Harvard: The Real Home of Football

The Game Finds Its Roots in Rugby

Harvard is the home of napalm, William James, and B.F. Skinner and football.

Harvard does not play football very well these days, but it can take credit for the survival of the sport of football.

At a time in which other schools were interested in shifting the focus of football toward soccer. Harvard rebuked the attempts and continued playing its own form of the sport.

In October 1873, the Harvard University Foot Ball Club received a letter from Yale asking for delegates to a convention interested in setting up a code of rules to govern intercollegiate football. In addition to Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton and Yale had also shown interest in playing the sport.

However, football was more soccer-like at the other schools, and Harvard would have been in the minority for supporting rugby-like rules.


At Harvard, the rules of the game permitted a player to pick up the ball and run with it or pass it, unlike the other schools which kicked the ball. A player was allowed to tackle an adversary regardless of who held the ball.

And, just think, these fellows called themselves Harvard men.

Because Harvard would have been in the minority for choosing the rules, the University turned down the invitation.

Although Harvard cannot take direct credit for the game of football. the decision not to join the new Intercollegiate Association is what kept rugby-style football alive in America, leading to the development of the modern game.

The early history of football at Harvard could easily have come out of a comic book. The first recorded account of a Harvard football game is an epic poem entitled "The Battle of the Delta." The poem, which is attributed to Rev. James C. Richmond. sings mock praise of a fierce football fight between the freshmen and sophomores in the autumn of 1827.

The football games were played where Memorial Hall now stands. The Delta battles evolved into "Bloody Monday," a wrestling match between the underclassmen.

"Bloody Monday" usually turned into a brawl, and it escalated each year in violence until 1860, when the Faculty outlawed its existence.

Football was dead at Harvard. With an air of defiance, a group of players held a funeral service--complete with procession and eulogy. A grave was dug and a pigskin was dropped inside.

After remaining in the grave for a dozen years, the sport experienced a renaissance in 1871. Students who had learned to play football in the Boston prep schools organized a game on Cambridge Common without Administration protests.

The game was a bit less brutal, and the players organized the Harvard Football Club in December 1872. Officers were elected and rules were established. When the invitation came from New Haven, the Harvard ruggers felt what they had established was too important to be ruined by others.

Harvard finally entered intercollegiate competition in the spring of 1874, when the captain of the McGill rugby team proposed a series of matches between the two universities.

After a bit of haggling, it was agreed there would be two games played: One under Harvard rules, the other under strict soccer rules.

More than 500 spectators paid 50 cents apiece to watch the historic game, played May 14, 1874. The Harvard-McGill rivalry has survived to become the oldest intercollegiate rivalry in North America. Harvard won this year's matchup two weeks ago, 9-7.

The first game was played under Harvard rules, and resulted in a Harvard win. The second game, played the next day and under Canadian rules, was a scoreless standoff.

Although the Harvard-McGill rivalry is the oldest rivalry, it is the Harvard-Yale rivalry which is the most famous.

The first Harvard-Yale game took place in November 1875 in New Haven. Conn. There was a bit of negotiation, and the game was played under Harvard's rugby rules. Harvard took advantage of the Elis, who were confused by Harvard's offense.

Yale came back the next year to win. In that game, the Flis started what today might be called an endzone celebration. When a Yale player kicked the ball over the goal in the final period to give the Elis a lead, the partisan crowd stormed onto the field and pranced around for 20 minutes.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry continues to this day, not only in football, but also in rugby. The Harvard rugby club meets the Elis this morning at Soldiers Field before the football game.

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