Allen Barra: The First Down, Ever

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Barra writes about sports for the Journal.]

On a bright Nov. 6 morning 140 years ago, a "jerky little train," as someone later described it, left Princeton, N.J., at 9 bound for New Brunswick, about 20 miles to the north. The "foot ball" players of the College of New Jersey or Nassau Hall—some just called it Princeton, but that official designation was 27 years away—stepped off the train and greeted their Rutgers hosts.

After a midday stroll around town and some friendly games of billiards, the players from the two teams walked over to College Avenue and Sicard Street to a field that today is behind the Rutgers gymnasium (it was known as Bishop's Ground and wasn't even Rutgers property at the time). They then played a game of something vaguely resembling today's football, and from there it's pretty much been a straight line to tailgate parties, bowl games and million-dollar halftime shows.

Well, perhaps not so much a straight line. Nothing is beautiful at birth, and the modern college-football fan might not find much to recognize in that so-called first game.

The two captains, William J. Leggett of Rutgers (class of '72 and later clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church—the phrase "muscular Christianity" was much in vogue) and William S. Gunmere (College of New Jersey class of '70, who would go on to become Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court) met before the game to discuss the rules, among which were "Goals must be 24 feet wide," "No tripping or holding of the players," and "Each side will be limited to 25 players."

(According to the plaque that now hangs in the College Avenue Gym, Rutgers brought 27 players to Princeton's 23—no small achievement for Rutgers, which had a student body of just 141 to draw from, compared with 304 enrolled at the mighty football factory to their south.)

Another rule, already understood by both sides, was that there were just two ways to advance the ball: kicking it and slapping or punching it. Picking up the ball and running with it would be a contribution of the Harvard team a few years later...

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