Yes, yes, I know. It's Saturday, and nobody likes to get up for class on a Saturday -- especially a football Saturday -- but you might find this particular history lesson interesting. You see, it's not only a big college football Saturday here in America, but it's also a big Association Football Saturday across the pond in England: seven games in the English Premier League (something our man MJD is certainly watching), 11 games in the Football League Championship, 11 games in League One, 12 games in League Two, and so on and so forth, and that doesn't include a handful of games in France, Italy and Spain, not to mention the start of the Australian Football League Finals Series and its strange, strange bracket.
Now you're probably wondering, "Dave, you lunatic, what exactly does English soccer have to do with American football?" Well, when the very first college football game was played in 1869, the two games weren't all that different...
An artists rendering of the first college football game
between Rutgers and Princeton, played on November 6, 1869
(Courtesy of ScarletKnights.com)
You see, while the Brits were codifying their soccer and rugby games in the 1860s, Americans were still trying to define their football game. College of New Jersey, which we call "Princeton" today, was playing something called "Ballown," a rather ugly kicking game which might just have been an excuse to kick people in the groin. Dartmouth had something called "Old Division Football," a mob soccer game involving hundreds of freshmen playing hundreds of sophomores. The Oneida Football Club created what was called the "Boston Game," which was a strange hybrid sort of kicking and running game.
Once the Football Association had codified the rules of soccer in 1863, though, Americans decided to pick up that ball and run with it -- so to speak, of course -- and six years later, football players from Rutgers and Princeton met for the very first college football game.
Since they borrowed from Association football, you can imagine how foreign the game would look compared to what you'll see on the field today. Each team had 25 players on the field -- 11 defenders, 12 "bulldogs" and 2 "sleepers" positioned near their opponents goals. (Try to imagine the old 6-on-6 girls basketball games in Iowa, only on a field with a lot more guys beating each other up.) The game played on until 10 goals were scored, and whoever had the most goals won. Players could only advance the ball by kicking it or beating it with their fists, but unlike the English game, blocking and tackling was allowed and encouraged.
In fact, this first game featured a formation that became infamous in college football two decades later -- the flying wedge. Rutgers players locked arms in front of the ball-handlers and attempted to bust through Princeton's defense. Princeton responded by sending the monstrous J.E. "Big Mike" Michael right into the wedge to break it up, and at one point, someone snuck in behind Big Mike and took the ball away, successfully scoring on a long kick toward the goal.
Once Rutgers realized that Big Mike was going to ruin their day like Vince Young ruined USC's day last January, Rutgers countered with the deft ball handling of the appropriately named Madison Ball, who set up Rutgers for plenty more scoring opportunities. After one goal, though, Big Mike set Princeton up with a flying wedge of its own and got an easy score, prompting one Rutgers professor to stand up and shout, "You will come to no Christian end!" (Shout that at your football game today and see how people react...)
Rutgers countered by keeping the ball on the ground, allowing Madison Ball's kicking skills to gain the advantage over J.E. Michael's brute force. Thanks to that strategy, Rutgers won the game, 6 goals to 4.
The game proved very popular at the time, and several colleges wanted to adopt those rules for their own college football matches. Alas, Harvard didn't like the kicking game and decided that the other form of English football -- rugby -- was a much better game for American colleges...
But that's a story for another day. Class dismissed. Enjoy the games today, folks, whatever your favorite form of football may be.