Once Upon a Time, Harvard Was a National Powerhouse

In 1872, Harvard may not have been the best place to enroll for an education in medicine or physics. But it was definitely the best place to learn a new sport called football.

The Harvard University Football Club--whose purpose it was to set rules and plan intercollegiate competition for the baby sport--had recently been aproved by President Eliot to oversee a growing interest in the game.

And those early gridders founded a Harvard football tradition that has produced seven Ivy League championships and 100 All-Americans, and placed 17 players and coaches in the National Football Hall of Fame.

In The Beginning

Harvard played a critical role in the development of modern football. In the late 1800s, the sport resembled present-day rugby more than it did present-day football--and by no means were there standard rules to which all teams adhered.


In 1873, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Rutgers adopted a set of rules that did not allow the use of hands in football. However, Harvard stuck with its "hands-on" approach to the game, a choice which other schools eventually accepted.

Another standard was set by the Stadium, completed in 1903 at a cost of $320,000. The first reinforced concrete stadium in America, Harvard's new sports complex proved a major factor in the adoption of a rule allowing forward passes.

A 1905 committee turned down a more radical proposal--calling for wider playing arenas--because Harvard's field could not be widened without destroying football's new temple. The alternative: keeping fields narrow, but legalizing the forward pass for the benefit of struggling offenses.

Perhaps the greatest Harvard football tradition, however, began on November 13, 1875, when Harvard tripped up Yale, 4-0.

Annual trips between New Haven and Cambridge, replete with tailgate parties, alumni and countless shakers of martinis, are now an integral part of the Harvard-Yale match-up--a series which presently stands at 56-39-8 in favor of the Elis.

However, the first "Game" was not Harvard's first intercollegiate football contest.

In May of 1874, the Crimson hosted McGill University in a two-game match. Harvard emerged victorious in the first game, three touchdowns to none, but the second game ended in a draw.

Harvard's unique football legacy extends from those early days to the present, and ranges far beyond Soldiers Field.

Former gridders like Edward M. Kennedy '54 and Torbert H. MacDonald '40 moved on to careers in the Senate and House of Representatives. And Endicott "Babyface Assassin" Peabody '42, a football hero of the early 1940s, went on to serve as governor of Massachusetts.

But the same football tradition that spawned these respected public figures has not always lived up to high standards of conduct and propriety.

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