A Violent Game: How College Football Was Born

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Photo: Nov. 29, 1894, VMI v. Virginia Tech football game. The game The two schools first met in 1894 and played annually from 1913 to 1971, usually in Roanoke on Thanksgiving Day.
Photo: Nov. 29, 1894, VMI v. Virginia Tech football game. The two schools first met in 1894 and played annually from 1913 to 1971, usually in Roanoke on Thanksgiving Day.

The prophet Isaiah prophesied of a coming judgment, stating, “Behold, the Lord will carry thee away with a mighty captivity, and will surely cover thee. He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country: there shalt thou die…”

The prophet’s words found in Isaiah 22.17-18 offer overwhelming evidence that humans were playing games with balls as far back as some six hundred years prior to the birth of Christ.

In the centuries that followed Isaiah’s writings, these ball games ever changed, taking on subtle tweaks until by the time of the Roman Empire, the primary ball game of choice was harpastum.

Though the exact rules of harpastum have been lost to the ages, historians agree that the game was played much like rugby and an inverted form of football — the general premises of the game seem to indicate that a line was drawn in the dirt and that the teams would endeavor to keep the ball behind their side of the line and prevent the opponents from removing it to the other side of the field. In many respects, this game seems like an inverted form of modern football, as the goal was to keep the ball from moving rather than to advance it.

The ancient accounts of the game are not precise enough to enable the reconstruction the rules in any detail, but contemporary historical writings seem to shed light upon the unsurprising fact that the game was violent in nature:

Athenaeus wrote, “Harpastum is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, ‘Damn it, what a pain in the neck I’ve got.’ He describes the game thus: ‘He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts.”

Galen describes harpastum as being “better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing… profitable training in strategy,” adding, “When people face each other, vigorously attempting to prevent each other from taking the space between, this exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one, involving much use of the hold by the neck, and many wrestling holds.”

In the centuries to come the basic principles of this game crossed the English Channel and evolved into early and more violent forms of Rugby.

As the United States was in its infancy, American colleges initially embraced these games of passion, seeing them as proving grounds for boys to become men.  Containing very little rules, these games often equated to nothing more than two mobs attempting to advance a single ball in opposite directions.

In the early 1800s, the games were played between two separate teams from the same college, with each university having its own set of rules and traditions for the game.

Princeton University players participated in a game called “ball-own”, while a Harvard tradition known as “Bloody Monday” began in 1827, which consisted of a mass ballgame between the freshman and sophomore classes.

The violence of the injury prone games, coupled with a new wave of progressiveness now flooding through New England, led many of the Northeastern colleges to ban these games by 1860 — just in time for the real bloodshed of the American Civil War.

A famous Civil War general is said to have stated, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it,” and in the years that followed the most deadly battles in American history it seems many of the young men who were fortunate enough to have been too young to be called into military service during the War Between the States, but had come to age hearing the tales of bravery, brotherhood, sacrifice and battle had amassed an unquenchable appetite for such activity.

Roughly five years following Lee’s surrender in Appomattox, Virginia, a team from Princeton University traveled to the campus of fellow New Jersey school, Rutgers, to play in a newly devised game that would pit two teams of 25 players each against each other on November 6, 1869.

The teams would attempt to score by kicking the round ball over the opposing team’s goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed, but there was plenty of physical contact between players. The first team to reach six goals was declared the winner. Rutgers won by a score of six to four. A rematch was played at Princeton a week later under Princeton’s own set of rules (one notable difference was the awarding of a “free kick” to any player that caught the ball on the fly — the early predecessor to the fair catch kick, a rule that remains in place to this day).

Princeton won that game by a score of 8–0.

The following year, Columbia joined the series and by 1872, several schools were fielding intercollegiate teams, including Yale.

With the economy and infrastructure still heavily destroyed in the Southland, it would take another generation before the game of college football to find its way into the heart of SEC country.

Though conceived and possibly born in 1869, the year of 1890 would undoubtedly serve as the year American college football began coming of age.

On November 22, 1890, college football was first played in the State of Kansas, with Baker beating Kansas 22-9. Five days later, Vanderbilt played Nashville (Peabody) and won 40-0, marking the first time organized football was played in the state of Tennessee.  The 29th of November also saw the first instance of the Army-Navy Game. Navy won 24–0. Ohio State also played its first game that same year.

The first West Virginia football team, photographed in 1891
The first West Virginia football team, photographed in 1891

The following year, West Virginia University would play its first game in 1891, when its first team was humiliated on a converted cow pasture by Washington & Jefferson by a score of 72-0.

A year later, the first organized college football game in Southwest Virginia was played in Radford on October 21, 1892, between Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Tech) and St. Albans Lutheran Boys School of Radford. The game took place on a plowed off wheat field that was “about as level as a side of Brush Mountain”. The Hokies won their first game 14–10, but were defeated 10–0 eight days later on a return trip to Radford.

Earlier that same year, Georgia launched its first football program when a chemistry professor assembled a team and arranged a game against Mercer University on January 30, 1892.  This was the first intercollegiate football game played in the Deep South and Georgia won by a score of 50–0.

Georgia’s second game was on February 20, 1892, against Auburn University, inaugurating what would come to be known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.

By the mid-1890s, college football was on its way to becoming a staple of southern life. The early games of the 1880s which saw Kentucky’s Transylvania University defeat Centre College by a head-scratching score of 13¾–0 in what is often considered the first recorded game played in the South, as well as the 1888 Thanksgiving Day game between North Carolina and Duke (then known as Trinity College) held at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh had given way to organized leagues by the close of the century.

College football increased in popularity through the remainder of the 19th and early 20th century, but had also become increasingly violent. Between 1890 and 1905, 330 college athletes died as a direct result of injuries sustained on the football field. These deaths could be attributed to the mass formations and gang tackling that characterized the sport in its early years.

The NCAA was formed to combat these violent deaths and from this was born one of the South’s most beloved pastimes: Modern College Football.

This article is only a small portion of larger article that will be published in the Fall 2019 print edition of the Appalachian MagazineClick here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!

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