Setting the Record Straight



Setting the Record Straight: The Origins of “The Game”




In 1852, as spring became summer, the students of Yale issued Harvard a challenge. The recently formed Yale rowing team had invited the even more recently formed Harvard rowing to come test the superiority of their oarsmen.  A gauntlet had been thrown down and could not remain unanswered. On the third of August of the same year, both teams met on the banks of Lake Winnipesaukee and climbed into their respective racing shells. The sleek boats pulled out onto the water and lined up, still, but taut like a drawn bowstring and poised to explode into motion.  The race started and the shells erupted forward before settling into an intense but steady pace. The regatta was a grueling two-mile affair, and the competitors poured every ounce of stamina into propelling their craft forward. As they entered the final stretch Harvard’s shell, the Oneida had pulled ahead; streaking past the two-mile make a mere two boat lengths ahead of the Yale team. Harvard had claimed victory in the first American intercollegiate even and the oldest rivalry in American collegiate athletics was born. 

This rivalry smoldered and grew. Over the next two decades, the sport of football became increasingly popular in the states. What exactly this entailed is difficult to say, as there was no clear consensus as to how exactly one played American football. Every university had their own set of rules and played the game in their own way, though it was generally agreed that the sport largely consisted of using feet to kick a ball into a goal.  In 1873, in an effort to bring some order to the sport, representatives from Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers met in a hotel in New York to create a set of rules for intercollegiate play, resulting in a game not dissimilar to soccer in the modern day. Harvard, however, decided not to attend this conference and continued to play their preferred variant. When this predictably made it difficult for the Harvard team to schedule intercollegiate matches, they arranged two games against the Canadian McGill University. The first game was played under Harvard rules, but the second was played under rugby regulations. The Harvard team took a shine to this game and incorporated several aspects of it into their own rules. These rules now permitted carrying the ball, scoring a try by getting the ball to the end of the field (the precursor to touchdowns), and stopped play to reset each time a ball carrier was tackled to the ground.   

Thrilled with this new game and unwilling to let something as petty as rules and regulations get in the way of a good rivalry, Harvard challenged Yale to a match. The two schools agreed on a set of rules extremely similar to those of rugby, and The Game was set for Saturday November 13, 1875. The Harvard team traveled up to Newhaven and met with the Yale team at Hamilton field. Students flooded out to observe the violent display of athletic prowess, with tickets going for the low cost of fifty cents a head (about $11 in today’s money). The exact events of the game are elusive; we may never have an exact play by play; however, by the end, Harvard had thoroughly defeated Yale, emerging victorious with a score of four to zero. The exact meaning of the score is hard to ascertain as the exact method of scoring is hard to pin down, but suffice to say it was definitive win and well earned. The Harvard team returned to Cambridge celebrating their triumph while the Yale team began to prepare for the next year.

The second game was played on November 18, 1876 at Yale. While Harvard made a laudable effort, Yale won with a tidy one-zero victory. Though less groundbreaking and perhaps a mite less exciting than the first time The Game was played, this match may have had an even greater impact on the tradition and the sport of American football as a whole. This is largely due to the involvement of two particular young men. At the time, future president Theodore Roosevelt was in his first year at Harvard University. Apparently the game made a strong impression on him that would remain into his later years. Of more immediate significance is a man named Walter Camp, who played as a halfback for Yale.  He continued to play for Yale until 1882, captain the team in 78 and 79, and during this time and the years that followed, he would revolutionize the sport of American football.  

Walter was a regular attendee of the meetings where the early rules of American football were created and reviewed.  His first major proposal was to reduce the number of players on each side of the field from fifteen, as was the norm in rugby, to eleven, as was standard in soccer. This was intended to increase the amount of open space and allow for more exciting plays. This new direction was largely ignored by players in favor of making slow, incremental progress by abusing the gaps left by this new rule.  This resulted in a number of games where only a single team ever had possession of the ball and one or no touchdowns were scored. To combat this unfortunate trend, Walter proposed rules requiring that teams move the ball a certain number of yards forward in a set number of plays to keep the game moving. The new ideas resulted in the creation of downs and the line of scrimmage that is so central to football today. He also played roles in the development of the scoring system, the measurements of the field an the introduction of impartial referees. His most important contribution was likely the role he played in adding blocking to the game.

In soccer and rugby it is illegal for a player who does not have the ball to stand between the player with possession of the ball and a person attempting to steal the ball or tackle the carrier. This is mostly a safety issue and greatly increases the rate at which the ball is turned over. In early American football, players would “accidentally” knock over opposing players going after the ball carrier. While Walter was initially against this practice, he soon incorporated it into his strategies, and it quickly became an official part of the sport. This made games much more exciting, but also far more violent and dangerous.

The 1890’s were an exciting time for The Game. In 1890, in a move unprecedented in collegiate athletics, Yale introduced cheerleaders to The Game. This, combined with the new blocking tactics, made the experience more thrilling than ever before. The fun came to a screeching halt with the seventeenth game in 1894. In this game, referred to as the Hampden Park Bloodbath, more than five players were hospitalized and one briefly fell into a coma. The Game was temporarily suspended and then-president of Harvard Charles Eliot attempted to have the game banned entirely. Eventually The Game was reinstated, but concern generated by this incident and similar events was great enough that President Theodore Roosevelt gathered experts from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to reform the game so that it could retain its spirit while also not crippling players. This resulted in a number of changes that opened up the field, banned particularly dangerous formations, brought the forward pass into legal use, and generally made football into the game we know today.

In the years since there have been many stories made at the game. Pranks have been played and friendships have been forged amid the brisk New England air and the stench of alcohol. There have been epic victories and defeats. There was even one particularly embarrassing time when Yale put their team manager in to score a touchdown when riding a particularly large lead. As we get ready for the one hundred and thirty sixth game, Yale is leading us sixty-seven to sixty, so let’s all support our team in New Haven and start setting that record right.


Chidambaram Thillairajah ’21 ( writes news for the Indy.