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The Changing Shape of American Football at the College of New Jersey (Princeton)

With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, our thoughts have turned toward the history of American football. We’ve repeated the fact several times: On November 6, 1869, the first intercollegiate football match ever was played on College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, between the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and Rutgers College. Yet some dispute this. The game Princeton and Rutgers played that day looked a lot more like soccer than what we now know as American football. The ball was perfectly round, not the oval we use now. The teams had about 25 players each on the field, rather than 11. But even if this wasn’t “football” as we know football, without that game to attract the attention of other colleges, American football would probably have never gotten off the ground. Thus, we’ll still continue to say that the first intercollegiate American football game happened on November 6, 1869.

Questions might still remain, however. How did Princeton go from playing with approximately 25 men on the field chasing a round ball to playing with 11 men on the field chasing an oval ball?

The College of New Jersey (Princeton) 1873 football team. Note the round ball in front of the man in the top hat. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box LP36, Image No. 2522.

Princeton had found a few schools willing to play with them, but when they approached Harvard, found that they were playing rugby and had no interest in their soccer-style football. In 1875, Harvard and Yale (one of Princeton’s existing football rivals) met to work out rules somewhere in between the soccer-like Princeton game and Harvard’s rugby. In 1876, Yale decided that they preferred to play rugby-style football. Princeton continued to play the soccer version with Columbia and Rutgers, but the appeal of playing Harvard and Yale was a strong one.

The College of New Jersey (Princeton) 1875 football team, alongside their round ball. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box LP36, Image No. 2524.

On November 2, 1876, Princeton’s students gathered in Geological Hall (now Stanhope Hall) to decide, once and for all, what kind of game they would play. The Nassau Lit campaigned for the soccer-style game, which was less violent: “we confess ourselves utterly unable to account for the taste which prefers Harvard’s rough and tumble scrimmages to the uncomparably more genteel game under the rules of 1873.” The students, however, decided they wanted to give rugby-style football a try. The Princetonian suggested they play both games, changing the style according to which school was their rival. Though attempted, this idea quickly proved unworkable. On November 26, Princeton delegates met with Harvard, Yale, and Columbia to decide on standard rules of the game. It would be rugby-style. The rules for American football were still a bit in flux, and modern viewers would still not recognize the point values assigned to plays, but the overall style of the game was thus set. Princeton had only one week to prepare for the game with Yale, with 11 players on each side. The Lit complained that the new style of play had “resulted in giving the college [Princeton] the appearance of a hospital for disabled veterans…”

College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1886 freshman football team, 1882. Note the oval shape of the ball held by the student sitting second from right, as well as the team’s smaller number of players than those teams pictured above. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP115, Image No. 2546.

Princeton ordered rugby balls from Canada after the November 1876 meeting. When the balls arrived, they were perfectly round, which caused some confusion. A few days later, realizing this was the wrong kind of ball, Princeton pleaded with Harvard for one to use in practice. Harvard sent an oval ball, which finally arrived the day before the game, but this complicated matters further. Students unfamiliar with rugby had no idea how to kick it—on the broad side, or the end? They didn’t settle the issue until the day of the game, when they watched what Yale was doing in the warm up.

Approximately 1,000 spectators took in Princeton’s defeat against Yale on November 30, 1876. The Lit, albeit displeased with the style of the game Princeton had chosen, nonetheless praised their team for giving it their best. Taking into consideration that they played an unfamiliar game with a brand new kind of ball, “the men played very well and showed as much pluck certainly as their adversaries if not as much skill resulting from experience.” It took Princeton a few years to get the hang of the new football, but after they did, Americans turned out in droves to see them play “the greatest sporting event and spectacle combined that this country has to show” and achieve their fair share of victories against Yale.


Daily Princetonian

Dunn, Jay. The Tigers of Princeton: Old Nassau Football. Huntsville: Strode Publishers, 1977.

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Nassau Literary Magazine

Presbrey, Frank, and James Hugh Moffatt. Athletics at Princeton: A History. New York: Frank Presbrey Company, 1901.


See also our previous posts on the early history of Princeton football:

The Beginnings of American Football

Early Films of Princeton Football, 1903-1951

A Princeton Thanksgiving

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