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article number 273
article date 09-26-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Develop American Football, 1827-1899
by Lamont Buchanan

From the 1947 book, The Story of Football in Text and Pictures.

EDITOR’S NOTE: When you find a copy or this rare book, get it. It is a picture book worthy of any coffee table. This online presentation does not do justice to its wall-to-wall presentation of pictures and fun reading text.

THE history of football is almost as old as history itself. Games in which a kicked ball was used are recorded in Biblical literature. In ancient Greece and Rome a game was played similar to early English Rugby; even then “the Greeks had a word for it”—harpaston.

Purists argue that some of these early contests were surely more like handball than footbalI. However, some 28 or 27 years B.C. an early “rules committee” took charge and saw to it that the regulations were changed to make the game tougher. Any similarity to handball soon became purely fanciful—as may be the oft repeated legend that the first object used for a ball in Britain was the head of a Dane who had been captured and killed.

There is little positive evidence that football was first introduced to the British Isles by the Romans following their invasion. But there is one historical bedtime story claiming that when the Romans were slain by the Britishers in the year 217, the occasion was celebrated by a game which suspiciously resembled football.

Football was played in Tuscany and Florence through the Middle Ages and down to modern times. At the same time, in the far reaches of the world, the Maoris, Faroe Islanders, the Polynesians, and the Eskimos, were playing games which resembled football. Part of the Celtic sun-god worship contained a form of the game, while historians of old Eire claim that in their land the first such contest took place over two thousand years ago.

According to Dr. L. H. Baker, football’s foremost present-day historian, the first reporting of the game was by William Fitzstephan who wrote in 1175 that the London schoolboys commenced the “well-known game of play ball after dinner on Shrove Tuesday and continued to play it annually.”

Early English football.

From then until the reign of Charles II it enjoyed sporadic popularity, pausing occasionally to get itself barred by law for the “beastly fury and violence whereof proceedeth hurte and consequently rancour and malyce to remayne with them that be wounded.”

The early history of English football is mostly legendary; perhaps the famous ghost whose head was “tooked” underneath its arm was in reality an early-edition halfback. But Shrove Tuesday became known as a great football day in England, and the game grew in popularity despite all manner of laws banning it; King Henry VIII, between wives, prohibited football; Queen Elizabeth did likewise.

The game was declared “dangerous to life, limb and property.” The Puritans perceived the hand of the in its violent machinations. But all efforts to abolish the game failed.

By the early 1800 s, football had become the national pastime in England. A large proportion of the populace participated in it and women as well as men enjoyed the game, as spectators and players. As the English public schools adopted it mass participation lessened. Each school played its own version, but with all, kicking was the common method of advancing the ball.


Spindly William Webb Ellis of Rugby was the first to see the possibilities of running with the ball over the goal line. Ellis hit upon this expedient to beat a five o’clock curfew bell and the spectacular innovation caused violent controversy. Football historian Parke Davis says that for some days “there was talk of paddles being applied to the spot where they would do most good on the anatomy of young Ellis for his daring act.”

Instead, authorities saw the possibilities of a great innovation. They not only adopted the runback of the kick into the code, but later extended the principle of carrying the ball generally throughout the game.

Originally a football team could consist of almost any number. The more the merrier was the motto as heads cracked and limbs were broken. The famous volume, “Tom Brown’s School Days,” created such popular interest by its accounts of football at Rugby that the first definite steps were taken to improve the game and enforce some rules.


The number of players per team was standardized. Too, the time-honored round ball was replaced by an oval of leather containing a blown-up bladder giving us the familiar name “pigskin.”


Forty five years after Ellis of Rugby made his famous run the real beginnings of football touched America. There are accounts that a form of the game came to this country with the Pilgrims and was played sporadically in New England. Scant interest was shown by any of our educational institutions, as little time was provided by colleges for such frivolities as sports.

From 1827 on, Harvard class teams (below) played an annual match but these became increasingly brutal and degenerated into the “Bloody Monday” rushes which bore no bona fide resemblance to football.

The beginnings of American football. The 1927 Harvard football teams.

Yale, Princeton and Brown turned their hands to occasional contests of this new sport but the game took on a violent and deadly nature that caused it to be abolished in many places. There were no set rules and the makeshift ones added to the confusion.

Many experts credit William S. Gummere of Princeton, in 1868, with conceiving the idea of starting intercollegiate football. He selected the “Association” code as his guide and proceeded to adapt from that a set of rules under which the first game of college football in this country was played—between Princeton and Rutgers on November 6th, 1869.

