Year by Year: 1869 Season

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Man, I've been dragging my feet on this thing. 1869 is arguably the easiest season to examine being that there were only two teams and the rules were fairly simplistic.

Princeton and Rutgers played two games in 1869 and split the series. On Nov. 6, 1869 Rutgers won the first game (at home) and one week later on Nov 13th, Princeton won the return game at their campus. So it's easy to say that the first college football "national title" is a split title with both Princeton and Rutgers sharing the honors.

More difficult is to try to understand just how different the game itself was from modern football. The game resembled soccer to a great degree with soccer style goal posts set up and rules allowing the use of the hands for batting the ball forward or backward. Players couldn't run with the ball but could advance the ball on the dribble as in basketball. The one element that made this game uniquely American was the fact that even at this early stage the game was a contact (and even a collision) sport.
With that said, even these two early contests had diverging rules with the noted difference in the Princeton game being that players who caught a kicked ball on the fly earned a free kick.

It's hard to imagine what the game might have looked like. Rutgers' athletic site does a good job describing the first contest, but the one common element from all of these very early American football games was that they weren't widely reported on. Last November represented the 140th anniversary of that first game and the Rutgers blog Beat Visitor went back and transcribed one of the most detailed accounts of the first game. The New York Times in 1916 ran a little blurb revisiting that first college football game:

NYT published: Nov 26, 1916

The second game, which Princeton won 8-0, was recounted in 1949 by Henry Green Duffield, the son of a Princeton Professor and in 1869 - then just a 10 year old boy. The following passage is an excerpt from an interview of Henry Green Duffield conducted by Princeton partisan Dan Coyle.

The game was played on Conover's Field at the foot of Chambers Street, about a block north of Nassau Street. It wasn't much more than a cow pasture but the hay had been mowed, goal lines drawn and posts erected. It was about a quarter-mile from where Palmer Stadium now stands.

Under the rules of 1869 you could catch the ball, but you couldn't run with it. If you did, it was a foul and the ball had to be thrown free up in the air. It could be advanced by batting it with your fist, by kicking it as in soccer or even by dribbling it as in basketball today.

The ball was not an oval but was supposed to be completely round. It never was though- it was too hard to blow up right. The game was stopped several times that day while the teams called for a little key from the sidelines. They used it to unlock the small nozzle tucked into the ball and then took turns blowing it up. The last man generally got tired and they put it back into play somewhat lopsided.

Beyond that there isn't very much... one thing we know for sure are the results, so with those results - the first official intercollegiate football season went into the books:

Princeton 1-1
Rutgers 1-1


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