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American Inventions - Game 16, Rutgers

Something we all love was (sort of) invented at Rutgers.

Andrew Burton

Most college football fans know that the first college football game in the United States was played at Rutgers, against Princeton, in 1869. What you may not know is that the game played that day bears little resemblance to the modern sport. As the description from Rutgers' own website goes:

The game was played with two teams of 25 men each under rugby-like rules. The teams lined up with two members of each team remaining more or less stationary near the opponent’s goal in the hopes of being able to slip over and score from unguarded positions. The remaining 23 players were divided into groups of 11 and 12. While the 11 "fielders" lined up in their own territory as defenders, the 12 "bulldogs" carried the battle.

Having invented the 2-12-11 formation, both teams tried to score points by batting or kicking the ball into the other team's goal. It could not be carried or passed. (The forward pass would not be legalized until 1906, and not effectively used until Notre Dame in 1913.) The ball in play was round, meaning the game probably resembled modern soccer more than modern football. The teams agreed to play to ten "games", with each score constituting a game.

And as with any modern college football game, there were rivalries and scores to be settled. John W. Herbert, who played in the game for Rutgers, described the situation thusly:

The rivalry between (Rutgers and Princeton) was intense. For years each had striven for possession of an old Revolutionary cannon, making night forays and lugging it back and forth time and again. Not long before the first football game, the canny Princetonians had settled this competition in their own favor by ignominiously sinking the gun in several feet of concrete.

The cannon remains a feature on Princeton's campus to this day. But not for lack of trying on Rutgers' part. They made two major attempts to steal it back. In 1875, ten Rutgers sophomores lugged the cannon 200 yards to a horse-drawn wagon, and then 20 miles back to the Rutgers campus, only to discover it was the wrong cannon.

Seventy years later, some Rutgers students tried chaining the cannon to a classmate's car, and gunning the engine. The getaway attempt ripped the car in half, leaving the cannon where it was, and creating a real-life Kent "Flounder" Dorfman. This tactic failed largely because the concrete job John Herbert spoke of buried all but the last two feet of the barrel. This ensured the cannon would never be removed from Princeton's campus. But at a steep cost, if you ask me: the last two feet of a cannon barrel sticking out of the ground is a much less impressive campus feature than a free-standing authentic Revolutionary War cannon would have been.

Back to the football game: the Rutgers players were smaller than their opponents, but had improvisation on their side. One Rutgers player discovered he could back-heel loose balls to his teammates, which proved to be an effective defensive tactic. On offense, Rutgers discovered that joining up in a V formation was a good way to advance the ball. This approach would become popular in college football in the late 19th century as the "flying wedge." But it led to so many injuries and deaths that President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to abolish the sport if there wasn't reform. (And Teddy Roosevelt was badass.) Only recently did the NFL rule out the flying wedge's last vestige, the special teams wedge formation.

But as in college football today, clever tactics can't overcome talent advantage for long. Princeton had a large man named J.E. "Big Mike" Michael. After Rutgers scored a couple times with the flying wedge, Princeton sent Big Mike charging up field with the sole purpose of breaking up the wedge. As John Herbert described it:

The Princeton battering ram made no attempt to reach the ball but, forerunner of the interference-breaking ends of today (ed. note: "today" meaning 1933), threw himself into our mass play, bursting us apart, and bowing us over. Time and again Rutgers formed the wedge and charged; as often Big Mike broke it up. And finally on one of these incredible break-ups a Princeton bulldog with a long accurate, perhaps lucky kick, sent the ball between the posts for the second score.

Princeton then began employing Rutgers' wedge tactic on offense, and easily marched up the field to tie the game at 4-4. An irate Rutgers professor taunted the Princetonians, "You will come to no Christian end!"

But Rutgers found another edge. Captain William Leggett had noticed that Princeton had a height advantage, and instructed his team to keep the ball near the ground when Rutgers was on offense. This strategem would decide the match, as Rutgers scored the next two goals to win 6-4.

Princeton would later win a rematch, on their campus, with slightly different rules. A third and deciding game was scheduled, but the faculties of both schools complained that it was costing too much class time, so it was scrapped.

So Rutgers not only gave us the first college football game, but many other firsts that go with it: the first rivalry; the first gimmick offense; the first angry fan; the first team to blame an opposing score on bad luck; the first academic controversy, and the first split national championship. And for these things, we are all grateful.

Correction 10:10am: This article was corrected to show that the game at Rutgers was the first college football game in the United States. The first collegiate football game was in Toronto at University College at the University of Toronto in 1961.