In 1862, a youngster named Gerrit Smith Miller organized the first football club in America. This was at a time when the number of players per team, the area over which the game was played and the conditions governing the contest were in a constant state of flux.

The rules were simple. The players, “tenders,” “rushers,” “outfielders” and “backfielders” played with individuality; skill and initiative counted most. The field had no definite size, there might or might not be fifteen players to a side spread all over the field, there was no time limit and the only rule proclaimed that the ball must be kicked or hit but not carried.

Miller’s Oneida Club enjoyed outstanding success for a period of four years and through the enthusiasm of some of its members, collegiate football was later revived at Harvard.

TODAY, big time college football is played before thousands. Rip Miller, Navy’s great line coach and once one of the “Seven Mules,” describes the feelings of a footballer as someone who “struggles in what seems to be the bottom of a great shadowy pit terraced by thousands and thousands of frenzied people.”

Contrast this customary Saturday scene with a memorable afternoon over three quarters of a century ago. Then,on November 6, 1869 in New Brunswick, N. J. the first game of intercollegiate football took place. The contestants, Princeton and Rutgers, played 25 men to the team and under the rugby-like rules adopted from the London Football Association.

Rivalry between the two colleges was intense. For years each had contended for possession of an old revolutionary cannon, making night forays, and lugging it back and forth time after time between the two institutions.

Not long before this first historic football game the canny Princetonians had conceived the idea of sinking the prized cannon in several feet of concrete. Rutgers considered this “unsporting.”

Another burning incentive for the men from the banks of the Old Raritan was the fact that the Princetons had recently beaten them in a baseball game 40-2. No Rutgers man was going to stand for that! There would be revenge—even if a game had to be virtually improvised to obtain it.

Rutgers was revenged by a6-4 score, and before a “goodly assemblage numbering at least twice again the total of contestants.

The uniforms consisted of old clothes; the ball could be advanced only by kicking or batting it with the feet, hands, head or side William J. Leggett (opposite page) captained Rutgers while Gummere led Princeton.

Perhaps the chief similarity between that game and the modern variety was that some time during the hour-long proceedings the inevitable and time-honored shaggy dog appeared. Sketchy reports have it that he bothered Nassau more than Rutgers and was soon coaxed from the rectangular field.

The New York Tribune carried a story on the game—five lines tucked away on a back page. At any rate, the ensuing excitement seemed mainly limited to New Brunswick and Princeton Junction. Some say the beaten Princetons were chased out of town by the victory flushed Rutgers contingent; others that the two teams joined afterward for a huge feast. Either way, it is doubtful if any of the gladiators realized what they had started.

The November 9, 1869 New York Tribune reported on the Rutgers-Princeton football game.

It seemed to observers in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s that all football was divided into three parts—Yale; Princeton and Harvard. It was not until 1894 that a non-Big Three school—Pennsylvania—was able to place more than one man on Walter Camp’s All-America.

Canvas pants and jackets were in order. The long hair, particularly notable on the striped-jerseyed Princetonians, acted as shock absorber when you ran into the likes of Butterworth, Yale fullback and early All-American, here taking the ball behind his line during a Thanksgiving Day tilt in New York.


Perhaps more than any other school in those early days, Yale had it. The Elis let Rutgers, Princeton and Columbia get acquainted with the game and then proceeded to steal the show. Columbia, a confident veteran of two years’ standing in the football wars came up to New Haven on November 16, 1872.

Yale had become interested in the game; would Columbia come up and show the Elis how? The Morningsiders did but the gun was loaded. Yale won three goals to none and a mighty gridiron history was launched.

Some all-time greats leaned against Yale’s famous fence in those early days. Walter Camp was one of the greatest. With men like Camp and other gridiron titans to come, how could the Bulldogs flop? They didn’t.

This may be a picture of Walter Camp. This picture was placed above his mention.

Early football was neither too intricate nor too consistent. The first rules in 1869 provided, among other things, no throwing or running with the ball; no holding of the ball; no tripping or holding of the players. There were other restrictions equally vulnerable to the onslaught of revolutionary changes made during the next few years.

The game that emerged was strictly an American product, eventually bearing no relationship to soccer or rugger. To tackle or, as it was known then, “collar,” an opponent would have called for a most severe penalty imposed by an officialdom that, in 1869, consisted of four judges and two referees.


Football made friends and interested people. It converted many of those who’d thought of it as a “vicious and sadistic pastime for individuals who would come to no good end.” It lost its regional snobbishness. More schools began to play; large and small, West as well as East.

