For the Love of the Game
Foundation Honors the Legacy and Values of Walter Camp
By John Torsiello / Photography courtesy of the Walter Camp Football Foundation
Walter Camp was many things: a star athlete, Yale University’s first football coach, a community leader, an early member of venerable New Haven Country Club, and an innovator who changed the way football was played.
But perhaps beyond all else, Camp was a man who embodied the spirit of sportsmanship, commitment to community and the welfare of others. A photo of a young, handsome, mustachioed Camp shows eyes that seem to gaze into the future – to a time when the Walter Camp Football Foundation (WCFF) would affect so many lives in a positive manner.
The foundation’s community impact is evident throughout the year, but its profile is highest during the annual Walter Camp Weekend, which takes place each January. It’s then when the foundation transforms New Haven into the college football capital of the world, with various events throughout the weekend intended to shine a spotlight on players and former players, while also connecting them with the local community.
Over the years, the weekend has drawn many big-name players to the Elm City – including Heisman Trophy winners Eddie George, Tim Brown, Herschel Walker, Tony Dorsett and Baker Mayfield, just to name a few. At the weekend’s cornerstone event – a black-tie National Awards Dinner that draws roughly 1,000 attendees – the foundation honors a Walter Camp All-America team, as well as a player of year and coach of the year.
“I am so proud of our foundation’s many accomplishments,” says the foundation’s president, Mario Coppola. “The Walter Camp Football Foundation has both a local and national reputation. Our All-America team is the oldest and most prestigious in the nation. Every sport in every NCAA division has an All-American team and the concept started with the Walter Camp All-America team. During this, the 150th year of college football, we will be honoring the 130th Walter Camp All-America team. Our Player of the Year award is considered second only in stature to the Heisman Trophy.”
The foundation’s Player of the Year award is the fourth-oldest college football award in the nation, he adds.
The 2020 Walter Camp Weekend will kick off Jan. 16 with the Stay in School Rally, sponsored by KeyBank. Typically, more than 2,000 middle school children from area communities participate in the special program, which takes place in the Floyd Little Athletic Center at New Haven’s James Hillhouse High School. During the event, well-known players and former players anchor a high-energy program to encourage, motivate and inspire the children. The weekend concludes on Jan. 18 with the annual National Awards Dinner.
So, who exactly was Walter Camp? He left a lasting imprint on football and the way it is played. He is credited with several key developments that transformed football from its origins into the fast-paced game it is today: the play from scrimmage, the numerical assessment of goals and tries, the restriction of play to 11 men per side, set plays, sequences, and other strategy features. He is also credited with choosing the first All-America team, served on the American Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee from his college days until his death in 1925, and helped establish the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Back in 1906, it was a momentous and troubling time for American football. The game was under fire as detractors said it had a certain brutality, in which physical force was all-important and skill seemed to play a small role. As the leader of the American Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee, Camp played a crucial role in the adoption of significant changes that “opened up” the game, including introduction of the forward pass, that brought about a revolutionary change in the pattern of play. That not only added to the game’s popularity, but also saved it from some lawmakers’ efforts to ban the sport.
“Without him, the game of football, as we know it today, would not be the same,” says the foundation’s past president, Mike Madera.
These days, football is one of the most popular sports in America and the Walter Camp Football Foundation strives to honor the legacy and values of its namesake. While the foundation does draw celebrity athletes to the Elm City, its mission goes far beyond that.
Many charitable organizations benefit from the foundation, says Madera. The organization is a yearly sponsor of Special Olympics Connecticut and supports various organizations throughout the year with charitable donations.
“The Walter Camp Football Foundation and its members make a positive and powerful impact on the lives of our athletes through their generous financial contributions and hours spent volunteering at our Summer Games every year,” says Special Olympics Connecticut President Beau Doherty. “As these great friends with the [foundation] know and demonstrate through their involvement with our athletes, sport has the power to bring out the greatness in people of all abilities and to inspire inclusion through teamwork. We are most grateful for all the support we receive from our friends with the Walter Camp Foundation and the opportunities and joy they bring to our athletes.”
The foundation also holds events throughout the year, including a golf tournament, a pig roast, and a Yale football tailgate party with a charitable component.
The broader community benefits from the foundation’s work as well, Madera says. “The foundation is particularly engaged during our national awards weekend when we work throughout the community, including numerous hospital and school visits,” he says.
Community efforts are the result of financial and “sweat equity” involvement by “extended members” of the foundation, says Past President Ernie Williams. “The hospital visits, the school visits, etc. continue to bring great value to local youth.”
