"The First Game,"  by Arnold Friberg, was commissioned in 1968 by Chevrolet Motor Division as one of four paintings to commemorate the then-upcoming centennial celebration of intercollegiate football in the United States.

“You Will Come to No Christian End”

The First Intercollegiate Football Game

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal

celebrating a sense of place


The first American intercollegiate football game was played on November 6, 1869, and pitted Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) against the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). The two schools were bitter rivals and for years they had been battling back and forth over the possession of a Revolutionary War cannon until the clever Princetonians outwitted their enemies by anchoring the wheels of the gun in several inches of cement. Stung by this defeat, Rutgers hoped to settle the score on the playing field.

The game bore little resemblance to modern-day football and was played under the soccer-style rules of the London Football Association. It took place on “College Field,” a plot of ground where the Rutgers gymnasium now stands in New Brunswick, NJ. At around 3:00 p.m., twenty-five players from each side, wearing nothing but their shirt sleeves, trousers, and suspenders for a uniform and protection (the Rutgers team also donned scarlet scarves, worn turban-style on their heads, to distinguish them from their opponents) took the field, as around 100 spectators, many seated on the rail of a low fence, looked on. With two players stationed near their respective goals, acting more or less as goalies, the rest of the players on each team were divided into two groups of 11 “fielders,” who acted as defenders, and 12 “bulldogs,” whose job it was to carry the ball. Each score counted as a “game” and 10 games completed the match.

Using a formation that resembled what would later be known as the “flying wedge,” the Rutgers players massed around the ball and in a series of short kicks and dribbles drove down the field and kicked the ball over the goal for the first score of the game. Initially taking the Princetonians off guard with this tactic, Rutgers tried several more times to score using the formation but were stopped cold by Princeton captain, J.E. Michael, known to his teammates as “Big Mike,” who threw himself into the wedge, bowling over anyone in his path and opening the way for Princeton’s first score. Checked by “Big Mike,” Rutgers might have been in trouble if it hadn’t been for Rutgers’s “bulldog,” Madison Ball, who befuddled the opposing defenders by being able to kick the ball backwards with his heel, setting up G.R. Dixon for the next Rutgers score.

More physically powerful than their opponents, “Big Mike” and his teammate, George Large, led Princeton in a “flying wedge” of their own, not only crashing through Rutgers defenders, but at one point even crashing into the fence along the field, sending spectators hurdling through the air in every direction. But in the end Rutgers, led by quick thinking captain, William J. Leggett, overcame their rivals with superior kicking skills and strategic organization, winning the contest with a final score of 6-4.

The teams were scheduled to play two more games against each other that season; Princeton won the next rematch but the third game was called off when the faculty on both sides complained that the games were getting in the way of the students’ academic pursuits. 

As the popularity of intercollegiate football spread throughout American campuses, the rugby-style game eventually evolved into modern American football. In 1874, the first game that more closely resembles today’s game was played between Tufts University and Harvard, at Jarvis Field in Cambridge Massachusetts. Played with an egg-shaped ball, each team was pared down to eleven men and the ball carrier was stopped by “tackling” him. With the help of the early pioneers of the sport, such as, John Heisman, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Glenn Scobey Warner, Fielding H. Yost, George Halas, and especially Walter C. Camp, who is known as the “Father of American Football,” the unique sport of American football emerged. But as the popularity of America’s new game increased, so did the injuries and fatalities. In 1905, after a series of game-related deaths, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to outlaw football. America’s colleges and universities responded by forming the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), to establish rules governing the sport. Among the changes, were the adoption of the forward pass and the banning of “mass momentum” formations, such as the infamous, and often deadly, “flying wedge.”

Today, thanks to the early pioneers of the sport, college football is more popular than ever and even paved the way for its’ professional counterpart. While many, who thrilled to the first game between Rutgers and Princeton back in 1869, would be excited to see how the game has evolved since then, at least one spectator wouldn’t share their enthusiasm. Standing by the fence, watching “Big Mike” and the rest of the players smash and kick their way up and down the field, a disapproving Rutger’s professor couldn’t hold back his outrage any longer. Violently shaking his umbrella at the players he shouted “You will come to no Christian end!” before turning his back and marching off in disgust.

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