Briggs: 90 years ago, football had its deadliest year ever

After close to 50 football players died in 1931, Pop Warner and John Heisman set out to make changes.

In 1931, more boys and men died playing football than any previous year, which set coaches in motion to find answers.
In 1931, more boys and men died playing football than any previous year, which set coaches in motion to find answers.
Contributed / Library of Congress

FARGO — As you sit down to watch college bowl games over the next few days, here’s a piece of trivia to share over the cheese dip.

Ninety years ago, American football fans were reeling after the deadliest year in the history of the sport. Nearly 50 boys and young men were killed on the gridiron in 1931.

To put it into perspective, with millions more people strapping on the pads in 2021 — an estimated 4.2 million from youth through college — 12 individuals died.

Officials, coaches, parents and players in 1931 all knew something needed to be done. Why were the players dying? What changes needed to be made?

On Dec. 29, 1931, at a meeting of the American Football Coaches Association in New York City, an investigative committee was formed to get to the bottom of the matter — and what they decided changed the course of the game forever.


Reading through numerous stories in the newspaper archives, some of what was said could just as well be uttered today by NCAA officials or the analysts on ESPN.

Here are five of the most interesting takeaways from the reports of the day.

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John Heisman was a key member of the committee to make football safer after 1931 when 48 boys and men died on the field.
Contributed /

Clout on the committee

The committee included some of the most recognizable names in football, then and now, including John Heisman, a well-known player, coach and namesake of the trophy. Also sitting around the table? Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner. Warner, like Heisman, was a pioneering force in building, growing and changing the game. He’s also the namesake for the youth football league.

They followed Teddy Roosevelt’s example

The 1931 committee wasn’t the first attempt to make football safer. Concerned with the growing deaths in the sport (20 in 1905), President Theodore Roosevelt and Heisman were among a group that got the then-illegal forward pass ruled legal. Prior to 1905, quarterbacks could only pass laterally to a halfback or plunge straight forward into a sea of defensive players. The forward pass made the game safer, more open and less like a rugby skirmish.

Pop Warner suggested that equipment needed to be more "yielding" as hard helmets and gear did more harm than good.
Contributed / Library of Congress

The sports physical

If you played sports in high school, most likely your parents had to take you for a sports physical ahead of time. But that wasn’t the case in 1931. The committee found that in 19 of the 48 deaths that year, autopsies showed that if the player had had a physical examination before playing, doctors would have ruled the athlete physically unfit to take the field in the first place.

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Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner was an innovative football coach in the early 20th century and one of the key members of a 1931 committee to make the game safer.
Contributed / Library of Congress


Other suggestions

In addition to the recommendation for physicals before the season, other ideas were suggested. Some were implemented, others were not.

Warner suggested improvements in gear. He argued hard helmets and hard leather pads were more of a threat than a defense. Instead, he said soft padding and a yielding leather helmet should be substituted for the protectors he believed “don’t defend a player and merely give out punishment.” He also proposed making it illegal for a defender to use his hands on an opponent's head or neck.

Heisman suggested opening up what parts of the field different positions would, could and should play. Doing that, he argued, would limit the massive collision of bodies up the middle and cut down on head injuries — the primary cause of death.

"Scatter the offense, scatter the defense, take away mass play, take away the impact and eliminate deaths," Heisman said.

In 1931, more boys and men died playing football than any previous year, which set coaches in motion to find answers.
In 1931, more boys and men died playing football than any previous year, which set coaches in motion to find answers.
Contributed / Library of Congress

We’re still debating this one

The committee also discussed greater protection for the quarterback as he steps back to pass — something that rubbed one sports columnist the wrong way. “The Sportsman” from The Boston Globe said the rule put too much pressure on officials to make the roughing call and didn’t seem fair to the defender.

“A man can’t be permitted to roam behind the line with the ball in hand and no one daring to dive at him for fear of incurring a penalty.”

The committee members seemed to understand the importance of doing something.


Heisman warned that football could eventually be "wiped out" if they had another deadly season like 1931. But the president of the organization, John F. “Chick” Meehan, seemed pleased with what was happening and made this prediction for the future.

“The game needs no defense and the game’s value to the American youth will assert itself more than ever in the years to come.”

Tracy Briggs Back Then with Tracy Briggs online column sig.jpg
Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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