, according to what seemed his pressing needs." - (American Football, pg 8)
The most impressive act of the afternoon was a 97-yard punt that was kicked by Santa Clara's quarterback Len Casanova. Lined up behind his own five-yard line, he booted the ball high into the air. The crowd watched in stunned silence as it rolled to the three-yard line, setting a national record. As fate would have it, the ball could have traveled even further but Santa Clara's George Malley tapped it as close to the goal line as he could.
After Saint Mary's 28-7 triumph over their bitter rivals, Walter Camp came away impressed. He saw a little bit of everything that afternoon, from rugged, old-school football to an areal assault that was completely uncommon in his era. Before he left Ewing Field, he complimented Casanova for his tremendous kick and went off into the sunset. He died four months later from a heart attack at the age of 65, having impacted America in ways that he couldn't even imagine.
Camp, Walter. American Football (First Published in 1891). Badgley Publishing Company 2009.