Game changer: Dr. William Lambeth taught us to play by the rules

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Virginia Military Institute bested UVA 19-0 in an October 1912 game at Lambeth Field during the second season after the NCAA adopted modern football rules.  PHOTO: Rufus Holsinger/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library Virginia Military Institute bested UVA 19-0 in an October 1912 game at Lambeth Field during the second season after the NCAA adopted modern football rules.  PHOTO: Rufus Holsinger/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Ahead of Super Bowl LII, we’re looking back at Charlottesville’s connection to modern football. And in case you haven’t heard—it’s pretty monumental.

Named after Dr. William Lambeth, who’s known widely as the University of Virginia’s “father of athletics,” Lambeth Field was constructed at the college in 1901 as a place to play football, baseball and track.

In 2013, on the 100-year anniversary of the completion of the stadium, UVA alumni Kevin Edds funded a plaque at the historic site to memorialize the man and his contribution to one of the nation’s favorite sports.

“Dr. Lambeth is one of the most unheralded leaders of early American football,” says Edds, who graduated from the university in 1995, and is the producer of Wahoowa: The History of UVa Football and Hoos Coming to Dinner.

In his research, Edds says he learned that Lambeth, a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association football rules committee who started attending NCAA meetings in their second year of existence, teamed up there with Walter Camp, the father of American football.

“Football was a violent game where you could pull and punch the opposition,” says Edds. “Lambeth and Camp sought to change the rules to make the game safer.”

When the game was first played, forward passes were prohibited and only the player snapping the ball was required on the line of scrimmage, “meaning the others could run forward in mass collisions,” says Edds.

But the two football legacies proposed to allow the forward pass, require seven players on the line of scrimmage, outlaw pulling and punching and breaking the game into four quarters with a halftime break in the middle. Previously, Edds says games were played with two long halves and little time for rest, leading to nasty injuries and deaths, including 26 football-related fatalities in 1909.

“So Lambeth had the UVA football team play a spring game in 1910 with these new proposed rules and reported the results to Camp,” Edds adds. “And the first time the game of football was played this way, in a game with four quarters and a halftime, was at Lambeth Field during this exhibition.”

The university’s football team played its games there until Scott Stadium was built in 1931. And in late 2017, the university announced plans to build a softball stadium at Lambeth Field. The Board of Visitors deferred a decision on the project on December 7, to give themselves more time to consider the community’s unfavorable response.

Longtime Charlottesville resident John Bittner says he questions whether Lambeth Field’s historical significance is getting the weight it deserves.

“Lambeth Field has an important place in the history of college sports, and UVA has a wonderful tradition of preserving historically important architectures, which perhaps, I’d say, probably should be extended to Lambeth Field, as well,” he says.

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