Past President Bill O’Brien recalls when players began visiting patients at area children’s hospitals as part of Walter Camp Weekend. “At the start, we had some athletes who were in town, and they and others visited one hospital,” he says. “Then another hospital contacted us and now, we go out to a number of facilities, signing autographs and footballs for the kids and even bringing a couple of team mascots with us. I believe that is one of our lasting legacies.”
Giving back to the community is a priority for the foundation, which has more than 1,000 paid members, and is run entirely by volunteers, with a core of about 75 people.
“Historically, our primary focus has been working with youth-oriented programs and organizations,” says Williams. “But in recent years, we’ve gotten more involved with worthy adult-focused and military veterans’ programs as well.”
And the foundation keeps extending its reach.
“The [foundation] has expanded its outreach throughout the state. We have been working on growing the foundation’s outreach in other states as well,” says Coppola. “Financially, through the hard work of our sponsorship committee and our members, we have continued to grow. Being an all-volunteer foundation, it is imperative everyone contributes in helping the foundation attain its goals.”
Madera believes the foundation is highly regarded because of all that it does in the community, “and because of the foundation’s longevity and strong history.”
Walter Camp Weekend itself is full of events. In addition to the Stay-in-School Rally, National Awards Dinner and hospital visits, there’s a Walter Camp All-America Player Party, and an alumni brunch. There’s also the Walter Camp All-America Youth Football Clinic, at which Connecticut high school head coaches team up with select Walter Camp All-Americans and alumni to teach skills to local youths. (See sidebar for schedule of events.)
At the January 2019 National Awards Dinner, Jake Olson received the foundation’s Award for Perseverance for his remarkable efforts with the University of Southern California Trojans. Olson is the player who made national news when he got into a game as the long snapper (center) for an extra point attempt. No big deal, you might say – but Olson is blind and, with the help of the USC coaching staff and teammates, lived out a dream of being on the field at a meaningful moment.
“I was so humbled to receive the award, and I appreciate the Walter Camp Football Foundation recognizing my journey,” Olson says. “The whole weekend was amazing, and I hope to stay involved with the foundation in the years to come.”
Gus Lindine, athletic director at Greenwich High School, fondly recalls when his school’s football team was honored with the foundation’s Joseph W. Kelly Award, which recognizes the top football team in the state.
“The fall of 2018 was quite an exciting time for our school and community. An undefeated season, Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference and state champions, and for the first time ever, being recognized as the number one football team in Connecticut,” he says. “We were extremely proud and honored to be named the Joseph W. Kelly Award winner, [an honor] that was presented to Coach Marinelli and the Greenwich Cardinals Football Team at the [Walter Camp] Breakfast of Champions. I have to send out a very special thanks to the Walter Camp Football Foundation for providing such a wonderful experience for high school football teams, players and coaches.”
The foundation resonates strongly with the college players it honors, too.
“The weekend helped me to understand the bigger picture of what the game of football brings to our daily life,” says Hau’oli Kikaha who played for the University of Washington and was a 2014 Walter Camp All-American. “Throughout the weekend, I developed and discovered life-long concepts that I apply to my everyday life.”
Looking ahead, the foundation will continue to change and evolve, says Madera.
“As the times and technology change, the Walter Camp Football Foundation must also change to continue its storied history and success,” he says. “We have already begun this process in different aspects of the foundation, and those changes have proven to be beneficial already.”
Coppola expects the foundation to keep growing its national reputation and prominence through a continued partnership with ESPN and expanded presence on social media.
“We will announce our Player of the Year on SportsCenter, and our All-America team will be announced on the prime-time 2019 Home Depot College Football Awards Show” in December, he says. “For the last 16 years, the foundation has named offensive and defensive Players of the Week in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which not only gets our name out there across the nation and through our various social media outlets, but is also the longest-running weekly award, and is sponsored by a Connecticut-based company, Generation UCAN.”
Sure, times have changed. Fueled by television contracts, big money – along with big pressure on coaches and players – has worked its way down to the college football level. But Walter Camp’s beliefs and value system, which stressed a commitment to sportsmanship and having football make a positive difference in people’s lives, hasn’t faded. That makes the foundation created in his honor as relevant, and perhaps more vitally important, now than it was more than five decades ago – especially during that annual weekend in January.
“[Walter Camp Weekend] continues to be a major happening in the Greater New Haven area and still, appropriately, has the label of making New Haven the ‘Football Capital of the World’ for that particular weekend,” says Williams. “It remains extremely popular with former Walter Camp All-Americans and guys who have gone onto professional football careers.”