While I’m lost to explain the wisdom of a Washington Huskies team opening its season Saturday morning against an opponent representing the state university of New Jersey, there is something appropriate about a schedule that leads off with Rutgers.
It’s where football was born.
On Nov. 6, 1869, a group of Rutgers students faced a group of Princeton students in a game that combined elements of rugby and soccer. The competition little resembled modern football — carrying the ball was prohibited, and it would be decades before the introduction of the forward pass — but there were goalposts on two ends of a field that measured about 100 yards. A few hundred spectators showed up, and some of those spectators participated what is thought to be the first organized cheer at a college sporting event.
How did Rutgers manage to be the home for all this history?
Seems there was an annual fight between Rutgers and Princeton over possession of a cannon George Washington and Lord Howe had battled to possess. Princeton students — the original Jersey boys — put an end to that tradition by burying the cannon in a bed of solid concrete on their campus.
In lieu of the tussle for a cannon, a pair of football games was arranged between the schools, the first of which was at Rutgers’ original campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Targum, the Rutgers newspaper, noted that Princeton brought 25 players on a morning train.
“After dinner and a stroll around the town, during which stroll billiards received a good deal of attention, the crowds began to assemble to the ball ground,” reported Targum. “The ground presented an animated picture. Grim-looking players were silently stripping, each one surrounded by sympathizing friends, while around each one of the captains was a little crowd, intent upon giving advice.”
Tailgating has come a long way since 1869.
A possible explanation about why the participants appeared to be grim and in need of sympathy is that they wore no pads. For that matter, they didn’t wear uniforms — they took off their coats and collided in street clothes.
There was no clock. It was agreed upon that the winning team would be the first to score six goals. Princeton scored six and might have scored seven had one of its players not lost track of which direction he was kicking.
The better team — or at least the bigger team — won.
“The appearance of the Princeton men was very much different from that of our own players,” Targum reported. “They were almost without exception tall and muscular while the majority of our 25 are small and light but possess the merit of being up to much more than they look.
“Princeton had the muscle but didn’t kick well.”
A week later, the intrastate rivals held a rematch at Princeton, where the home team won, 8-0, during a game interrupted by a succession of equipment-related timeouts.
According to a spectator who talked with “The History of American Football” author Allison Danzig, “the ball was supposed to be completely round but it never was because it was too hard to blow up right. Several times during the game play had to be stopped, and a little key was brought from the sideline to unlock the small nozzle tucked into the ball. The players took turns blowing the ball up.”
Football at Rutgers has evolved since 1869, for better or worse. The better? Games aren’t delayed so that a key can be brought in from the sideline to unlock the nozzle of a ball requiring the players to inflate.
The worse? Former head coach Kyle Flood was fired after the 2015 season when he was found to have corresponded with a professor in an attempt to keep an academically challenged player eligible. This would be the same player who was arrested last September, with five teammates, for several felonies in a home-robbery invasion.
The Scarlet Knights program is attempting to reinvent itself after the Flood damage, but the damage was too profound for an overnight turnaround. Rutgers will enter Husky Stadium as 26-point underdogs in a game that presents some perks it was denied 146 years ago against Princeton.
Players will be suited in pads and helmets. Grim faces are optional.