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Vegetarianism at the turn of the 1900 Century, via the University of Chicago Football Team

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he 1907 University of Chicago football team, known colloquially as “The Vegetarians,” trained on a strict vegetarian diet under the orders of their coach. Amos Alonzo Stagg remains one of college football’s most important historical figures, creating innovations such as the tackling dummy, huddle, lateral pass, and even uniform numbers. Stagg emphasized utilizing sports to encourage moral behavior, even banning his players from drinking, smoking, and using profanity. These interests eventually led Stagg to consider the influence of diet on his squad.

Beginning in 1905, Stagg personally experimented with vegetarianism and believed he was cured of his previous physical ailments. Stagg was so pleased with his own vegetarianism that he theorized that his team could benefit as well, both morally and physically, producing greater teamwork, less violent aggressiveness, and faster, more skilled athletes. In advance of the team’s 1907 season, Stagg added meat to his list of banned substances amongst his squad.

News of the vegetarian football experiment quickly spread throughout the American vegetarian world. The Vegetarian Magazine, the monthly publication of the Vegetarian Society of America, welcomed the development, explaining that a halfback was made “strong and elastic” from “oatmeal porridge and cranberry sauce.” In contrast, meat-eating opponents were characterized as “rude and coarse.” The magazine held the hope that vegetarians would become “vindicated” in their diet based on the team’s success.

The team also received recognition from the mainstream press. The Chicago Tribune reported on the team’s shift in diet, explaining that it provided “quicker and more accurate thinking” amongst Stagg’s players. The diet was endorsed by many of the team’s most prominent players, including team captain Leo De Tray, who already lived a vegetarian lifestyle. The notion that vegetarianism built more genteel players reflected Stagg’s other attempts at promoting football as a builder of moral character. The team’s vegetarianism also enjoyed the support of local boosters. Fans of the Maroons even crafted a rallying cry that was chanted during games: “Sweet potatoes, rutabagas, sauerkraut, squash! Run your legs off, Cap’n De Tray! Sure, our milk fed men, by gosh! Will lick ‘em bad today!”

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