THIS DATE IN HISTORY: First football game was May 14, 1874

Published: 14 May 2012


(Photo Credit: Notman Composite Photo, courtesy of McGill University Archives)

MONTREAL -- This week marks the 138th anniversary of the historic McGill-Harvard rugby-football confrontation. The two-game series, played at Cambridge, Mass., May 14 and 15, 1874, were the first formal games of North American-style football.


These contests were preceded by a Princeton-Rutgers football game in 1869 but that event was actually played under England's "Football Association" rules, better known in North America as soccer.


McGill's game, which featured an oval ball, permitted kicking the ball as in soccer, but the participants could also pick the ball up and run with it whenever they pleased.


Harvard's syle of play incorporated a round ball and a kicking style of play known as "the Boston game" and was also closely related to what we today call "soccer". However, a curious feature of that game was that a player could run and throw or pass the ball only if he were being pursued by an opponent. When the opposing player gave up pursuit he called out to the runner, who had to stop and kick the ball.


The 1874 McGill-Harvard series, which featured 11 men per side, was played with a round ball and "Boston" rules in the first game. The next day, they played under McGill rules, which included McGill's oval ball and the ability to pick up the ball and run with it.


Some 500 spectators, mostly students, paid 50 cents apiece to watch the teams play and the $250 collected at the gate was used by both teams for a post-game reception and to cover McGill's travelling expenses. The event is recounted by three first-hand sources posted below. One is a reprint of two actual game accounts from The Gazette in Montreal and one from The Harvard Crimson in Cambridge. The other source is from recollections of former McGill student Henry Joseph, who played in that first game, in a piece entitled "How the 1874 McGill-Harvard Football Games Forever Changed Football".


Also posted are the original rules of 1874 McGill Football Club.


Piecing together newspaper clippings and Joseph's very lucid recollections, the story of the first three games of intercollegiate football are as follows:


On May 14, 1874, McGill and Harvard played the first game of intercollegiate football in America on Jarvis Field in Cambridge, Mass.


In the course of time this game has become historical and in a book on the history of Harvard athletics, a painstaking author went to a great deal of trouble to check up all the details of the encounter and to prove groundless all claims that other teams had met before Harvard and McGill.


In the spring of 1874 Harvard announced grave dissatisfaction with the rugby rules under which her inter-faculty teams were playing and decided to send up to McGill in Montreal for a team to play an exhibition match introducing the more orthodox code.  Meanwhile, the same idea had occurred to three McGill men.  Duncan E. Bowie, R.W.Huntington and David Rodger had often discussed the possibility of challenging the Americans but for one reason or another nothing definite was done.


In the spring of 1874, however, conditions were at last such that a team could make the trip to Cambridge.  A “formal but courteous” challenge was sent which fitted in so well with Harvard’s plans that arrangements were completed, almost at once, for a two-game series at Harvard in the spring and a return match in Montreal in the fall.


Years have passed since that first ground of McGill athletes went south and the passing years have brought so many radical changes to rugby football that the new game is no longer recognizable as an outgrowth of the old.


In 1874 the rules were very like those of the game now known as English rugby.  In fact, the McGill team, and all other teams in Montreal, played under a code almost exactly similar to that which our rugger players now use.


Teams were generally composed of 15 men to a side, but now and then games were played with as few as 22 men on the field.  The game was far from uniform.  Each locality introduced strange rulings of its own.  Harvard for instance, played a game quite different from that of McGill.


The Canadians had remained loyal to the sport as it had been imported from England.  The Americans had already begun to effect certain changes.  Of these one of the most confusing was that a man could run with the ball only as long as someone chose to pursue him.  When a tackler abandoned the ball-carrier, the latter was forced to kick, pass or even throw away his burden.


The first game was played at 4:00 p.m., before 250 persons.  The queer American rules prevailed and the ball was unlike anything which the Canadians had seen before.  It was round, uncovered and made of rubber; exactly, in appearance and feel, like the balls which children now use in play.


A contemporary account describes the start like this:


“The officials called the two captains together and tossed a coin to determine the choice of goals.  Captain Grant of Harvard, by correctly naming the turn of the coin, set a precedent for all his successors at Harvard.  He selected the north-west goal, thereby obtaining the advantage of a slight breeze.  Captain Rodger of McGill, who had been carrying his arm in a sling on account of a recent injury, thereupon unconcernedly walked to one of the posts which supported the goal rope, hung his sling upon the post, and called to his players to take the field.  The two teams lined up at once.”


