On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers University defeated Princeton University, 6-4 in what is widely known as the first intercollegiate football game.
To honor that day, there is a nationwide celebration to commemorate the 150th anniversary of college football — #CFB150.
Visitors to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas will see a posting from the U.S. Soccer archives that reads: “FIRST MATCH – On Nov. 6, 1869, Princeton and Rutgers universities met in the nation’s first formal college soccer match.”
“There weren’t two games on that day, it’s the same game and there is quite a bit of debate as to what type of game it was,” Tom McCabe told Pro Soccer USA.
McCabe played soccer for LAFC coach Bob Bradley at Princeton University and then earned his PhD in American History at Rutgers University. He is a soccer historian who teaches the Global History of Soccer at Rutgers University-Newark.
“Historians accept this game as the first ever college football game but soccer historians are also accepting it as the first of the College Association Football games (soccer),” McCabe said.
McCabe outlined the rules of the game, as stipulated by the captains of both sides, on a cold and rainy day at the College Avenue grounds.
“No throwing or running with the round, inflated ball would be allowed as either would constitute a foul,” McCabe said, reading from his PhD seminar paper. “The players move this ball forward with all parts of their body but they mostly use their feet to maneuver towards the opponent’s goal. One person who was there described it as frantic kicking.”
“So, this description – what does it sound like to you?” McCabe asked rhetorically.
There are no photographs available of the game that labeled Rutgers as “The Birthplace of College Football,” but a painted depiction offers a glimpse into the game that day.
“One (painting) looks an awful lot like soccer because there’s somebody kicking the ball,” McCabe said. “And then you look in the background. There are two posts and cross bar tied across the top and it looks like a goaltender in front.”
Rutgers and Princeton were scheduled to play three times that year. Princeton won the second match but the third game was cancelled when faculties of both institutions protested that the games were interfering with student studies.
The first game, with 25 players on each side, was evaluated in 1869 by The Targum, the Rutgers student newspaper that is still published today.
“In every game, the cool goaltenders saved the Rutgers goal half a dozen times,” the paper said. “To sum up, Princeton had the most muscle, but didn’t kick very well. They evidently don’t like to kick the ball on the ground. Our men, on the other hand, though comparatively weak, ran well, and kicked well throughout. But their great point was the organization, for which great praise is due to the captain.”
The soccer terminology is evident. Goaltender saves. Kick the ball on the ground.
McCabe also referenced a book written by a former meteorologist from North Carolina, Melvin Smith entitled, “Early American Football through 1891.”
“When I turn to page 53 on the 1869 season, The College of New Jersey (Princeton) and Rutgers split two games of Association Football (soccer) in November of 1869,” McCabe said. “By his classification system, Melvin Smith calls this a soccer game.”
McCabe said that the featured combatants were actually playing the sport three years earlier – with a trip overseas providing the guidelines.
“In 1866, Princeton played against the theological seminary right across the way and Rutgers was playing its usual inter-class games with the freshmen versus the sophomores in these type of kicking games,” McCabe said. “Much of this is based off the 1863 London rules in England. So, these old college players got together in this London Tavern that’s basically right across the street from Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s football grounds and they decide on the rules.”
Ultimately, the American colleges had to make a decision as to what sport they wanted to feature since that Nov. 6 game resembled a trio of activities: soccer, rugby and football.
“By the early 1880s you have these three games kind of defined,” McCabe said. “Then in 1882, Walter Camp, the father of American college football sets up the down system, and it’s definitively a carrying game.”
Rutgers theater students and alumni will perform a re-enactment of the Rutgers-Princeton game one hour before the Rutgers football team kicks off its 2019 season against the University of Massachusetts on Friday. Alum Ryan Neely will portray Rutgers captain William Leggett whose statue is featured outside the Rutgers football stadium. The image suggests that Leggett is running with a round ball – which of course, was against the rules.
Nov. 6, 1869 – a football game or a soccer match?
There are no apparent plans to celebrate 150 years of college soccer across the country. If there were, McCabe would have no objections.
“That would be totally appropriate.”