1869 college football season: Wikis


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The 1869 college football season was the first ever season of anything named "football" to ever be played intercollegiately. It is considered the inaugural college football season, and consisted of only two total games, both of which occurred between the Rutgers University and Princeton University; The first was played on November 6 at Rutgers' campus, and the second was played on November 13 at Princeton's campus.

The first ever college football national championship awarded (retroactively) was split between the only two participants in 1869, Rutgers and Princeton. Princeton was named the champion by the Billingsley Report and the National Championship Foundation, while college football research historian Parke H. Davis named the two teams co-champions. Various other ratings and retrospectives have rated the teams differently.

The two games played were played under much different rules than what is currently understood as the game of football, and also, played under different rules from each other. However, what developed into a more rugby-style play and eventually into the football known by current fans had its beginnings in 1869.


First football game ever played

Centennial medal produced in 1969 to commemorate the November 6, 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton.

In what is regarded as the very first game ever played of intercollegiate football, a contest was held between teams from Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).[1][2][3][4] The 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton is important in that it is the first documented game of any sport called "football" between two American colleges. (which also encompasses the game of Association Football, known as "soccer" in American parlance) The Princeton/Rutgers game was undoubtedly different from what we today know as American football. Nonetheless it was the forerunner of what evolved into American football.

The game took place on November 6, 1869 at College Field (now the site of the College Avenue Gymnasium at Rutgers University) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Because the game was played at a Rutgers' field, it was also played under Rutgers' rules. The rules could be said to be a mixture of rugby and soccer, in which two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team's goal, but throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed. (see Gameplay section below for how the game transpired) Rutgers won the game by a score of 6 "runs" to Princeton's 4.[5][6][7]

William J. Leggett, later a distinguished clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church, was the Rutgers captain; William Gunmere, who later became chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, captained the Princeton squad. The game was played in front of approximately 100 spectators.[8] Reportedly, the players from Rutgers wore scarlet-colored turbans and handkerchiefs to distinguish them as a team from the Princeton players, which was the reason that they later adopted the mascot, the Scarlet Knights.[9]

Statue next to Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway near the New Brunswick site where the first college football game was played.

Gameplay of the first game

The teams played 10 "games" against each other. When a team scored one time (a "goal"), it counted as the end of the game, and the team with the most goals after play was completed was considered the winner. The game was played under a combination of rugbylike and soccerlike rules, and the ball could be moved only by kicking or hitting it with feet, hands, head or sides.

As the first of the 10 games began, two players from each of the teams positioned themselves near the opponent's goal. This was presumably because the participants were hoping to easily score when the ball reached their territory on the field of play. On each team, there were eleven so-called "fielders" who were assigned to defend their own territorial area. There were 12 participants on each team that they named "bulldogs" who were the ones playing in the other team's territory.[10]

Rutgers was the first to score a goal, as participants named S.G. Gano and G.R. Dixon successfully kicked the ball across the Princeton goal, allowing the Scarlet Knights to take the early lead in the contest. At some point early in the contest, the flying "wedge" play was first used as the team with the ball formed what is considered a wall-like formation, allowing them to charge at the defenders. This flying wedge tactic was successful early on for Rutgers because of their perceived size disadvantage over Princeton. However, Princeton countered the tactic with a participant named J.E. Michael, but apparently better known by his nickname of "Big Mike". Big Mike had broken up the Rutgers flying wedge play during the fourth "game", and Princeton took advantage at that moment as they were able to tie the overall score at 2-2.[11]

A Rutgers player named Madison Ball used his quickness and the way in which he kicked the ball (with the heel of his foot), to again take the lead in the contest. When the ball would enter Rutgers territory, Madison would get in front of it and use a heel kick to prevent Princeton from scoring. Ball was able to successfully use that play to set up Dixon to score another goal which gave Rutgers a 4-2 "games" lead. Rutgers then allowed Princeton to score a goal as one of their players, whose identity is not known, had kicked a ball towards their own goal. It was blocked by a Rutgers player, but Princeton soon was able to take advantage to cut the lead down to 4-3. Princeton scored on their next possession when they used a flying wedge play of their own led by Big Mike as they were able to march down the field to score to tie the game at 4-4.

Rutgers captain John W. Leggett (who was the one who had suggested rules be adopted from the London Football Association which was agreed upon by Princeton team captain William Gunmere) had a strategy for his team at this point. He suggested that the Rutgers team keep the ball low on the ground to counter the much taller players on Princeton's team. This strategy appeared to work as Rutgers easily scored the final two goals of the contest 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 total players, but the Tigers had trouble kicking the ball as a team which is something Rutgers did very well. After the game, an eye witness named John W. Herbert said that he thought Rutgers was the smaller team, but that they had more speed than Princeton.[12]

After the game

In what might be considered a beginning to college football rivalries, immediately after Rutgers won the first game ever played, Princeton's players were literally run out of town by the winning Rutgers students. The Princeton students reportedly jumped in their carriages and quickly made the 20-mile trip back to their campus.[8]

Second and final game of 1869

A rematch was played at Princeton a week later under Princeton rules. One of the biggest differences in rules was the awarding of a "free kick" to any player that caught the ball on the fly. This rule seriously affected the speed advantage of Rutgers that had allowed them to win the first contest. Princeton won the second game by a score of eight to zero.

Aftermath of the 1869 games

The two schools had originally scheduled to meet three times in 1869, but the third 1869 game never took place reportedly because of the officials at both programs who complained about more emphasis being put on the contests rather than academics and studying.[13] Other sources claim that it may have been canceled due to disagreement over what set of rules to play under.[14] Due to each team winning one game, the inaugural football "season" ended with Princeton and Rutgers each tied at 1-1, and therefore each received a partial share of the college football national championship awarded (retroactively) for the 1869 season.

Rutgers players from the first ever game were honored fifty years later in a ceremony at their home-coming. 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.


  1. ^ http://www.historyoffootball.net/
  2. ^ http://www.nfl.com/history/chronology/1869-1910
  3. ^ http://www.footballresearch.com/articles/frpage.cfm?topic=c-to1870
  4. ^ "1800s". Rutgers Through The Years. Rutgers University. http://ruweb.rutgers.edu/timeline/1800.htm. Retrieved 2007-05-16.  
  5. ^ NFL History at the National Football League website, accessed 10 September 2006.
  6. ^ Rutgers Through the Years (timeline), published by Rutgers University (no further authorship information available), accessed 12 January 2007.
  7. ^ Tradition at www.scarletknights.com. Published by Rutgers University Athletic Department (no further authorship information available), accessed 10 September 2006.
  8. ^ a b http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/face/team?teamId=164
  9. ^ Tradition at www.scarletknights.com (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University). Accessed 10 September 2006.
  10. ^ http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/Rutgers_Football/Part1.pdf
  11. ^ http://www.fanhouse.com/2006/09/09/good-morning-class/
  12. ^ http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/toc/13531.html
  13. ^ Rutgers - The Birthplace of College Football: The First Intercollegiate Game - November 6, 1869 at scarletknights.com, published by the Rutgers University Athletic Department, accessed 12 January 2007.
  14. ^ NO CHRISTIAN END! The Beginnings of Football in America published by the Professional Football Research Association (no further authorship information available), accessed 12 January 2007.

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