Illinois was one of the first Mid-West institutions to get rolling; it was 1890 at the Old Champaign Fairgrounds with Illinois Wesleyan the opponent. Contrast the 10-row stands with a two and a quarter million dollar Memorial Stadium! Could a Buddy Young have pivoted on that turf? But no one was concerned with Young in 1890—why, the immortal Red Grange hadn’t even been born then. The Illini won those first games with stars like Williams, Hart and Huff.

Illinois plays Illinois Wesleyan at the Old Champaign Fairgrounds in 1890. 10 row stands accommodate the fans.

The game originally had been pretty much of a private affair between the players. In ‘69 the spectators at the Princeton-Rutgers game barely outnumbered the contestants. This was not to last, for football was too good a secret to keep.


Crowds grew, and although they consisted almost entirely of students, graduates and relatives of the playersr goings on in the stands often rivaled the action on the field. Cheer leaders rarely had to exhort their followers to “shout fiercely;” actually at some particularly exciting moment “bowlers, toppers and ladies’ kerchiefs might even be tossed on the field.”

Hector Cowan of Princeton was one of the first of the “fierce-visaged” gentlemen so typical of this period. Cowan was a tackle, powerful at over 200 pounds, and was named to Walter Camp’s 1889 All-America. This Princetonian rates high on the list of all-time greats and was one of the chief reasons why the Tigers downed arch-rival Yale 10-0 in ‘89. It was something to see—and hear—when Cowan and Old Eli’s incomparable Heffelfinger met on the same field.

Hector Cowan of Princeton.

In the football days of the Cowans and Heffelfingers the game was straightforward, power-laden, bruising. Any deception was, more often than not, unintentional. The players were taught to run hard, tackle savagely, kick accurately.


The Yale Bulldog, an ornery critter on football’s early gridirons anyway, kicked over the traces in earnest in 1888. Many experts believe this was one of the greatest teams ever to represent New Haven; certainly it was one of the great teams of its time. Among other triumphs the Yale 88’s slaughtered Penn 34-0, Princeton 10-0.

The 1888 Yale Bulldog football team.

Three good reasons were Captain Corbin (holding the ball), the great Amos Alonzo Stagg (extreme left) and William Pudge Heffelfinger. If you quiz the football-wise from Harvard to USC, after they’ve mentioned their school’s favorites—the men who ran and kicked and blocked and passed of this year or that—they will somehow come back to the great Pudge.

John W. Heisman called Heffelfinger the most devastating player he ever saw in action. This 6’ 2” 205 pound powerhouse was one of the greatest blockers of all time, and possibly the first of the running guards. Heffelfinger was always the most vital, tremendous player on the field.


As one reporter of those epic days commented: “The great Heffelfinger hardly ever seems to take a deep breath; he never makes a mistake.” Walter Camp must have thought so, too. Pudge appeared on three Camp All-Americas; in fact no All-selector, prominent or obscure, dared to say nay to the big fellow’s bid for honors.

Some of the drawings of football games of that era seem bloodthirsty, half-humerous. More likely than not they underplayed the ruggedness of the sport. Sprited action between oposing players totally unconcerned with the ball carrier was commonplace. Underscoring these pictures, sarcastic title creators wrote such as (in the above instance): “Cheerful sport between the aesthetic young gentlemen of Princeton and Yale.”


Frederick Remington’s drawings showed what football maneuvers looked like to the artist. Tackling in the 90’s could be the start of a brawl; straight arming or “brushing off” a tackler was a job for the ball carrier with the best left jab; passing the fat, egg shaped ball of those days was precarious.


But to Marshall Ma Newell, all football maneuvers undertaken by Harvard’s opponents looked much the same. They usually ended up being smeared by the 155-pound Cantab tackle. Newell was tops; a great diagnostician on defense. He seemed to divine where the plays would go and despite his small size, Newell had what it took to stop every assault. “All” tackle for four years, ‘90-’93, he is still a mighty legend in the Yard.

Remington also had his ideas of what went on in the gymnasium and on the sidelines. The sketches shown here were entitled “A Day With the Yale Team.” In those days of Hinkey, Butterworth and Thorne, the men stood to be rubbed down—if they were lucky and important enough to rate the attention! And then as now there was always advice from the non-combatants. Then: “Watch out for those Princeton tackle back tandems!” Now: “You’re not watching their wing back!”


Football’s most famous family, the Poes of Princeton, all were fine football players. Three were All-America selections.

