Epilogue: McGill and the Birth of Football

Epilogue: McGill and the Birth of Football McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2005 > Summer 2005 > Epilogue: McGill and the Birth of Football

Epilogue: McGill and the Birth of Football

Caption follows
A William Notman composite photo of the first game between McGill and Harvard in 1874.
McGill Archives

Edward Percy, BSc'49, MDCM'51, MSc'54, DipSurg'57, and Hugh Brodie, BSc'49, MDCM'51, were physicians for McGill's Department of Athletics in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Together they wrote this short history of intercollegiate football, illuminating McGill's role in the evolution of the game, which appeared in a 1982 edition of the News.

Having allegedly evolved during the Danish occupation of England when belligerent Anglo-Saxons kicked Viking skulls from village to village, football of an only slightly less bellicose sort was imported to the New World by 17th- and 18th-century colonists. In 1840, a reporter wrote of a Yale University game: "If the truth were told, the game would make the same impression on the public mind as a bullfight. Boys and young men knocked each other down and tore off each others' clothing. Eyes were bunged, faces blackened, much blood was spilt and shirts and coats were torn to rags."

By 1860 the game was abolished in many American schools, but in 1862 Gerritt Smith Hiller organized a group at Yale to play again, using rules that were a reasonably close imitation of soccer. Still, the game was often more an excuse to beat up freshmen than anything else.

In 1871 Harvard University started to play a variation known as the "Boston Game." This allowed a player to pick up the ball and run with it if he were chased, varying from the game that had been prohibited in 1840.

In the fall of 1873 Yale invited Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Rutgers to a convention in New York to draw up a set of rules for an intercollegiate football association. Harvard shunned the meeting because the proposed association would not consider the rules of the Boston Game. It nevertheless challenged Yale to a game in 1874. Yale, however, played a game resembling soccer and thus declined because of the different rules. Harvard captain Henry Grant was anxious for his football team to engage in competition and had heard that a similar game was played at McGill University. Consequently, he contacted the captain of the McGill team, David Roger, and invited them to play two games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 13 and 14, 1874. These were to be the first real football games.

Until this time, Harvard had been playing a game that today would be considered very similar to what we call soccer football. McGill arrived in Cambridge several days prior to the game and practised each day. The Harvard team was surprised when the McGill players kicked the ball and subsequently ran with it under their arms. The Harvard captain pointed out politely that this violated a basic rule of American football. The McGill captain replied that it did not violate any rule of the Canadian game. When asked "What game do you play?" Roger replied, "Rugby." They then managed to agree to play the forthcoming games with half-Canadian, half-American rules.

The following day a notice appeared in the Harvard University paper: "The McGill University Football Club will meet the Harvard Football Club on Wednesday and Thursday, May 13th and 14th. The game probably will be called at 3 o'clock. Admittance 50 cents. The proceeds will be donated to the entertainment of our visitors from Montreal."

Early in the first half, the Harvard team so enjoyed running with the ball that they agreed to play the remainder of the game with Canadian rules, which stipulated that the ball could be picked up and carried. Harvard normally played with 15 players, but McGill could only field 11 athletes (the number fielded in the present game of American football). The first game was won by Harvard 3 to 0 and the game played on the following day ended in a scoreless tie. Harvard liked the McGill game so much that it adopted the downs as well as field goals. These rule changes, which included tackling, led inevitably to the physical contact of our present-day collision sport. In the fall of 1875, Harvard challenged Yale to a match and suggested the use of a set of rules combining soccer and rugby, such as Harvard had learned from its Canadian rival the previous year.

The game was eventually played under a combination of both soccer and rugby rules, but Yale apparently won the concession of using a round, rather than oval, football. Harvard's triumph over Yale at this so-called "concessionary game" was witnessed by a sis-boom-bah cheering crowd of 2,000 spectators bedecked in coloured shirts, stockings and knee breeches.

Harvard went on to play McGill again in Cambridge and in Montreal in 1876, '77, '79 and '82. Winning all the games, they retreated south of the border for some time. Then, on October 19, 1974, McGill made its comeback. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the historic McGill-Harvard "American" football game, the McGill rugby team (which most closely resembles the team that participated in the original matches) challenged Harvard, beating them 6 to 3. This centennial game led to an annual return match between the Harvard and McGill rugby teams in a spirit that is reminiscent of those first college games.

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