The First College Football Game Looked Nothing Like Today’s Game Day Spectacles.

By Karen Harris

Not the 1869 Rutgers’ football team, this is a group portrait of the Rutgers College 1891 football team, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1891. (Photo by FJ Higgins/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

College football game day in America is an event like no other, filled with screaming fans, tailgate parties, marching bands, cheerleaders, and, of course, a group of athletically talented college students who balance their academic studies with football practices. But the very first college football game ever played, back on November 6, 1869, looked vastly different than today’s game. Not only was the pomp and circumstance surrounding the game nonexistent, but the rules of the game itself were nothing like today’s rules. Of course, there was also no concussion protocol, Goodyear blimp, or even helmets. Let us take a look at that football game that started an American tradition. 

Rutgers Versus New Jersey

The first collegiate football game pit Rutgers against a rival university, New Jersey, which later became known as Princeton. The game day action took place in a field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at a location that is now the site of the College Avenue Gymnasium. As the host of the game, Rutgers was allowed to pick the rules. They opted to follow the Football Association’s rules of that time, which were quite different than today’s rules. 

Players Couldn’t Carry or Throw the Ball

If players couldn’t carry or throw the ball, how did they score? According to the 1869 rules, teams comprised of up to 25 players had to kick the ball or bat it with their hands, knees or heads to move the ball to the goal. The entire football game was actually ten small games in one. Each time a team scored a goal, they were awarded one point and a new game began. The maximum number of points possible for the game was ten. In this first-ever match-up, Rutgers won 6-4 but the two teams met to play again one week later. In that game, New Jersey won.

Rutgers-Princeton football game of 1869, by William Boyd,

The First Football Game Looked More Like Soccer

If you think that the 1869 rules made the game look more like a soccer match than a football game, you are right. The rules by which Rutgers played were based on the 1963 London Football Association’s rules. Gridiron football developed by combining these rules with rugby football rules to evolve into the collegiate football games we see today. 

Fans Came Out to Watch the First College Football Game

Although there were no bleachers, hotdog vendors, or ticket scalpers, the first college football game did attract a crowd of fans. About one hundred people, mostly from Rutgers, came out to cheer their team on to victory. 

Lafayette College player, George Barclay, is credited with wearing the first football helmet.

The Rutgers Players Wore Turbans

The New Jersey team nicknamed themselves the Tigers and the Rutgers team was the Queensmen. In order to distinguish themselves on the field, the Queensmen players all wore bright red turbans and handkerchiefs. Since the game was played without helmets and matching jerseys, it was hard to tell one team’s player from the next. The Rutgers team is now called the Scarlet Knights, choosing to keep the scarlet red color from their first game as part of their uniforms today. The turbans, however, offered no protection for the football players, but that didn’t seem to be a concern in 1869. In fact, the first person to wear a football headpiece – not really even a helmet – was in 1896 when George “Rose” Barclay of Lafayette College started wearing a headpiece with leather earflaps. But he only did so to protect his ears, not his brain. 

The Flying Wedge formation.

The “Flying Wedge” was the Play to Beat

Rutgers perfected a play called the “flying wedge”. In this formation, the Rutgers players positioned themselves in a wedge-shaped, wall-like formation that allowed them to charge their way down the field. Rutgers had a clear size advantage over the New Jersey players so, for a while at least, the “flying wedge” made Rutgers seem unbeatable. New Jersey’s J.E. Michaels, nicknamed “Big Mike” devised a way to break up Rutgers’ “flying wedge” and the Tigers were finally able to score on the Queensmen. 

William Stryker Gummere

A Future Clergyman and Future Supreme Court Justice Captained the Teams

The first college football game had two notable captains representing each team. The Rutgers team captain, William J. Leggett, became a clergyman with a long and distinguished career with the Dutch Reformed Church. The New Jersey captain, William Stryker Gummere, went on to earn a law degree and become a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice. 

The First Football Game Sparked the First College Football Rivalry

The victorious Rutgers’ players and fans unwittingly sparked the first football rivalry when they, at the conclusion of the first football game, literally ran the New Jersey players out of town. To escape the jeering fans, the New Jersey players had to run to their carriages and wagons and race back to their own campus, about twenty miles away. The New Jersey Tigers wanted a chance for redemption, however, and the two teams met to play again the following week. This time, New Jersey won. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.