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A Player’s Guide to the 1st College Football Game Ever

Join us on a journey back to 1869 for the birthplace of College Football where we discover that acting and football are two different things.

A Player’s Guide to the 1st College Football Game Ever


Estimated Reading Time: 13 Minutes

Happy 150th Birthday, College Football!

In celebration of the end of the 150th college football season, I wanted to share a story with you about the origins of college football.

Were you at the first college football game ever played? Neither was I. But unlike you, I’ve pretended to be there. No, not in casual party conversation, although now that I’m thinking about it maybe I will. What I’m talking about is my experience with playing the captain of the 1st ever football team in a re-creation of the 1st college football game ever played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869.


A Brief College Football History Lesson :

the big bounce teacher GIF
the big bounce teacher GIF

For those of you who don’t know, the historical consensus is that the 1st intercollegiate game of football in history was a contest between what was then Rutgers College (now University) and the College of New Jersey (what is now Princeton). The game looked a great deal different from today’s modern game of football, resembling more of a soccer or rugby-style game, depending on the source. According to the Rutgers athletic website, a player described the game with qualities we’d recognize in modern football, saying it was “replete with surprise, strategy, prodigies of determination, and physical prowess.”

The teams included 25 players on each side, with each score counting as a “game” with 10 games making up the whole contest. For more information on the historicity of the game, check out this great article.

The summation of the contest is that it was a knockdown, drag-out affair between two intense rivals and Rutgers prevailed 6-4. The rules for the game were suggested by the home team, which was Rutgers, because let’s be honest, home-field advantage should mean something. The captains for the game were William Gummere for Princeton (later a NJ Supreme Court Justice) and William J. Leggett (later a clergyman for the Dutch Reformed Church), which is where we get to the point of this article.

For this game, I played Mr. Leggett, and oh how different we are.

Firstly, he had a killer mustache and I do not. Secondly, he ended up being a Dutch clergyman and I am an actor. And thirdly and most importantly, he was likely extremely physically tough and I am…well, I didn’t even play high school football.

As you can imagine, this makes me the perfect choice to play him in a re-creation of an event in which players were reported to “crash through fences” and there was literally a player position called “Bulldog.”

Let’s get started, laugh along with me.

But actually, before we get started in earnest, let me add that I often play sports. I often play touch football and baseball with friends and other actors. I consider myself an actor-athlete.

I am wrong.

Day 1 of Practice:

We start tackling drills. A guy who is very clearly an actual ex-football player and not a stage combat person comes in and teaches us how to tackle. I’m already in trouble as I assumed I would just “act” like I’m tackling.

However, being a leading role in this production I decide to try to take a leading role on the field. I enthusiastically run to the end of a line in which we are matching up with people for tackling drills. “Come on guys, let’s move all the way down and create some space so we can all get some practice in,” I say, not fully understanding what I’m saying.

Sure enough, I get to the end of the line and look up at the person who is lined up across from me to tackle me. He’s the biggest guy here. By a wide margin. He cannot be an actor. Most of us look like actors, he looks like an athlete.

As soon as I pull my heart out of my stomach, I decide to let him know that I am, in fact, a delicate flower, and I ask him to take it easy on me. He absolutely does, and yet his 10% effort feels like my 100% effort.  I get tackled by him about 5 times before I think, “alright, I’m good, we’ve practiced.” I then start thinking of ways I can avoid being tackled in the actual game.

Day 2 of Practice:

We draw up some “plays” for this “play.” That was a bit of a play on words there. I’ll pause a minute while you chuckle.

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Moving along. Today we get our parts in the production and what we’re doing on the field. I’m told I’ll be under center, which I like to attribute to my athletic prowess that they surely observed during practice, but truly it’s because I’ve already been contracted to play the captain of the team. This is great news for me, since we’re playing a more rugby-style game it means I’ll be doing a lot of handing off and pitching the ball.

Right in my wheelhouse.

