1874 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

June 2017

The First College Football Game

On May 15, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, students from Harvard and McGill Universities battled in America’s first game of intercollegiate football. Some readers may be surprised at the preceding sentence: Didn’t Rutgers and Princeton play as far back as 1869? Traditionally, it is true, the two New Jersey schools have been awarded priority in college football. But it would be more accurate to call their 1869 match America’s first game of college soccer. Under the rules in force for that contest, carrying and passing were not allowed (although the ball could be batted with the hands), so it was almost entirely a kicking game.

The New Jersey-style game expanded slowly, with Columbia fielding a team in 1870 and Yale in 1872. Meanwhile, in Cambridge, the sport was developing along a different path. Football of a sort had been a Harvard tradition since the 1820s, when the freshman and sophomore classes began competing in an annual free-for-all under loosely defined rules. By the 1850s it had degenerated into an excuse for the sophomores and freshmen to kick one another instead of the ball, and in 1860 the tradition was scrapped. Then in 1871 football was revived at Harvard, this time as a genuine sport, not an excuse for hazing. The rules were a hybrid of soccer and the English game of rugby, with players allowed to hold the ball and run with it if pursued.

In the spring of 1874 a group of athletic Harvardians grew tired of intramural competition and looked for another college to play against. (They had not yet figured out that football was meant to be played in cold weather so that students would have an excuse to huddle together in the stands and drink.) Scorning the soccerlike game played to the south, they found a worthy opponent in McGill, of Montreal, which also played something close to rugby.

When the captains of the two teams met, however, their rules turned out to differ in several respects. The Canadian game allowed more carrying, and it used an oblong ball that was easier to throw and catch. They decided to play two games—one on May 14 under Harvard’s rules and one on May 15 under McGill’s. Harvard won the first game 3-0, while the second was a scoreless tie. After a return match in Montreal that October, Harvard decided to adopt the McGill version for good.

In June 1875 Tufts defeated Harvard in the first football game between American teams. That fall Harvard met Yale for the first time under “concessionary rules” that blended the two games but leaned toward Harvard’s version. A year later, when Harvard, Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale formulated the first standard set of college football rules, they abandoned soccer entirely in favor of the Harvard-McGill game. Thus the ultra-American sport of football turns out to have been invented in Canada—Quebec, yet.

Although such innovations as downs, forward passes, Gatorade showers, and post-touchdown dance routines lay in the future, by opting for rugbylike rules, the colleges ensured that American football would be a game of running and tackling, with kicking an afterthought. Soccer was relegated to the second-tier status that it still retains despite decades of effort to promote it. Today soccer is the only area of endeavor where virtually every country in the world, from Cameroon to Bolivia to South Korea, can safely mock America’s incompetence. Thus soccer plays a key role in defusing global tensions, and a decision made by a handful of collegians in the 1870s continues to have geopolitical ramifications to this day.