The Birth of Football 1869

The November 9, 1869 edition of the New York Times reported twenty five students from Rutgers College played the same number from Princeton in a “game of foot ball” in an exciting contest of one hour on November 6.

The Rutgers were declared the winners with the score standing six to four. The innings were as follows Rutgers 1st, 3d, 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th; Princeton 2d, 4th, 7th, 8th. On returning from the ball ground, the Princeton boys partook of the hospitalities of the Rutgers.

The teams played with a round ball and scored 1 point for a goal which is why the game ended with a 6-4 victory.

Courtesy Hoboken Historical Museum-800Courtesy of Hoboken Historical Museum


The top two college teams, the Yale Bulldogs and the Princeton Tigers, met on November 27 1879 and fought out a scoreless game.

The game captured the locals’ imagination and obtained some column inches in the New York Times and the New York Sun so I’ve combined the best of their reports with my notes in italics.



A Long And Desperate Struggle Between Teams
Neither Of Which Has Been Beaten And Neither Of Which Won A Goal

Never before in the history of football in America has there been such a vast assemblage of spectators as crowded the St. George cricket ground in Hoboken yesterday on the occasion of the last match of the football season for the college championship between the teams of Yale and Princeton.

In fact, Hoboken – the scene of so many large gatherings at ball matches of one kind or another – has not had so large a crowd cross the river from the city to see a contest of the kind since the assembling of fifteen thousand spectators at the noted contest for the silver ball between the base-ball nines of New York and Brooklyn.

The contest yesterday was the culmination of an exciting series of battles for supremacy in the game by the football players of Yale and Princeton, whose respective teams had this season escaped from defeat in every match they have played with other college teams.

It was long before 2 pm, the hour appointed for commencing play that the crowd began to gather at the grounds and the 2 o’clock boats carried over hundreds of passengers besides numbers of carriages and hotel coaches. Five of these were occupied by ladies and students flying the Yale blue, and four bore fair freight who flung the orange colours of Princeton to the breeze.

The entire field was surrounded by private carriages. The grand stand on the west side was crowded an hour before the match and Mr. Stevens’ private stand was taken up by an assemblage of that gentlemen’s guests. In one carriage sat Mr. Eaton on crutches, one of the practical results of being a skilful “rusher” in a football team under the fifteen men rule.

For half an hour the contestants walked around the field or passed the ball around in practice – the Princetons attired in their waspish uniform of cross barred black and orange shirts and stockings while the Yale team appeared in the old dark blue of the university. Both teams wore the necessary canvas shirts and all presented the appearance of being trained athletes.

The football field was “fenced in” by a heavy rope running around the field. Between this rope and the fence, spectators stood tightly wedged all through the game. The dangerous and miserable sham of a concern sarcastically called “the grand stand” was packed with foolish people who risked their necks by staying upon it.

StGeorge Cricket Grounds Michael Gershman

A dozen big hotel coaches were scattered around the field, each covered by shouting collegians. The teams with 15 a side got into position promptly at 2.30 pm, but a long pause followed while an enterprising photographer turned his camera upon them.

As the photographer put the cap on his camera, referee Bacon shouted, “Play!” The “kick-off” fell to Captain Ballard of Princeton after Yale had won the toss and selected the southerly goal from which the sun shone.

The big leather ball fell from Ballard’s send-off into Peters’ hands and he gave it a vicious kick towards the east-side foul-lines. Twenty men were falling over each other and the ball in an instant. There was a short sharp scrimmage and soon the egg had been crowded and rolled to the opposite foul-lines.

The game began as it finished a war of attrition with tempers often frayed as each team attempted to break the deadlock. Back and forth the mass of foot-ball humanity struggled and rolled until suddenly two more men wanted to settle the game with their fists.

After a fifteen minute break, the teams played a second innings.

For nearly ten minutes the men struggled without gaining 10 feet either way, the “backs” of each side being nothing but interested onlookers. Princeton gained then slowly until the crowd of players was 20 feet from the Yale goal. Writing and twisting the men rolled about until Yale made a very hot kick which was stopped and the ball rolled among the spectators with twenty men on top of it.

Princeton were forcing the fight with a will and Yale was getting desperate. Suddenly, McNair made a beautiful kick for the blue goal. Over went the ball and a hurricane of yells from the crowd went after it. “A goal! A goal! Princeton’s got a goal!” shouted the excited people.

But it was not so. The ball had unfortunately gone a trifle wide of the goal posts and Watson had touched down for a safety for the first time for Yale. Then the struggle raged more furiously than ever, for Yale could not afford such another close shave and she knew it.

The referee called “Time” for the last time, and the great game was over. In a moment the field was covered with spectators, each player was surrounded by a crowd of friends and the yells and the cheers made the place a pandemonium.

Yale was disgusted and Princeton was in exactly the same condition. But all agreed that it was the hardest fought and best match of the year although neither side had won and each side was sure the that the draw game was the best result the other side could have expected.

Editor’s notes: Reprinted from the newspapers as it was printed so the spelling and grammar transgressions are an age thing, not my failure in proof reading.

There were several mentions of a safety touch-down, but it would appear that they were not the two-point safety as we know them today, but it was the ball going beyond the goal line and being touched down by the defending team. The safety rule as we know it was introduced in 1883 when it scored 1 point.

The early games were played with soccer goal posts in place and on the field it was hard-nosed ground orientated football with no forward passes which were not made legal until 1906. The rule change was introduced in an attempt to open up the game and reduce the injuries brought about by the tough, bruising sport.

Another rule change gave a team three downs to make ten yards instead of the three downs to make five.

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