A Sporting View – History of the flying wedge

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As a student at Harvard University, a young Theodore Roosevelt championed “the vigorous life,” and the burgeoning sport of American football was something he clearly supported. When he became president, the game often figured in his landmark speeches. “In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”

His mood changed a few years later, however, when his young son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., enrolled at Harvard and joined the football team. The annual Harvard-Yale game had become the nation’s top sporting event by this time, and football had become far more violent than the “masculine game” Roosevelt knew from his time in college. This was the era of the “flying wedge.”

A Harvard alumnus and war historian noted that the game’s strategy closely mirrored military maneuvers. Even though he never played a down of football, he designed the flying wedge – a play that mimicked the tactics of Napoleon’s army by concentrating a large number of men and pointing them like an arrow at the weakest part of the opponent’s line.
Harvard unveiled the play in 1892 against Yale, and people literally stood in awe when they saw the team take the formation. Shaped like a “V” with the ball carrier nestled inside, fans watched as most of the Harvard players linked arms and moved forward, completely obliterating the hapless Yale defender who stood in their way.

The play helped spark interest in the game. Parke Davis, an early sports writer, commented that the play energized fans. “Sensation runs through the stands at the novel play, which is the most organized and beautiful one ever seen upon a football field.”

Pundits estimated that a flying wedge weighed more than a quarter-ton. Every resulting pileup from a play lent itself to anticipation: Was somebody crushed?

The answer, sadly, was often yes. In 1905 alone, the “flying wedge” play resulted in 22 deaths and an estimated 149 “serious” injuries. Newspapers printed body counts and took out full-page editorials calling for reform. Ever the hands-on president, Roosevelt called on the leading institutions to visit the White House. There, he used his “bully pulpit” to spur the creation of what is today called the National Collegiate Association of Athletics (NCAA) – a body that began in the name of safety for college athletes.

The flying wedge was outlawed as a result, but the play does exist today in a reduced form. Returning teams are allowed to form a “wedge” for the kick returner, and defenders who take on the formation are called “wedge busters.” Look for it next time you watch a game, and marvel as nobody dies.

Mark Vasto is a veteran sportswriter who lives in New Jersey.

(c) 2018 King Features Synd., Inc.


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