First Smackdown 1869

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This depiction of the Rutgers-Princeton game of 1869 was painted by William Boyd, Rutgers Class of 1932. Since photographs of the game were not taken, Boyd’s painting has become the standard representation of the first intercollegiate football game.

The Football Game That Started It All 

By Wendy Plump

Images Courtesy: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries

The game was held on a November afternoon, so the ground must have been wicked hard. They played without shoulder pads or shin guards. They played without helmets. There were no officials and no referees. The rules of play were adopted that very morning based on the home team’s wishes, and presumably on its strengths. There were uprights at each end of the field but there were no crossbars. There was a fence that onlookers used as bleachers, but two team members collided with it in a late play and it came crashing down along with everyone sitting on it. And with 25 players on each team the field was crowded; packed, in fact, with grit and muscle and an unholy amount of testosterone. A later Arnold Friberg painting of the game portrays a scrum of swarthy, burly, bloodied men who look more like pirates than college students.

Welcome to the first collegiate football game in America. It was played between Princeton and Rutgers on a frosty afternoon in 1869 on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. By all accounts, it was no place for buttercups.

There is much that is debatable about the game. Some claim it was not proper American football at all. Some claim it looked more like soccer than football, and others that it looked more like rugby than soccer. Some argue the first gridiron rules game was actually played between Tufts and Harvard several years later. There was a Rutgers graduate who repeatedly boasted that he had been a member of that team, but was not. No one alive can name Princeton’s 25th player, and no one at the time identified the nation’s first ignominious Wrong Way Corrigan, who enabled a goal for the opposing team.

But you cannot deny that there was a game. And you cannot deny that it was a primitive forerunner of football. And you cannot deny that, in the words of sportswriter Allison Danzig describing that colonial rivalry many years later in The New York Times: “It was responsible for the turning loose of hordes of tigers, lions, wildcats, bulldogs, rams, leopards, owls, hawks, bobcats, panthers, bears, eagles, terriers, cougars, bisons, bulls, buffaloes, muskateers, generals, gentlemen, presidents, commodores, raiders, and about every other species except the man from Mars.”

So who, in the end, wants to be a stickler for details? It is more satisfying to simply imagine the excitement as the teams gathered in the autumnal weather, hunkering down on the field off College Avenue, the captains chosen, the clothing shucked, the ball handed onto the field of play, and someone whose name is forever lost to history sounding the opening charge.

“It’s technically not the first football game. Football as a game goes all the way back to the Greeks,” says Steve Greene, a 1979 Rutgers graduate who is researching the history of the Rutgers football program for a long-term project. “But if you go to this year’s Super Bowl and reverse the flow of dominoes all the way back, you’re gonna end up right there on November 6, 1869. There are other dominoes scattered earlier in time, but none that initiated the American football experience. Of the traditional top four major American sports, only football developed directly out of intercollegiate play.”

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Photo Courtesy of the Collection of the Historical Society of Princeton

A SPARSE FIRST SEASON

Three games were scheduled for the 1869 season, all of them between Princeton and Rutgers; or more precisely, between the College of New Jersey, not yet named Princeton, and Rutgers College, previously Queens College and not yet named Rutgers University.  Princeton and Rutgers were both among the first colleges in the nation. There was a fierce rivalry between them even before the November 6 game. But there was also a bond born of the shared experience of being the first college students in New Jersey.

On the side of commonality, the two schools nearly merged in 1793, with a consolidated Board of Trustees proposed. The idea was that Rutgers would serve as a preparatory school and Princeton as a college. The proposal was defeated by just one vote. When Rutgers was founded in 1766, its curriculum was based in part on Princeton’s classical template. Just 20 miles separates the two campuses, and that distance was easily bridged in the late 19th century by train travel. In addition, several of Rutgers’ first tutors were Princeton graduates.

On the side of rivalry, however, there was the fact that the town of Princeton had successfully outbid New Brunswick in 1753 for the final location of the College of New Jersey. There was the award of the state’s Land Grant status to Rutgers in 1864, which Princeton had coveted for itself. There was a baseball game in 1866 in which Rutgers was thoroughly annihilated by Princeton. And there was the matter of the cannon wars, in which a disputed Revolutionary War cannon was repeatedly stolen and re-stolen by Princeton or Rutgers students vying for permanent possession. (The cannon today rests on Princeton’s campus, sunk into several feet of concrete.)