When the “warnings” had been given by the officials, McGill kicked off, and the first game of American Intercollegiate football was under way.


The uniforms of the time are interesting as relics of bygone days.  Nondescript as inter-faculty teams are today, there is not one of them which would take the field in the outfits worn by the men of ‘74.


No pads of any kind were worn; woollen jerseys covered the torso, while the legs were encased in white trousers, “some long and some short.”  Some of the men wore black football turbans-- the ancestor of the modern helmet-- and others white canvass hats.


The Harvard players wore gauze undershirts, full length gymnasium costumes and light baseball shoes.  Most of them had handkerchiefs knotted about their heads.  The gauze undershirts were worn for reasons of strategy, the idea being that the first tackle would demolish them, leaving slippery human flesh for the next opponent.


Harvard won the game by a score of 3-0.  At that time, there was no standard method of scoring points.  Certain things, however, were recognized as turning the tide of battle.  Crossing the goal-line was one of them and kicking the ball over the goal-posts was another.


Harvard seems to have done at least one of these things, McGill had by far the faster team.  Bowie, Huntington and Joseph were all springs and runners of note in Montreal.  Bowie was one of the very fast men in Canada at the time, having been credited with a clocking of 10.2 seconds for the hundred yards dash.


Huntington and Joseph were also track men and these three on the half line made things hot for the Harvard defenders time after time.   They would get the ball out from the “scrum” and streak across the field, passing as they ran, only to be called back for violations of the American pursuit rule, which was unknown in Canada.  According to Mr. Joseph, Harvard’ victory was well earned and their scoring plays resulted from sustained offensive pressure.


On the following day the universities met again, this time under Canadian rules with 13 men to the side.  The line-up is very difficult to ascertain.  There was no complete list of players in any paper and human memory is so frail that a survivor who was known to have played denied all knowledge of the game when he was asked to name his teammates 30 years after the match.


The game ended in a scoreless draw after two hours of the most strenuous sort of play.  McGill had the edge in running and tackling, and with three very fast sprinters in Bowie, Huntington and Joseph would have undoubtedly won had it not been for Harvard’s sheer strength and determination.


That same year, on Oct. 23, 1874, Harvard paid a return visit to Montreal, playing a McGill team on the old Montreal Cricket Grounds, where the Church of St. James the Apostle now stands.  Again McGill went down to defeat.  The rules had apparently been modified because only nine men took the field and their positions remain unknown, Mr. Joseph being able to speak only for himself and one or two others.


Harvard  played superior football.  Their attack was faster and more determined, the McGill running halves were collared on each break-away.  The pursuit rule had been dropped and McGill had now nothing of which complain.  It was Harvard’s game from whistle to whistle.


Harvard vs McGill - Harvard Wins

(reprinted from The Montreal Gazette

May 15, 1874)


The long-talked of football match between the ten of McGill University and the ten of Harvard University took place yesterday afternoon, on Jarvis Field, Cambridge.

The McGill Club consists of the following members: D. Rodgers, captain; O’Hara Baynes, G.E. Jenkins, J.S. Hall, J.B. Abbott, R.W. Huntinden, H. Gilbert, D.E. Bowie, H. Joseph, H.W. Thomas, C. Thomas and P.J. Goodhue.

The Harvard club is as follows: H.R. Grant, captain; W.R. Tyler, H. Lombard, A.L. Goodrich, A. Cabot, M. Whitney, W.C. Sanger, F.E. Randall, H.C. Leeds, H.L. Morse and J. Lyman.

The game commenced shortly before 4 o’clock, and was played in accordance with the Harvard rules.  It was arranged that five games should be played, the club winning three to be declared the victor.


At  the commencement the Harvards win the choice of goals, which entitled the McGills to do the first kick, they playing with the sun directly in their faces.  The first game was lively while it lasted, but in less than five minutes the ball was flying over the McGill’s goal, and the first game was declared for the Harvards.

The second was somewhat longer.  The Harvards kept the ball well over on the McGills’ side, and after a sharp contest, during which both clubs were several times piled up together indiscriminately, it was again forced over the ropes by the Harvards.

In the third game there was more desperate struggling, but the Harvards had it all their own way and again won.

This afternoon a game is to be played at the same place in conformity to the English or Rugby rules between the same clubs.

