More than 100 years after it served as the first test site for modern football, Lambeth Field has received a major overhaul and a shiny new plaque honoring its namesake.
University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan will attend a ceremony Saturday at 9 a.m. to dedicate the plaque in memory of Dr. William Lambeth, recalled as the “Father of Virginia Athletics.” Lambeth was also a pivotal figure in the refinement of football from its brutally violent origins, helping to propose and pass reforms that saved the nascent American sport from threatened bans.
“I thought he was deserving of some type of memorial,” said Kevin Edds, a 1995 graduate of the University who funded the plaque, “so when people walk by Lambeth Field they can learn something about what happened there.”
As a student, Edds admits he first knew Lambeth Field as the site of upper-class student apartments. He came to learn much more about William Lambeth as he researched “Wahoowa: The History of Virginia Cavalier Football,” a documentary film he produced and directed that premiered at the Virginia Film Festival in 2010.
His research informs the following account.
Lambeth, a North Carolina native and the son of a Confederate veteran, came to the University in 1890 to study medicine and, with the exception of one three-year span, never left. He received his medical degree from U.Va. in 1892, and the University hired him to oversee the new Fayerweather Gymnasium as he pursued a Ph.D.
Lambeth developed a keen interest in athletics in general and football in particular. The University had fielded its first team in 1887 and quickly rose as a regional power. From his new post at Fayerweather, Lambeth volunteered to help various athletic teams organize their operations. In 1892, he helped the football team hire its first coach (and its second, a year later).
After a three-year stint at Harvard University to earn a degree from its School of Physical Training, Lambeth returned to Charlottesville and joined the faculty of the School of Medicine, serving as an instructor in physical training and resuming his role as de facto athletic director.
Football of that era was a violent spectacle. Play was nearly continuous, with only a halftime break. Once a player left the field for a substitute, he could not return, leading a team’s best players to remain on the field to the point of exhaustion. Running plays dominated, with ballcarriers escorted by “flying wedges” of players linking arms and plowing over unfortunate defenders. Protective equipment was virtually nonexistent.
Not surprisingly, players died by the dozens. At U.Va., a law student named George Phelan perished in an intramural game between law and medical students in 1895. In 1897, a University of Georgia player was killed during a game against Virginia. In 1909, U.Va. player Archer Christian was trampled to death in a game against Georgetown.
Christian’s death was reported on the front page of the New York Times, and nationwide there were calls to ban football altogether.
Then-U.Va. President Edwin Alderman, a fan of the sport, led a crusade to reform it, aided by Lambeth, his good friend. Together, they traveled to New York to address a 1909 meeting of the Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association –forerunner to today’s National Collegiate Athletic Association – where Alderman sounded the call for a safer game.
Lambeth was a member of the football rules committee. Meeting again in New York the following month, the committee took up several proposed rules designed to make the sport safer, including Lambeth’s idea that the game’s two halves be broken into four quarters, to give players more respite. Other ideas included requiring at least seven players along the line of scrimmage, to prevent the feared “mass momentum plays”; banning players from pushing and pulling a ballcarrier; and allowing forward passes beyond the line of scrimmage.
In a letter to Lambeth, Walter Camp, the leader of the rules group, suggested the Virginia team test the proposed changes in springtime scrimmages. Thus it was in 1910, the first glimmer of the modern game was seen at a football field located alongside some railroad tracks, not far from the Rotunda.
That 21-acre site, home to the University’s football, baseball and track teams, came to be known as “Lambeth Field.”
Ultimately, all of the reforms were approved, and the safer sport went on to greater heights. So did Lambeth Field, which had hosted its first games in 1902 after having been carved out of the former Rugby Dairy Farm. By the 1913 season, the University replaced the previous wooden grandstand with a classical, 8,000-seat stadium that curved around the field in an arc, topped with a distinctive tile-roofed colonnade that links small fieldhouses at each end. The whole structure is now known as the Lambeth Colonnades. Lambeth himself led the fundraising for the $50,000 facility.
The facility remained the home of the Cavalier football team for less than two decades.
“Lambeth Field had been completely outgrown by 1930,” Virginius Dabney wrote in “Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History.” “Varsity and first-year teams in track, baseball, lacrosse, and football were trying to work out on the field in the spring of that year, and the situation became not only chaotic but dangerous. Javelin and discus throwers imperiled other athletes, and spring football practice had to be discontinued, along with all forms of intrafraternity athletics.”
In the fall of 1931, the Virginia football program moved into the brand-new Scott Stadium, where it remains today.
The Lambeth Colonnades still remain, hidden from passing traffic on Emmett Street by the Lambeth Field Apartments. The field, once bustling with an overflow of athletes, is now the site of occasional intramural and informal soccer and volleyball games. Although the concrete stands are usually empty, on pleasant days they host a smattering of students reading and studying.
After years of student fundraising to “Save the Colonnades!,” Facilities Management is wrapping up a $600,000 overhaul of the facility. The work included concrete repair and replacement, drainage improvements, repairs to the fieldhouses, lighting replacement, plaster/stucco repair and painting of the structure, cleaning and resurfacing of the seating, landscaping, new sod for the field and some painting, according to Jay Klingel of Facilities Management.
“It will look sharp for Saturday’s event,” he said. Edds, the plaque’s donor, will speak at the dedication. Descendants of Lambeth and Alderman will also attend.
The newly installed plaque, approved May 22 by the Board of Visitors, reads:
WILLIAM ALEXANDER LAMBETH, M.D.
Lambeth Field was built as the University of Virginia’s principal athletic field and is named for William Alexander Lambeth, who took both his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University, where he served on the faculty for 40 years. He was Professor of Materia Medica and Hygiene, Head of the Department of Physical Education, and Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. A landscape architect and an accomplished student of Italian art, language and culture, he was the author of one of the first serious studies of Jefferson as an architect. He was affectionately known as the “Father of Athletics” at the University and was perhaps best known for his leadership in intercollegiate football. As a member of the 1910 NCAA rules committee, he helped save the sport from prohibition by establishing new regulations to promote safety. He is credited with the idea of dividing the game into four quarters to provide rest for exhausted players.
The Lambeth playing field was laid out in 1901-1902; the colonnades and stands were built in 1911-1913. It was on this site in the spring of 1910 that the University football team experimented with the new rules Dr. Lambeth had helped create – the first time the reformed modern game was ever played.