Fall Fandom

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.Image result for early college football games

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.

Image result for theodore roosevelt at army navy game

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.

1911 Boston American sports page, Carlisle vs. Harvard

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.

Sources: http://www.ncaa.com, http://www.collegefootballpoll.com, http://www.collegesportsscholarships.com, http://www.sbnation.com, and the guy in the next armchair.


The name Arthur T. Packard was called out over the diploma line at the University of Michigan in 1882. As the young man came up to accept it, he didn’t realize he was halfway between friendships with two others who would be remembered in American history.  One was Theodore Roosevelt; and the other, Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black man to play major league baseball.

The Bad Lands Cow Boy

Packard put his college education to use by starting a newspaper in a small western town.  As proprietor of The Bad Lands Cow Boy in Medora, North Dakota, he had a couple of ranchers who made good copy.  The Marquis de Mores said he had claims to the throne of France, while Theodore Roosevelt gave such a stirring Independence Day speech Packard asked him if he didn’t aspire to be president of the United States.  De Mores and Roosevelt, each twenty-five years old, went their separate ways after a few years; and when his print shop burned down, Packard returned to the Midwest as a sports editor.  In the early 1900s he would write a memoir about the president’s cowboy days for Life Magazine.
Visiting Medora, today a tourist attraction, I learned that Packard had pitched for Michigan’s baseball team in 1882.  On the other side of home plate, catching without a glove, was Walker.  According to David W. Zang’s book Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart (University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Moses Fleetwood had already started playing professionally the summer before.

This was a fascinating sidetrack of my first Lilly grant.  I found out that Michigan wasn’t the first team Packard and Walker played for.  At the beginnings of intercollegiate play, they were among the “Baseball Nine” of Oberlin College in Ohio.  The Oberlin-Michigan game in the spring of 1881 included a Walker wallop over the roof of a nearby building, and Michigan recruited the both of them.  Questions in Ann Arbor about admitting Fleet to the school seem to have been smoothed over by a letter of recommendation from Packard, whose father was a Civil War general and congressman.


The Toledo Blue Stockings of 1884: Fleet, seated left; Weldy, back row.

Fleet studied law at the university, but when baseball season rolled around, he was ready, batting .308 and helping the team to a 10-3 record.  That summer he joined the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League.  (In 1881, he had been paid to catch a few games for the White Sewing Machine Company team in Cleveland).  His younger brother Weldy also played for Michigan and Toledo.  Fleet never graduated from college like Arthur Packard, but he did make as much as $2,000 a season from his sport.  Some of the cities in his league included Peoria, Quincy, and Springfield, Illinois; Bay City and Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In April 1885 he was in a game in Kentucky, and promptly arrested as a representative of the team for breaking a Sunday no-play rule. Released on bail, he sat in the courtroom ten days later and listened to the hearing.  The judge noted that the report was the game had been a good one.  “Yes, it was,” the county prosecutor replied.  “I was there!”  The case was decided in the team’s favor.

Fleet played for six years, ending his career with a team in Toronto called the Syracuse Stars.  Manager Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings obnoxiously forbid his players on several occasions to share the field with a black man.  By all accounts Fleet was a class act, a gentlemen, a charmer who would show kids how to hold their hands while catching to prevent broken fingers and thumbs.

After baseball, his trajectory went up: owning a theater, writing a well-regarded book called Our Home Colony, and getting a patent on an artillery shell.  Then it took a downward turn: accusations of mail fraud and the murder of another man by stabbing which resulted in one jail sentence and one acquittal.  He was married twice, but his children had none of their own, so there are no direct descendants today.  A grand-nephew and grand-niece attended a memorial service when a headstone was placed over his grave in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1990.  It was his induction into the John Heisman Club’s Hall of Fame at Oberlin College.

Moses Fleetwood Walker.jpg
If Arthur Packard had only written a memoir about his college chum for Life, too.