In front of SHI Stadium in Rutgers University in New Brunswick New Jersey (about an hour ride by train from NY Penn Station), there is a statue entitled ‘First Football Game’. It depicts a young man playing American football wearing a uniform seemingly from the Knute Rockne era, evoking the early history of perhaps America’s most popular sport today. The statue is touched by Rutgers players before their home games. It symbolizes a match played at the campus of Rutgers on this day 150 years ago against the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), which Rutgers won 6-4 (and odd score for a college football game). This match played on November 6, 1869 supposedly marks the birth of college football in the United States.
However, the match was not played under the rules of football Americans know today. It was played under rules derived from the 1863 rules set of the London Football Association, brought over from across the Atlantic.
In other words, they played soccer. Or something like it.
To be clear, there were a number of differences between this match and a modern soccer match. Among other things, players could bat the ball with their hands. Teams were 25 players each. There was no offside rule. And the game was extremely physical. More generally, standardization of rules for organized sports was still in its infancy. Matches for ‘football’ and other sports were often played according to rules agreed up on just before gametime. Almost no sports had a widely agreed upon rulesset that was followed universally.
The match originated out of a fierce rivalry between the two colleges located only 17 miles apart, both founded in the colonial era. Students at both colleges had been playing various pranks, including the theft of a revolutionary war-era cannon back a forth (now at Princeton, anchored in concrete to prevent further theft). In 1866 the two colleges played a baseball match with Princeton winning 40-2. Rutgers was desperate for revenge. Rutgers issued a challenge led by the captain William Leggett, who would go on to become a Dutch Reformed Church clergyman. Princeton answered. Their team was captained by William Gunmere, later Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
A picked 25 of Rutgers students played the same number of Princeton a game of foot ball, on Saturday. After an exciting contest of one hour, Rutgers were declared the winners, the score standing 6 to 4. … On returning from the ball ground, the Princeton boys partook the hospitalities of the Rutgers.New York Times, November 9th 1869, p. 8
A rematch was held later in the year, with Princeton gaining revenge 8-0. In this match, a rule allowing players to catch a ball and then receive a free kick was used. This was a rule also in use in English soccer at the time. It benefited the taller Princeton team.
The two teams would go on to have what could be called the oldest rivalry in college football (now of course played by very different rules). However, the last Rutgers-Princeton college football match was in 1980.
But if this famous game isn’t the origin of American football, what is? At the time, both in England and America, there was a rivalry of a kicking style of football and a carrying style, known as Rugby football. In 1874 McGill University (in Montreal) and Harvard University would play a match under the rugby-style rules. In 1875, Harvard and Tufts University would play another match under these rules (arguably the first US college football match). These games were still very distinct from modern American football, with no forward pass or line of scrimmage. That evolution would come later. But certainly this style of ‘football’ would become the more popular style played in North America.
A side note, the origin of the word ‘football’ is obscure and debated. Some claim it has no relation to kicking the ball. In any event, several sports which are called football involve carrying the ball, including rugby football (now simply ‘rugby’), Australian rules football, and Gaelic football. Outside the US these are sometimes known as football ‘codes’ and are often referred to locally as ‘football’ or ‘footy’.
Despite the historical inconstancies, Rutgers continues to claim their victory 150 years ago as the birth of college gridiron. Several events are being held to commemorate the anniversary. Princeton is playing a game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday November 9th against Dartmouth. In September students at Rutgers and Princeton held a re-enactment of the match (I don’t know if they played by the actual rules the match was played by). And the statue commemorating the match stands proudly in front of their home stadium.