An engraved stone commemorating the first intercollegiate football game in Maine at the far end of the football field is partially obscured by overgrown landscaping at Bates College in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Long before the Fighting Irish or the Crimson Tide suited up for a football game, a scrappy group of pioneer players took to the gridiron at Bates College.

It began simply enough when a letter arrived on campus in the fall of 1875 from a sophomore at Tufts University, Charles Cushman from Auburn, inquiring if Bates would be willing to play his school’s eager new football squad from the outskirts of Boston.

Bates wrote back indicating that it didn’t have a team, remembered Clarence May Hutchins in a 1934 letter tucked away in the Muskie Archives at Bates.

A halfback gets the football during a game in the 1880s, as depicted in an illustration by Irving Ramsey Wiles. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

But Cushman didn’t take no for an answer. He wrote again to ask if perhaps Bates would put one together.

“This suggestion was acted upon,” Hutchins said, “and sneaking time from study hours, we went out and kicked the ball around, but without much knowledge of what it was all about.”

“As for myself, I had never seen a football before, and doubtless there were others of our group who were equally unfamiliar with the pigskin,” Hutchins said.

Still largely clueless about the game, the new Bates team agreed to accept the challenge from Tufts and prepared to square off on a field beside College Avenue in Lewiston on Nov. 6, 1875.

It was indisputably the first college football game in Maine and one the first anywhere that embraced new rules that pushed the sport closer to what it’s become.

Two teams lining up for a game of football a decade after Bates and Tufts faced off in Lewiston. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

The game generally recognized as the inaugural intercollegiate football duel, between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, featured 50 men on the field at a time who ran around kicking a ball. From today’s vantage point, the competition seemed far more like rugby than the football we know.

The Rutgers paper described it at the time as having a lot of “headlong running, wild shouting, and frantic kicking,” with goalkeepers blocking a fair number of points.

Not content to follow New Jersey’s lead, Harvard University came up with its own “Boston Rules” that put 11 players on the field for each team, still the standard, and prescribed what it took to score touchdowns, kick a goal and more.

An 1874 match between Harvard University and Montreal’s McGill University was likely the first game with the new rules. It wasn’t modern football, for sure, but it wasn’t rugby or soccer either.

Since it wasn’t anything else, and surely served as a precursor to what followed, it’s fair to call the match in Lewiston a year later one of the first American football games.

Fully modern football didn’t come to Bates, Tufts or most anywhere for another couple of decades, when a number of colleges organized teams with coaches and schedules.

But without the loosely organized, somewhat absurd games like the one between Tufts and Bates in its earliest days, who can say what fate football may have suffered?

Tufts University’s 1875 football team that defeated Bates College in the first college football game played in Maine. Tufts University Archives

ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE

Fortunately for history, there are at least two solid contemporary accounts of what went down that day in 1875 at Bates College when Tufts came to town, along with Hutchins’ recollections as a player and a brief mention in a Portland newspaper.

Let’s let the unnamed reporters of that era pick up the story.

The Lewiston Evening Journal noted that “Foot-ball has hardly had its run in this country, but the colleges have now imported the real English game, and evidently the young gentlemen contemplate making the game the rival of baseball.”

“Yale, Harvard and Tufts have quite a foot-ball madness on hand,” said the Journal’s account, probably written by Frank Dingley, a sharp journalist who loved sports.

An early photographer captured an image of the Oct. 27, 1875 football game between Harvard and Tufts on the field in Medford, Massachusetts, perhaps the earliest known depiction of the sport in a picture. The Bates-Tufts game occurred just days later. Football of Yore

Some at Bates were determined not to be left behind.

“The Bates boys recently caught the classic spirit of foot-ball, and organized a club,” the paper reported.

“A ball was purchased and a most vigorous system of kicking — to say nothing of tearing — begun,” the Bates student paper wrote.

“Every man who had failed to distinguish himself in baseball seemed possessed with the idea that here was an opportunity to immortalize himself,” the paper said.

An 1875 rendering of a football used by the Harvard University team from a poster for one of its games. Heritage Auctions

“Tall and short, lean and stout, quick and slow, active and clumsy, have all rushed into this new game,” it said.

“Shirts have been torn, coats curtailed, boots ruined, and shins bruised; but, never mind, it’s fun and good exercise,” the student paper said.

“They have had but little practice,” the Journal said, “but the gentlemen who gravitated toward it, had been endowed by nature with high and mighty kick.”

“No sooner had they barked their shins for the first time, when there came to Bates a cry from College Hill in old Medford,” it reported.

Since “the kicking and rushing powers of the boys were good, it was decided to accept the challenge” from Tufts, the student paper said. The Tufts squad hoped to bounce back from a defeat a week earlier on its home turf delivered by Harvard.

The Journal said “the Tufts eleven came down on Friday night’s steamer from Boston, singing all the way, until they reached the Grand Trunk station in Lewiston. The Bates boys gave them a cordial welcome, and immediately the arrangements for the game were made.”

“Rules were procured and studied, an eleven organized, a ground laid out” on Rand Field, “the goals set up and on Saturday morning, Nov. 6th, the visiting eleven, with their friends, arrived,” the college paper said.

