On November 6, 1869, a game that would forever launch the very landscape of college and professional football had taken place. It was on this day that Rutgers hosted Princeton in the first recognized intercollegiate football game at College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. About 100 spectators had watched history in the making.
The game in those days had almost no resemblance to what it is like today. Each team had 25 players on the field with kicking the ball into the opponent's team goal as the object of the game. Plus, no one was allowed to carry the ball or throw it either. The teams played 10 "games"(when a team scored a goal it was counted as a game) and the one with the most goals after they were complete was the winner.
As the game got underway, two players from each team had positioned themselves near the opponent's goal hoping to easily score when the ball reached their territory. Eleven "fielders" were assigned to defend their own territory for each team while 12 for each club called "bulldogs" had more or less carried the hopes of winning in opponent's territory.
According to eye witness John W. Herbert, Rutgers was the smaller team, but had more speed than Princeton.
Rutgers struck first as S.G. Gano and G.R. Dixon successfully kicked the ball across the Princeton goal as the Scarlet Knights took the early lead.
It was in this game that the flying wedge play was first used as the team with the ball formed a wall-like formation and charged at defenders. This tactic was successful early on for Rutgers because of their size disadvantage over Princeton. But Princeton countered that tactic with J.E. Michael, better known as Big Mike.
Big Mike had broken up the Rutgers flying wedge play, and it was Princeton that took advantage of that as they tied the score 2-2.
Rutgers player Madison Ball had used his niftiness and ball-kicking skills with his heel to give his team control of the contest. When the ball entered Rutgers territory, Madison would get in front of it and use a heel kick to prevent Princeton from scoring. In fact, Ball successfully used that play to set up Dixon scoring another goal to give Rutgers a 4-2 lead.
Rutgers then gave Princeton a goal as one of their players, who's identity is not known, had kicked a ball towards their own goal. It was blocked by a Rutgers player, but Princeton soon took advantage to cut the lead to 4-3. Rutgers had been shaken at the turn of events.
Princeton scored on their next possession when they used a flying wedge play of their own led by Big Mike as they marched right down the field to score to tie the game 4-4.
Rutgers captain John W. Leggett, who suggested rules be adopted from the London Football Association which was agreed upon by Princeton captain William Gunmere, had a strategy for his team at this point. He suggested the Rutgers keep the ball low on the ground to counter the tall players from Princeton. This strategy worked as Rutgers easily scored the final two goals to win the first intercollegiate football game ever played by the score of 6-4.
Princeton had more size which would normally be an advantage on a field with 50 players. But the Tigers had trouble kicking the ball as a team which is something Rutgers had thrived at.
The two schools had originally scheduled to meet three times in 1869. The following game at Princeton had a rule adopted in which allowed a team a free kick if they caught the ball on the fly. This seriously effected the speed of Rutgers with Princeton winning 8-0 as they avenged their loss from the previous contest. The third game never took place because of officials at both programs complaining about more emphasis being put on those contests rather than school studies. Thus, both teams are credited for winning the 1869 national championship in college football. Rutgers players of this game were honored fifty years later in a ceremony at home-coming.
Over the next several years, schools like Columbia(who joined the following year in 1870), Harvard, and Yale joined the college football series. By the turn of the century, the games had reached out to the West Coast as 43 total schools fielded teams by then.
Rules had been changed by Walter Camp in the 1880s as he established the line of scrimmage, center to quarterback snap, and three downs to gain first down. He also selected his own All-American teams beginning in 1898, and the Walter Camp Foundation still does that to this day. His reduction from the number of players from 15(which was reduced from 25 in the 1870s) to 11 helped to open the game up as well as having speed be more of a deciding factor in contests. He also put in a scoring rule with touchdowns being worth four points, kicks after touchdowns for two points, safeties for two points, and field goals worth five points. The current scoring system that exists in college and professional football didn't become official until 1912 when touchdowns were worth six points and field goals had been reduced to three points in 1909.
The flying wedge play had also been one of the main causes in the stoppage of the Army-Navy and Harvard-Yale rivalries in the 1890s because of the increased amount of crippling injuries and deaths that it caused. This prompted then-U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to intervene and threaten to shut down college football in 1905 if something wasn't done to prevent the deaths and crippling injuries of players. Because of this, the Intercollegiate Football Association was established. Today, it's known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA).
But the biggest rule to help counteract the flying wedge play(which was banned at this point) was the forward pass being put into play. Though it wasn't used as much until the next decade, it would later become a staple of what the game is more like today.
The Rutgers gymnasium is now standing over where this game was played. The last surviving member of this Rutgers team was George H. Large, who died in 1939. The last surviving member for Princeton was Robert Preston Lane, who died in 1938.
Reliable sources from a New Brunswick newspaper recalled this game in more detail which is what was used here.
Other sources are scarletknights.com, NCAA.org, and waltercamp.org
Anyone that is a fan of college and/or professional football should be appreciative and thankful for the game that Rutgers and Princeton started. Even though the game was far different then, the seeds for what eventually became America's most popular sport had been planted on that November day. Thank you Rutgers and Princeton!
Photo courtesy of scarletknights.com which shows a drawing from the first collegiate game played.
Thanks for viewing, and I hope you enjoyed today's FSD History Flashback!