We start to practice kickoffs and returns and scrums and different kinds of run plays and I suddenly realize that because I spent all the previous practice getting tackled 5 times 100 times, my ability to tackle is not as polished. I decide to put my acting degree to use. Whenever someone with the ball runs near me I dive next to him as if I were almost totally blind. My inability to tackle the runner becomes a skill in and of itself. I can’t help but wonder if this is how I would react in a game that was not totally staged. I am truly very good at falling.

Post practice, we end the day tossing around the football on the Rutgers Football practice field which is way cooler than the small patch of grass with a rock in the middle of it that my friends and I usually play on.

Day 3 of Practice:

Today we practice a bit earlier in the day when the sun is at full blast. We are also outfitted in period sweaters and sweatpants, which look cool, but on an August day feel a touch…warm. We do a dress rehearsal of the plays we practiced and it is EXHAUSTING. In character, as the Captain of the team, I pretend like I’m calling them in to talk strategy and motivation, but in actuality, I’m doing it so I can breathe. We also try to layer in period talk while we’re playing, but what that ends up becoming is a 400% increase in the word “bully!”

  • “Get on the line. Bully!”
  • “Great shot. Bully!”
  • “Bully! Bully! Bully!”

We may have to find another phrase or two before the big game.

Day 4, The Game:

Here it is folks, the main event, the big show, the spontaneous, yet staged game of Rutgers shellacking Princeton 6-4!

Before I begin again, let me note that acting and sports are different skills. I thought I had both before today. I thought I was in shape. I thought “wearing a sweater on a cool August day and then running around won’t be so bad.”

We’re at 15 minutes to “places,” which in this game means running onto the field past a fairly large number of spectators. The Rutgers boys make sure to boo Princeton when they run onto the field and make sure the crowd cheers us when we run on the field. The crowd obliges, and I’m not going to lie, we feel pretty cool. This is definitely the closest I’ll be to running out of the tunnel at a big football game.

Once we’re on the field, we realize we have about 15 minutes before the game actually starts, so we need to vamp. Do I pull out a Hamlet monologue for the crowd? No, that seems inappropriate to the character and the event itself. What’s something that football players in this time might actually be doing to prep for the game? I know! Pushups!

Brilliant idea.

Sweaters.

In the sun.

In August.

We do about 10, but I can only imagine it looked like we did 1000, because that’s what it felt like to us. After that, we have the revelation that we can stretch. That’s a nice, easy activity in the sun that makes sense for a football team before a game. Why didn’t we think of that sooner?

We stretch for a while until it feels a bit long, then we decide to talk to the crowd. We decide to pump the crowd up and I start to understand why football players get so hyped up before and during games and like to shout and all that. When the crowd reacts to it in a positive way, it’s fun. Also, we’re actors so we like attention. I think if someone hired us to play football players only when they’re hyping up the crowd, we would probably jump at the opportunity.

We then decide to get chippy with some Princeton players and they reciprocate. Suddenly, as if moved by the spirit of acting we start to get into a full out brawl. I suppose we’re acting, but I actually start to fear a little bit for my physical safety so I start to shout at Princeton and shake my fists as I take several steps back while the brawl continues. Then it’s time for a motivational speech.

All the players on my team (Rutgers) take a knee and I give them a big inspirational speech. The crowd can’t actually hear what I’m going to say because we’re a little out of earshot, so here’s a sneak peek of what I tell them:

“Guys, everyone take a knee. I’m going to give you a big motivational speech. Of course, no one can hear what we’re saying, so I’m going to make some dramatic hand gestures here [dramatic hand gesture] and here [dramatic hand gesture]. I’m gonna speak with occasional PASSION in my voice to really drive a point home here and when I’m done we’re all gonna YELL! [Voice rising with dramatic intensity] So remember the 1st play after kick-off who you hand the ball to, and remember if we forget we can talk in the huddle, and finally [raising voice so the crowd can hear] LET’S BEAT PRINCETON! Everyone yell with me on 3: 1, 2, 3 *INDISCRIMINATE YELLS*

IT’S TIME… for the coin toss.

