At Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee this year, almost 157,000 fans set an attendance record for a college football game. This is in contrast to the one hundred people who watched the first matchup in New Brunswick, New Jersey on November 6, 1869.
Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) were playing with twenty-five men each and very different rules on a field that measured 125 yards by 75 yards. The ball was round, you couldn’t carry or throw it, and there were no numbers on uniforms or crossbars on the goalposts. Teams scored three points for a field goal, but only two for a touchdown.
Auburn and Georgia line up in 1895. (www.wikipedia.com)
The game changed as years went by. A big event was the legalization of the forward pass just after the turn of the century.
But there was a noticeable lack of protective gear. Those who suggested wearing it were called sissies. Nose guards seem to have been first of this type of equipment; helmets were not much thicker or harder than the leather of the ball that was flying around.
With severe injures and deaths occurring on the college gridiron, President Theodore Roosevelt initiated a 1906 meeting in Washington involving himself, Secretary of State Elihu Root and the coaches of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Players were dying from head injuries or broken ribs piercing their hearts, which prompted several colleges, including Columbia, to ban the sport entirely. The NCAA was formed to address safety and other issues.
Theodore Roosevelt watching the Army-Navy game. Son Ted was injured while playing for Harvard. (www.saltofamerica.com)
Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania had an impressive season in 1911, including an 18 to 15 win over Harvard. They were led by All-American Jim Thorpe, who went on to run in the Olympics and play professional football for 14 years. The college, operated by the U.S. Army, had the purpose of assimilating Native Americans into society but closed in 1917.
The outcome of this game was big news. (www.tiptop25.com)
As soldiers were drafted to training camps in World War I, they were treated to college football games on the weekends. My grandfather wrote to his sweetheart about watching Indiana playing Notre Dame in 1916 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Up until World War II it was common for a college player to be on both offense and defense and never sit on the bench. Then full scholarships began to be offered, thanks to contributions from alumni. In the 1960s television brought fandom to new levels; ESPN and conference networks now orchestrate weekend plans of game watchers.
The University of Michigan stadium (Big House) holds 115,000, but it gave up the attendance record to a crowd at a Tennessee speedway. (www.wemu.org)
There’s something about the time of year when the Notre Dame game is mentioned or the relatively new Bo-like U of M coach brings his team on the field. Even if one can’t be categorized as a true fan, he/she notes the perennial sound of the crowd, fight songs of the marching bands, and the announcers on TV. Or even, on occasion, walks past tailgate parties on the way into a stadium to see this American tradition on a fall Saturday afternoon.