The ball to be used by the McGills is of oval shape, made of leather, and twice the size of that of the Harvards.  The principal point of difference in this game is that the ball must be kicked over a cross-bar placed ten feet from the ground between two upright, fifteen feet high, and that the party catching the ball on a bound can run with it and retain it until he kicks it or it is forced from him.

There was an immense crowd of spectators to witness the games yesterday, and there will be a larger one to-day, when the McGills will undoubtedly make a better show at their own game.

Another article reprinted from The Montreal Gazette, May 19, 1874:

The team arrived home on Saturday evening in good order, only one of the number being laid up.  Shortly after their arrival in Boston, the Harvard fellows called on them and exchanged words. 

In the afternoon they went out to Cambridge, but owing to the great heat only a scratch match was played, six from each side.

Afterwards the Montrealers were invited up by several of the students into their rooms, and then taken to their club.  Subsequently they went to St. Charles River, and saw the Boat House, and many of the crews out, especially the fine looking crew for Saratoga.

Thursday (May 14) was very hot, about 85 degrees in the shade.  The game was played according to Harvard rules.  An immense crowd was present.  McGill was beaten. 

On Friday (May 15)  the team went over to Cambridge, feeling a little “blue”, but not showing it externally.  The crowd was very much greater.

The McGills lost the toss and had to kick against a fresh easterly breeze.  At the end of half an hour, time was called and goals changed, neither side victorious.  The second half hour the result was the same, and so for the third.  The crowd cheered impartially, and certainly were very patient to remain standing so long. 

On Friday night the Harvard team entertained the McGill men at a grand dinner at the Parker House.  The McGill team came away with reluctance; they would have liked to have stayed another week with the Harvards, they were treated so well and kindly.  They carry home with them the pleasantest recollections of their visit, and the courtesy and hospitality of their entertainers.

(reprinted from The Harvard Crimson)
Friday, May 22, 1874

THE second game of foot-ball between the McGill and Harvard Tens last Friday was awaited with the greatest impatience, not to say anxiety, by every one in College.

The game on Thursday had been a disappointment to all who saw it, for the Canadians, from ignorance of the Harvard rules, had failed utterly in resisting the Harvard Ten, who won the three goals so easily that the McGill players seemed standing in the field merely to be spectators of their opponents' excellent kicking.

But on Friday, when the game was to be played according to the McGill, or rather Rugby rules, it was feared that the result would be quite different, - that the Canadians would win the match with little difficulty.

After a half-hour past the time appointed for the beginning of the game, the McGill men, dressed in the English foot-ball suit, straggled into the field, and, after a few minutes, were followed by a shabby-looking set of men, who turned out to be the Harvard Ten. As it happened, the dilapidated appearance of the Harvard players was quite a boon to the lookers-on, for if they had been respectably clad in a uniform of some kind it might have been quite impossible to distinguish between the two sides; but, as it was, one merely had to notice whether or not a few rags were floating gracefully behind the player, to know to which side he belonged.

Indeed, in the last half-hour, one of the Harvard players had excited the spectators to the utmost with the hope that he was about to gain a long-wished-for "touch-down," when one of his pursuers bethought himself of stretching out his hand and seizing one of the many pennons that were waving behind him, with which he drew him skilfully to the ground, awakening in him the same sensation that a kite has when pulled to the ground by a little boy.

For the first half-hour the Harvard men had the wind in their favor. To the agreeable surprise of most of us, the Canadians did not kick the ball over the cross-bar in the first five minutes, and they seemed indeed hardly able to hold their own. The first two half-hours passed without either side winning even a touch-down, although several times it was barely lost; but the last half-hour was the most exciting of all.

Both sides were evidently doing their best, though several of the McGill men already showed signs of the rough usage they had received in the first part of the game. The end of the half-hour came at last, and the game was drawn.

On the whole it was a very successful contest, and it is to be hoped that next year several games may be played between the Tens of McGill and Harvard.

Playing Rules of the McGill University Football Club

(reprinted from the McGill University Gazette,  April 1874)

Until a few years ago, the methods of playing football were varied and numerous, but the game has finally settled into two distinct styles – the Rugby rules and the Association rules. 

The object of the Association code is to encourage “dribbling”, and simplicity has also been carefully studied by the abolition of all clauses and technicalities calculated to prevent the easy comprehension of the rules;  the Rugby laws are much more extensive and elaborate, and the main idea is to encourage speed of foot with a minimum of kicking, besides, there being an atmosphere of danger in the “hacking” and “mauls” so dear to every player more Rugbeinsi.