Myself (As William Leggett) and the Princeton Captain meet at midfield with the referee who is decked out in his finest costume from 1869. Rutgers “loses” the toss, and then the game begins.

We kick off to Princeton and in dramatic fashion, they have a huge kickoff return. I yell at all my boys to get to the line:

“Bully! Get to the line boys!”

Princeton runs a play; I make sure I’m pretending to be blocked by a Princeton player really well. This keeps me from getting injured.

Princeton runs their 2nd play and their runner makes a breakaway run. Inspired by the passion of the game, I decided to give chase all the way down the field (knowing full well it’s in the script for him to score), of course being too late to catch him. It’s a touchdown for Princeton and I might need to touch down on the ground because I am WINDED.  We’re playing on a full-length field and I realize very quickly running the full length of the field is actually exhausting. I wonder if the fans can see me sweating through my sweater (which is a tad ironic), or if the sweat is so comprehensive that it just looks like the color of my uniform.

Either way it’s our turn to return the kick.

They kick-off to us and darn the script luck, we get pinned in our own territory!

We run a play and lose more yards. I call a huddle and tell my boys to bring it in to make it look like we’re talking strategy, but I really just need a second so I can breathe and be able to call hike on the next play.

Our next play is a massive 20 person scrum, each of us actors pretending really hard that we’re fighting each other in a pile before one of our runners busts out a 70-yard run. He loses a shoe and I’m thinking, “That dude has to be exhausted.”

Halftime

Mercifully it’s half time and what we had staged as a half-time stretch show turns into us breathing for 30 seconds.

No more than 30 seconds though, the “officials” tell us it’s time to come back for the second half. Why, oh why sweet lord, did I eat a donut yesterday?

The next play is coming to me, I’m supposed to catch a punt and run up the right side before pitching it behind me before a few more pitches, then a scrum, and another score by Rutgers. All I’m thinking is don’t muff the punt. That’s embarrassing to do in a regular game when you don’t know exactly what’s coming, but even more embarrassing to do in a game that’s totally scripted. Thankfully I catch it, run with the speed of a thousand horses and pitch it away, my big part in this is done. Now all I’ve got to do is go under center 2 more times and give the ball to other people.

But that’s pre-emptive, the next play Princeton gets the ball and is about to score when one of their players starts “hot-dogging” and we strip the ball. In character, I give a giant Ric Flair-ian “WHOOO!” and nearly die on the spot from exhaustion. I may choose to tamper down my acting for the next two plays.

I pitch the ball and hand off the ball respectively the next 2 plays, and after some slick (choreographed) moves by one of our Rutgers players we score the final touch down and win the game!

You can’t script a comeback like that!

Well, except we did, but…that’s beside the point.

The ref raises my hand and gives me a trophy, we shake hands with the “defeated” Princeton team, and we end up on TV!

I take pictures with several fans, apologizing for the Shaquille O’ Neal levels of sweat I’m producing and then promptly drink at least 3 full bottles of water.

It’s an exhausting day, but man is it thrilling. I’ve achieved the perfect synthesis of getting paid to act and play sports at the same time and I’ve had a blast doing it. There’s a rumor we may revive the game at a later date, and until then I will be training.

If I learned one thing, it’s that acting and sports do belong together, you just have to really make sure your cardio is up to speed.

And in the words of William J. Leggett (as played by me): Bully!

Ryan Neely is an Actor, Writer, and Director (but really, who isn't nowadays?) based in New York. A native Texan, Ryan is an Astros super-fan, as well as a fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Aggies sports teams. You can spot him playing baseball and football all over Riverside park, he'll be the guy on the field taking it way too seriously. He recently created a comedy web series called, "A Day Late and Ten Pounds Overweight" and can be seen masquerading as the first captain of the first college football team ever.

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