The Immobilization of a Nation
“To appreciate this game to the full you must know something of its background. The two colleges were, and still are, of course, about 20 miles apart. The rivalry between them 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. In addition to this, I regret to report, Princeton had beaten Rutgers in baseball by the harrowing score of 40-2. Rutgers longed for a chance to square things.”
Such was the recounting of the backdrop of events leading up to 3 pm on November 6, 1869 as written by John W. Herbert, Rutgers Class of 1872 and one of the inaugural players. The 100 spectators only outnumbered the 25 players on each team by a factor of 2-to-1. Forming anything but what we think of as a “formation,” and to not be confused with the visiting players from Princeton, the Rutgers players and fans wrapped their heads, turban-style, in scarlet scarves. William J. Leggett, captain of the Rutgers team who later became a distinguished clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church, suggested that rules for the contest be adopted from those of the London Football Association. Leggett’s proposal was accepted by Captain William Gunmere of Princeton, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Though smaller on average, the Rutgers players “had ample speed and fine football skills.” As per the November 1869 issue of the Targum, Rutgers’ undergraduate newspaper, “Princeton had the most muscle, but didn’t kick very well, and wanted organization. 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 right men were always in the right place.” And so it was that the first intercollegiate football game was won by Rutgers 6-4. Columbia University got onto the gridiron the following season and within a few years, most colleges and universities on the Eastern seaboard were in the game.
Though twice invited to join the Ivy League, that inaugural winning New Brunswick school has opted to maintain its public status that makes it appreciably more affordable. As such, 151 years after that first season, and unlike Princeton, as part of the Big 10, Rutgers will still be able to play conference teams on the gridiron this season. At least, that’s as things stand today. While no conference has followed the Ivy Leagues in fully cancelling all fall sports, the Big 10, followed by the Pac-12, have salvaged what little they can of the season by cancelling only out-of-conference matchups. By limiting play to within the conference, the schedule can be controlled – games can be postponed and rescheduled, and travel can be restricted, if need be in this post-pandemic world.