We today publish a copy of the College rules, revised and amended up to April, 1874, and these will make the chief features of our game apparent to everyone.  They disagree very materially with the rules of the Canadian Association, and while we regret our exclusion from playing for the Champion Cup, yet we feel bound, both by honour and inclination, to stick to our own game, which seems always to have suited our men peculiarly well.

i.     Each goal shall consist of two upright posts, 16 feet high and 15 feet apart, with a cross-bar at a distance of 10 feet from the ground.  The maximum length of the ground shall be 150 yards; the maximum breadth shall be 75 yards.

ii.     The number of players on each side shall be not more than 20, or less than 10.  The definite number too be settled by the Captains before each match.

iii.    The winners of the toss shall have  the option of kick off or choice of goals.  The game shall be commenced by a place kick from the centre of the ground, and the opposite side shall not come within 10 yards of the ball.

iv.     The ball shall be kicked off (i.) at the commencement of the game, (ii.) after a goal has been obtained, or (iii.) at the end of each half hour.

v.     After a goal is won, ends  shall be changed, and the losing side shall kickoff.  In  the event, however, of no goal having fallen to either side at the lapse of half an hour, ends shall then be changed.

vi.     The ball may be caught on the bounce and carried; the player so carrying the ball may be “tackled” or “shouldered”, but not hacked, throttled, or pommelled.  No player may be held unless in actual possession of the ball.

vii.     In the event of any player holding or running with the ball being tackled, and the ball fairly held, he may at once cry “have it down”; but he need not do so until his own side comes up.

viii.    A goal can only be obtained by kicking the ball from the field of play direct (i.e. without touching the dress or person of any player of either side) over the cross-bar of the opponent’s goal, whether it touch such cross-bar, or the posts, or not: but if the ball goes directly over either of the goal posts it is called a poster, and is not a goal.  A goal may be obtained by any kind of kick except a punt.

ix.     A match shall last for three half hours -- it shall be decided by the majority of goals, or in the event of no goals being obtained by the majority of touch-downs;  three touchdowns counting as one goal.

x.     Every player is on side but is put off side if he enters a scrummage from his opponents’ side, or being in a scrummage, gets in front of the ball, or when the ball has been kicked, touched, or is being run with by one of his own side behind him (i.e. between himself and his goal line).  Every player when off side is out of the game, and shall not touch the ball in any case whatever, or in any way interrupt or obstruct any player, until he is again on side.

xi.     A player being off side is put on side when the ball has been kicked by or has touched the dress or person of any player of the opposite side, or when one of his own side has run in front of him either with the ball or having kicked it when behind him.

xii.    It is lawful for any player who has the ball to throw it back towards his own goal, or pass it back to any player of his own side who is at the time behind him, in accordance with the rules of on side.

xiii.    If a ball goes into touch, the first player, on his side, who touches it down must bring it to the spot where it crossed the touch line; or if a player, when running with the ball, cross or put any part of either foot across the touch line, he must return with the ball to the spot where the line was so crossed, and then either (i.) bound the ball in the field of play, and then run with it, kick it, or throw it back to his own side, or (ii.) throw it out at right angles to the touch line.

xiv.    The goal line is in goal, and the touch line is in touch.

xv.      If the ball be sent beyond the side-bounds and put behind the goal line, it shall be touched down and thrown in from the corner in a diagonal direction by whoever touches it down.

xvi.    It is not lawful to take the ball from off the ground for any purpose whatever, unless it be in touch.

xvii.    No hacking or hacking over, or tripping up, shall be allowed under any circumstances.  No one wearing projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on any part of his boots or shoes, shall be allowed to play in a match.

xviii.    In case of any distinct and wilful violation of these Rules of Play, a free kick shall be forfeited to the opposite side from the spot where the infringement took place, but in no case shall a goal be scored from such free kick.

xix.     Continued transgressions of Rules by any player, the side to which he belongs shall lose him.

xx.     All disputes to be settled by the Umpire, whose decision shall be final.

Definition of terms

1.     A “drop kick” is made by letting the ball fall from the hands and kicking it the very instant it rises.

2.     A “place kick” is made by kicking the ball after it has been placed in a nick made in the ground for the purpose of keeping it at rest.

3.     A “punt” is made by letting the ball fall from the hands and kicking it before it touches the ground.


Earl Zukerman
Communications Officer
McGill Athletics & Recreation
earl.zukerman [at]

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