The Poes of Princeton. Arthur Poe ‘00, (left), Edgar Allan Poe ‘91, Captain of the ‘89 and ‘90 teams (holding ball) and John Poe ‘95 (right).

Edgar Allan Poe, nephew of the great American writer, was an indomitable fighter, seeming to have inherited the spiritual fire of his illustrious forebear. All the Poes were small men, yet all were aggressive players.

In the 1890 season Edgar Allen broke his nose in the Penn game. Yet two weeks later he was back against the gigantic Yale team of that year. The Elis’ line led by the immortal Heffelfinger, opened huge holes for the New Haven backs. But always there was Poe crouched behind the Orange and Black line. A wisp of a man compared with the Eli Giants—but indomitable, unconquerable.

John W. Heisman once recalled that at this game a marveling spectator, enthralled by Poe’s valiant deeds, asked if this pint-sized hero could by any chance be related to “the great Poe.” To which a Princeton rooter scornfully snorted back, “Why man he is the great Poe!”

But there were other gridirons beside those at New Haven and Nassau Hall.

Service football at West Point and Annapolis had line-plunged its way through official condemnation and the two schools met for the first of their classic series in 1890. Forty years earlier a Cadet had been severely reprimanded for “kicking a football in the vicinity of barracks” and the authorities remained hostile to the game, suggesting that it was probably “detrimental to discipline.”


Cadet Dennis Michie, who had played football in prep school, thought otherwise—to himself, in the beginning, and then to members of his class. Finally he took his request to form a team to the Point’s Academic Board. Perhaps the lad’s persistence would have been rewarded anyway—but it helped that Michie’s own father was the dominant member of the Board. Permission was forthcoming and the “Kaydets” took up an Annapolis challenge to play a game.

Navy won the first game, 24-0. No one whistled “On Brave Old Army Team” in those days and the Big Four N Cheer hadn’t been invented. But everbody had a good time, especially Dennis Michie whose name was later given to Army’s picturesque stadium when it was built 35 years later.

Captain J. M. Reeves (holding ball)—later Admiral Reeves, Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet l934-1936—is shown wearing the first football helmet ever used. Sitting in front of him is the American novelist, Winston Churchill. This was one of Navy’s early intra-mural teams.


Dartmouth and Northwestern, separated by over a thousand miles, were nevertheless typical of teams taking up the game. The Hanover Indians were yet a long ways from Gus Sonnenberg, Eddie Dooley and Special Delivery Marsters and the high powered elevens they adorned, but victories over Penn, Princeton and Harvard were just around the turn of the century for the Green.

By 1892 Northwestern had inaugurated its important series with Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Chicago. The Notre Dame and Wisconsin initial tilts were already in the books. Early crown wearers of the Big Ten bailiwick were Wisconsin, Chicago and Michigan.

(presumed to be) The 1890 Northwestern football team.

Football lore and tradition, though, was still strongholded in the East. All-American teams usually carried at least seven or eight players from the Big Three, the balance from such Eastern schools as Pennsylvania, Cornell, Brown, Lafayette and Army.

And Big Three football did its best to live up to its prestige with thrillers like the ‘98 and ‘99 Yale-Princeton games.

In the ‘98 game, held in the pleasant college town of Princeton, another Poe showed up to confound the Elis. This time it was Arthur Poe, All-American end, a scrawny, white-faced youngster who matched the frail physique of his brothers. But it was the same Arthur who broke up the ball game, stealing the ball from the arms of a Yale back and galloping 98 yards for the winning touchdown.

In ‘99 at New Haven, Arthur Poe was back, as one sarcastic Yale put it, “smaller than ever.” There were many great and near-great players on both sides. Yale had Gordon Brown, Stillman and McBride, while the Tigers boasted Bossy Reiter, Bill Roper, Captain Big Bill Edwards and Arthur Poe.

The might of Yale had the best of it—for all but 56 seconds of playing time. Yale led 10-6, metropolitan reporter were building their stories around an Eli victory, people were already filing from Yale field and the specials were whistling in New Haven station, when McBride of the Bulldogs fumbled and Bill Roper recovered.

With but a few seconds to travel the 25 yards to the Yale goal a dropkick seemed the only choice. But Princeton’s only reliable kicker was out of the game along with six other Tiger regulars who had been heavily battered by superior Yale strength.

While Captain Edwards was puzzling out what to do, Arthur Poe touched him on the shoulder. He’d never kicked a field goal in a game, but he was volunteering for the job. “I’ll make it,” he prophesied. That he did is a bright page in Princeton history and the Orange and Black won a victory in a ball game that had seemed hopelessly lost.

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