Saturday, November 6, 2010

November 6, 1869: Kickoff

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - About 100 fans showed up to an open field on the campus of Rutgers University. Joining them were 25 athletes each from Rutgers and nearby Princeton University. The fans were excited about this battle for pride, the first of three scheduled games between the nearby rivals.

The game on November 6, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton is now recognized as the first college football game in America, though the game bore little resemblance to American football as it's played today. For one thing, all 25 players from each team were allowed on the field at once, so 50 players were on the field of play at any one time. Also, the ball could be advanced only by kicking it or batting it with another body part; in this way, the game more closely resembled rugby than anything else.

There were some similarities to the modern version of American football, however. For example, each team was split in half, with half of its players playing on the offensive side of the field and the others playing on the defensive side, a foretelling to the specialization of the future. Also, there was a surprising amount of strategy and game planning involved in the game, more so than even the participants expected.

Perhaps the most remarkable parallel to the modern game happened on the opening kickoff, the very moment college football began in America. As Princeton kicked off to Rutgers, many Rutgers players converged on the spot the ball was about to drop, and when it landed, they turned around, formed a wedge, and ran forward to block. That very same formation - three or four players forming a line in front of the kick returner - is still used to this day, and it started completely by accident. Princeton also made history of its own, countering the wedge on subsequent kickoffs by sending its largest, strongest player in not to try to get the ball back, but simply to knock the blockers away. Thus, the very first "wedge buster" appeared, and in the very first game, no less.

According to the scoring that was agreed upon in advance, any team who successfully advanced the ball past the opponent's goal line between two posts - think a field goal without having to clear the crossbar - would win the "game," and the first school to win six "games" won the match. Thus, Rutgers won the first college football match 6-4, surprisingly the generally larger Princeton team with superior speed and strategy.

For the most part, the fans were entertained, though some left early because of what they considered the brutality of the sport. One man left after shouting to the players "you'll never reach a Christian end." Princeton won the rematch a few weeks later, and the third match was cancelled after school administrators expressed fears that the sport was taking up too much of the players' study time.

A tradition had been born, though, and Rutgers helped maintain it. The next fall, they convinced Columbia University to start the sport, and before long many schools on the east coast had football teams.

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