While the November 6, 1869 game attracted about 100 fans, it was insufficiently noteworthy to draw any of the great newspapers of the day. The sole remaining accounts of the game spring from three sources. Among them The Targum, the Rutgers newspaper that began publishing in January of 1869, carries the fullest report. A local New Brunswick newspaper, The Daily Fredonian, had an article in its November 9 issue. The remaining accounts, according to Greene, came from members of that original team harkening back to it decades later. Most histories written about the first football game base their own stories on these early reports.

According to Princeton University’s 250th Anniversary book, the game originated with a proposal from one William S. Gummere, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1870. Serving as team captain, Gummere offered to bring his men up to Rutgers for a football match, after which Rutgers would make its own visit to Princeton for a second game the following weekend. A third game would follow shortly thereafter. Together, these three contests would comprise the season of 1869.

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On Saturday, November 6, 1869, 25 young men from the College of New Jersey and their supporters boarded a train to Princeton and traveled one-hour to New Brunswick for a friendly match of “foot-ball” against 25 students from Rutgers College. Playing a game that resembled “mass soccer,” Rutgers won the first intercollegiate contest, 6 goals to 4.

A COIN TOSS AND THEN BEDLAM

Rutgers University archivist Tom Frusciano, who researched the game for his 2008 book Rutgers University Football Vault, describes a casual, comradely air among players on the morning of November 6. The Princeton team arrived in New Brunswick by train accompanied by scores of Princeton students. They sauntered around New Brunswick, surveyed the college, and were treated to a fine lunch—with billiards—by the Rutgers team. The players, says Frusciano, took to the field by 3 P.M. Gummere was Princeton’s captain. Rutgers’ captain was William J. Leggett.

“It probably was fierce,” says Frusciano. “From what we have, it sounded like a fairly rough game.”

It had been agreed that the rules would be based on those of the London Football Association. Each score counted as a “game.” Once the score reached 10 games, the contest was over. The ball could not be carried or thrown, but had to be kicked or batted forward until it went through the uprights.  Among the 50 men assembled on the field were future clergymen, a state senator, a future chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, several veterans of the Civil War—both Confederate and Union soldiers—and a finalist in the first U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. Most were said to have been excellent athletes. The Princeton team members were larger; the Rutgers team members more agile.

Rutgers, Frusciano says, won the coin toss. Princeton got the ball and kicked it off to the side where the Rutgers’ players swarmed around it. Using the game’s earliest “flying wedge,” they moved the ball up the field and scored the first goal within five minutes. The second play was dominated by Princeton’s J.E. “Big Mike” Michael, who through sheer weight and size broke apart Rutgers’ wedge and paved the way for his own teammates. Princeton scored the second goal.

The Targum captured the mayhem in its November 1869 article: “To describe the varying fortunes of the match, game by game, would be a waste of labor for every game was like the one before. There was the same headlong running, wild shouting, and frantic kicking. In every game the cool goaltenders saved the Rutgers goal half a dozen times; in every game the heavy charger of the Princeton side overthrew everything he came in contact with.”

The contest proceeded with each team making almost alternate goals. The seventh goal, won by Princeton, included the notorious wrong-way play by an unidentified Rutgers student. The score was tied after the eighth goal. Rutgers scored the ninth goal and the tenth, and the game was over, with Rutgers winning six to four.

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Composite of the individuals from Rutgers who participated in the 1869 contest with Princeton. “The appearance of the Princeton men was very different from that of our own players,” reported the Targum in November 1869. “They were almost without exception tall and muscular, while the majority of our 25 are small and light, but possess the merit of being up to much more than they look.”

THE REST IS HISTORY

One week later, Princeton hosted the season at its own campus. They blanked Rutgers 8-0 deploying, in particular, their kicking skills to rule the day. The third game was never played, apparently because, as Frusciano explains, faculty members from each college complained that the sport was interfering with academics.

With the season ending in a default 1-1 tie, the National Collegiate Athletic Association posthumously awarded the championship for 1869 to both Rutgers and Princeton.

Rutgers football did not defeat Princeton again until 1938. During the September 27, 1969 centennial re-match, Rutgers won 29-0. It should be noted that the 150th anniversary of that first game arrives in 2019—just three years away. Seems like a good time for another rematch.