Nightmare on the Gridiron: Football’s First Serial Killer

Brayden Stamps
Staff Writer


PC: Skipin

In the Halloween spirit, football is quite possibly the most frightening sport known to man. Particularly at the collegiate and professional levels, physical freaks of nature run into one another with the force of a small-scale car crash constantly. The general dangers that constantly being hit with such force in live play frequently cause players to sustain injuries such as torn knee ligaments and bone fractures. However, those injuries are minor when compared to concussions and their related symptoms.

Because of the repeated head trauma that football players are forced to bear, many are at risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (better known as CTE). Although the workings of the disease are much too complicated to explain entirely, players who suffer from CTE will experience the death of their brain cells over time. As a result, a variety of cognitive functions become affected, leading to dementia, shifts in behavior and even suicide. Currently, there is no known cure for CTE and the disease is undiagnosable until after the patient has already passed away.

It is safe to say that CTE is football’s silent killer, and the most frightening thing that any football player will face. However, that has not always been the case. When going back to the early stages of American Football, another killer can be found- and this killer is far from a quiet one.

The killer being referred to is the flying wedge, also known as the ‘flying V’ formation. The flying wedge derives from a highly successful ancient military strategy in which a troop aligns itself in a wedge or v-shaped formation. This strategy was particularly effective when attempting to breach enemy lines. Modernly, the wedge is frequently used by police forces to help control riots.

During its early stages, American football was nothing like the game that it is today. The concept of the “forward pass” did not exist, thus making the running game the only means in which the offense could advance the ball. Modern offenses utilize spread passing formations and play-action to be unpredictable and prevent defenses from loading the box to close running lanes. However, in the early era of American football, offenses were given no such option, and thus faced loaded boxes which we would unconceivable in modern times.

Essentially, football was much like medieval warfare, and an act of immense force was needed to break through the enemy line. As a result, the flying wedge formation was born. Players with no padding or helmets would lineup, link arms and simply run into one another with as much force as possible to gain minimal amounts of yardage running the ball in a sort of super ground and pound strategy. Games were so long and brutal that President Theodore Roosevelt even considered outlawing the sport to stop the violence.

Although the numbers are disputed, it is commonly believed that anywhere between 13 and 21 players lost their lives because of the flying wedge in the year 1905. In fact, three players passed away as the result of an end-of-season contest between Harvard and Yale that year. Players as young as the age of 16 were dying on the gridiron. The non-lethal injuries are unknown but obviously is quite greater than the death toll. Countless players would be paralyzed while playing the sport and there are likely many more deaths that the flying wedge played a secondary role in.

Changes to the game would finally be made in 1906 as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (precursor to the NCAA) would institute numerous rule changes that would essentially remove the flying wedge from football. The wedge would continue to manifest itself in other ways on special teams, as wedge formations on kickoffs became commonplace. However, the wedge and its deadly impacts would finally be removed from all aspects of football in 2009.

Categories: Sports

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