An irreverent look back at the 1869 season

by Zach Bigalke

Now that 150 seasons of college football are in the book, let’s go back to the very beginning. It’s time to take an irreverent look at the mirage we call the 1869 season.

Over the past season, college football celebrated 150 years of existence. We have to ask ourselves, though, whether this date actually signifies the start of football. As a person who loves the gridiron game, I want to believe that college football got its start way back in 1869. As a historian, though, let’s get serious.

What transpired on grassy fields in New Jersey back then wasn’t really football… at least not what Americans refer to as football. While the gridiron game has changed over the years, and the games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries looked nothing like the football we know today, the Rutgers-Princeton contests of 1869 are a different story.

Sorry, folks, but when Rutgers and Princeton met up on the fields of their respective colleges in November 1869 they were playing a modified version of Association football — what Americans call soccer.

Yes, you heard that right — soccer

Football in the mid-1800s was drifting away from its origins as a daylong battle between villages and developing into a more codified spectacle adapted by British schools. What was effectively a no-holds-barred struggle was condensed into a finite playing space with rules, conventions, and scoring.

Of course, every school modified the game a little differently, leading to difficulties when interschool competitions were arranged. Before games could begin, participants first had to reconcile the divergences in their respective rulebooks. Thus we have to take a moment and step back to look at what the teams of 25 players apiece actually played in New Jersey all those decades ago.

Even after the Football Association codified the rules for the kicking game in London in October 1863, variations on the game continued to develop. Each school continued to maintain its own rules, a trend that crossed the pond to the United States.

Those variations marked the inaugural season of what has come to be known as college football, even if it looked nothing like the football played even just a decade later.

What was actually happening on those fields in New Jersey?

The fields on which Rutgers and their rivals played looked nothing like Princeton’s current home field featured in the photo at the top of this post. Goalposts at either end of the field featured two posts and a crossbar, a familiar sight for soccer fans. In both contests, players were prohibited from holding and carrying the ball as we see running backs do all the time in the 21st century.

The ball was advanced toward the goal by kicking along the turf, the object as it is in soccer to this day to put the ball through the goal for a point. Interestingly, in addition to allowing the ball to advance off the head or hips, the rules also allowed players to bat the ball forward. One imagines this probably looked similar to the hand pass in Australian rules football, where the ball is held in one hand and punched forward underhand with the other.

Arnold Friburg painting, The First Game (Photo by Wayne Bryant via Pinterest)

The first game was called by invitation of Rutgers. Earlier in the summer of 1869, Princeton walloped the Rutgers baseball team 40-2, and the hope in New Brunswick was to gain a measure of vengeance for that beatdown on the baseball diamond. Rutgers did get to celebrate victory after that first hybridized contest, putting a half-dozen past Princeton’s goalkeeper in a 6-4 victory at home.

The two teams of 25 players, far larger than any football code currently employs per side, struggled gamely to move the round leather-and-rubber Association football toward the goalposts. At the same time, they scored far more goals than one usually sees in a soccer match these days.

Seven days later, the lads from Rutgers made the 16-mile return journey to the Princeton campus for a rematch. Where their first contest required the ball to be advanced exclusively in motion, without any opportunities to even pick up the object, the second game was played under Princeton’s rules that allowed for drop kicks. Playing by their own rules that slowed down the game and neutralized a speed advantage on the Rutgers team, Princeton took down their state rivals in an 8-0 shutout.

None of the animosity that dominates relationships between rivals in 21st-century football existed back then. After taking its drubbing from Princeton, Rutgers’ players joined their hosts at a dinner to celebrate the contest.

What about the third matchup in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers?

The two teams had so much fun in their first two showdowns that they opted to cancel a third game scheduled between them. Officially, the two schools agreed to cancel their rubber match because they felt that Saturday play interfered too much with studies.

We can probably take them at their word, considering the two teams supped together after their second contest. Another sticking point was possibly an inability to decide which set of rules to play under for the third contest, given that each school won under their own variation of the game.

As such, the only two schools to play their modified games of college soccer in 1869 each went 1-1. Retroactively — because we Americans just have to know who was the best team in every year — both Rutgers and Princeton were declared national champions of the 1869 season.

Next: How football navigated the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

It took several more years before the phenomenon spread outward from the Garden State, and thus the November 6, 1869 battle at Rutgers is remembered as the both the first college football game and the first college soccer match.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.