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150 Years of Harvard Football

The historic Harvard Stadium in the early days of the football program.
The historic Harvard Stadium in the early days of the football program. By Courtesy of Harvard University Archives
By Caroline G. Gage and Thomas Harris, Crimson Staff Writers

When thinking of classic American sports, baseball usually comes to mind. But only 10 years after professional baseball was brought to the states, before the sport of basketball was even a thought in its creators head and a year before the first indoor hockey game was played (Hockey Hall of fame), the annals of football were being written by the Harvard Football Club.

The Princeton-Rutgers football series — which looked more like soccer — commenced intercollegiate football in the United States. A couple of years later, Yale sent a letter to the ‘Harvard University Foot Ball Club,’ asking for their attendance in a convention between the five schools interested in “Foot Ball,” namely, Columbia, Harvard, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale. However, Harvard's game had adapted aspects of rugby — players could run holding the ball and didn’t just have to kick it. So, Harvard declined, refusing to compromise its sport.

Just a year later in 1874, McGill University contacted Harvard, asking for a match. They agreed to play two games: one that, despite being too similar to rugby for the likes of Yale, still looked like “association football.” For context, association football was later shortened to “asoccer,” and finally to “soccer.” These two games had roots in both schools: one game of association football from Harvard’s rulebook and one game of rugby football from McGill’s rulebook. These games were to happen on Harvard’s field. More than 500 people paid 50 cents to watch the games.

The result of the soccer-like game was 3-0 Harvard. McGill players were confused by all of the kicking, and were merely spectators, according to the Crimson report from the time. In the second game McGill and Harvard remained scoreless. Although neither team won that day, it changed the course of football history forever.

According to the Professional Football Researchers Association, “[The Harvard Men] fell head over heels in love with rugby and all thoughts of the once-cherished [completely soccer-based football] disappeared,”emphasizing the impact of the shift in the game.

The influence of this change can be seen directly today in almost every aspect of the game, but most visually by the change in ball. When McGill proposed the first rugby game, it also introduced the egg-shaped ball to America. It is this ball that directly evolved into the pigskin that fans everywhere know and love today. With that, the saga known as Harvard football truly began.

One year after the McGill game, the famous Harvard-Yale rivalry began. Harvard played its first game in uniforms in New Haven, under the same rugby-influenced rules as the McGill game. Yale promised Harvard 75 dollars to play “the game,” but Harvard also walked home with a decisive 4-0 victory.

Harvard students, excited as ever after a Harvard-Yale victory, got caught “hooting and singing in public streets,” and had to pay a fine. A year later, the intercollegiate football association was founded.

One of the most infamous installments of The Game occurred on Nov. 24, 1894. Also known as “the bloodbath at Hampden Park,” the Harvard-Yale matchup resulted in so many critical injuries that administrators banned the matchup for the next two years.

Unsurprisingly, the early iterations of the Harvard-Yale game were almost nothing like the games played today. The first decades of the game looked more like rugby matches than modern football. A program from the Game of 1894 includes the rules, which ban forward passes and tackling below the knees.

Football was a violent sport and players wore simple uniforms which did not include protective gear. According to The Athletic, about 76 college football players died from injuries between 1890 and 1892. With injuries and even deaths causing alarm among administrators, the ethics and viability of college football were hotly debated by the end of the 19th century.

Months before the “bloodbath at Hampden Park,” a Crimson article detailed President Charles Eliot’s strong criticism of the sport in his report to the Board of Overseers. In the report, Eliot argues that “no football should be played until the rules are so amended as to diminish the number and the violence of the collisions between the players, and to provide for the enforcement of the rules.”

A portrait of the Harvard "Foot Ball" team from its game against Yale on Nov. 24, 1894.
A portrait of the Harvard "Foot Ball" team from its game against Yale on Nov. 24, 1894. By Courtesy of Harvard University Archives

Amendments were made to the rules of the game, spearheaded by the University Athletic Club’s Football Committee. Yale’s Walter Camp was one of the main creators of the new rules, which were the foundations of the game as it is played today. Some of the changes, detailed in a New York Times article from Feb. 1894, included new penalties for unnecessary roughness, fouls, and amendments to the scoring system.

The 1894 Harvard-Yale contest, subject to these new rules, went on with 25,000 spectators in attendance. The Bulldogs ultimately won 12-4. While the low score might indicate a boring game, the reality was anything but. Despite the efforts of the Football Committee and other administrators to revamp the game, violence still ensued.

Harvard’s Charles Brewer left with a broken leg, and Yale’s right tackle Fred Murphy suffered a brain contusion. Three Yale players incurred severe concussions, and a few more players ended the day in the hospital with broken collarbones or noses.

The New York Times, describing the game, wrote, “the record of French duels for the last dozen years fails to show such a list of casualties as this one game of football produced.”

“It was a game in which an unusual amount of bad blood and foul playing was shown, and the new rules, which were expected to accomplish so much in reducing the record of injuries to players, failed entirely of their purpose,” The Times continued.

As a result of the 1894 Game, the contest between the teams was banned for the next two years. Discussions would continue into the next century about reform, and some advocated for an outright ban of football itself. Amidst continued outcry from Eliot and other leadership, President Theodore Roosevelt ‘80 called a committee to the White House in 1905 which revolutionized the sport. In an effort to make the game safer, the rules were changed to allow the forward pass.

Years after the bloodbaths of the early 1890’s, Harvard won its first (and only) Rose Bowl against the Oregon Webfoots. Held at the conclusion of the first season since World War I, the 1920 Rose Bowl (won after the 1919 season) represented a bright return to football for the first full season since the 1916 season. It was also the 50th anniversary of the sport, and the first Rose Bowl in three years not played by a military team. The majority of Harvard’s talent had recently returned from the battlefield fighting the Great War.

That season, Harvard went 8-0-1 and played only one away game, where it tied Princeton. Oregon tried to injure Harvard to defeat, trailing in the early game, but bruising the Crimson in the process, and they ended the first half up 7-6. But neither team was able to score, and the game ended with Harvard a foot shy of the endzone. While they were unable to increase their margin, the Harvard team still defeated the Webfoots 7-6.

This moment was bittersweet — Harvard football was greeted to heroic status and lavish balls, but it also marked the end of Harvard’s dominance in the sport. The state schools, with their higher enrollments, were threatening to take over the Ivies. That, paired with the fact that Harvard was pulling away from emphasizing athletics, meant that the Crimson’s stay at the top was short lived.

One hundred and fifty years after its creation, Harvard football has won twelve national championships, 18 conference championships (including one in 2023), and one Rose Bowl. Its history, which is inseparable from the history of football as a whole, is one of the richest in all of college and professional sports.

— Staff writer Caroline G. Gage can be reached at caroline.gage@thecrimson.com.

— Staff writer Thomas Harris can be reached at thomas.harris@thecrimson.com.

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