Rand Field, located between Mount David and College Street, depicted during the early 1890s, was the site of Bates College’s first football game in 1875. Miles Greenwood collection at the Muskie Archives at Bates College.

GAME TIME

The Bates Student reprinted the rules that governed the game, derived from Harvard and McGill, but they don’t help much to make sense of what transpired on the field that day. It is comforting, though, that one of the provisions barred “projecting nails” on a player’s soles or heels.

An illegal tackle. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

On the baseball diamond at the foot of Mount David, where Bates had played since 1872, organizers created a football field somewhere between 100 and 150 yards long, with goalposts at each end.

The squads from Tufts and Bates faced off at 11 a.m.

“The match was a novelty,” the Portland Daily Press said, “and many spectators were present.”

“We certainly must have presented a comical appearance as we appeared on the field, clad in old clothes, no uniforms, and no protection of any kind for any part of our bodies,” Hutchins said.

The Lewiston paper called the match “rough and tumble, all along.”

“Occasionally 10 or 12 men got into a promiscuous scramble for the possession of the ball and came forth rubbing their shins and using such phrases as ‘Gracious Juggernaut,’” it said.

“The boys blew and floundered like a school of scholarly porpoise,” the Journal said. “Once or twice a big six-footer lighted on a diminutive kicker and took him by the nape of the neck to stay that diminutive kicker’s movements toward glory.”

“Whole nests of contestants struggled for the possession of the ball in the soft and yielding earth — many bearing away the precious and classic soil of Bates on the ampler portion of their trousers,” the paper said.

“Here and there naked arms and shoulders were disclosed and tattered clothing hung in graceful folds down the athletes’ sides,” it said.

“Not infrequently a man was tripped in the race and stood on his head in a manner that was obviously unpremeditated,” the Journal said. “You could see in this game what attitude a classic young gentleman strikes, when he falls on all-fours, as the unlearned and unclassic mind phrases it.”

The Journal said that at one point, a professor got so absorbed in the game “that he forgot himself and found himself in the very arena, evidently before he was aware of it, surrounded by a whole bevy of kickers.”

“Awakening suddenly to a consciousness of the gravity of the situation, the professor retired at a double-quick, and in great disorder gracefully covering his retreat with a few complimentary remarks on the character of the game,” the paper said.

A ball carrier breaking through the rush line in an early game of football. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

George Henry Wyman, who later became a lawyer and politician in Minnesota, captained the Bates squad. Along with Hutchins, James Smith and Lewis Sessions, he made up “the front line of attack.”

George Wyman, who led the Bates College team in its first football game in 1875. His picture appeared in the 1905 History of Anoka County and the Towns of Champlin and Dayton in Hennepin County, Minnesota.

The Journal said that Tufts “had the kick-off and sent the ball well into the field,” with the wind initially to Bates’ advantage.

Right from the start, though, football proved to be, well, football.

“In the first pell-mell charge, a member of the Bates eleven got demoralized fore and aft and there was an adjournment of 10 minutes, during which several gentlemen assisted a young man off the field, with two ghastly wounds in his breeches,” the paper said.

“A surgical operation with needle and thread soon repaired damages, and after a brief respite the game was resumed, and the wounded man fought a good fight,” the Journal said.

The game’s ultimate outcome, Hutchins said, “was never in doubt.”

“Whatever we accomplished was through main strength,” Hutchins said, since the Bates squad was ignorant of every phase of the sport.

The Journal also said Bates’ players were “inexperienced and almost ignorant of the rules,” but showed more muscle than Tufts. The visitors had superior skill, though, it said.

“Our system was for one of us to get the ball, by any means whatsoever, and for the rest of the team to surround him, and as a united mass push our way toward the goal,” Hutchins recalled.

Dropping on the ball during a game of football. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

When a Tufts player had the ball, Hutchins said, “he was seized and carried back bodily by our ‘huskies.’”

He remembered one play when a competitor for Tufts running with the ball “happened to hit Sessions in the face in an attempt to ward him off. Sessions, being rather quick-tempered, flung the man over his head in less time than it takes me to tell it.”

Howard Nash, a Tufts University junior in November 1875 when he scored the first touchdown in Maine’s history. Tufts University Archives

The two sides pushed back and forth until Tufts’ Howard David Nash “by a good run gained a touchdown,” the student paper said, though the visitors failed to “kick over” the goalpost afterwards, negating any points for his success. Scoring required making the extra point. The touchdown itself merely opened the door to a chance to score.

Tufts managed a second score attempt, amidst controversy, when Arthur French, president of the Tufts team, pushed the oval-shaped rubber ball over the goal line. The kick that followed also failed.

With the score thus tied at zero apiece, the game headed into its final period. An unidentified Tufts player, brought in to replace one who was hurt, easily eluded the tired Bates competition to score a third touchdown, the student paper said.

With the game on the line, from 25 yards out, Nash then kicked the ball “fairly over the goal,” handing victory to Tufts by the baseball-like score of 1-0, the account reported.

Nash, then, was the first person in Maine both to score a touchdown and to kick a field goal. Failing to make good on his illustrious early record, he later became a lawyer in Massachusetts.

Hutchins, who wound up as the longtime town clerk and treasurer for Mechanic Falls, said that in the end “no one was really injured” during the game, “and it all seemed like a friendly scrap.”

The Portland Daily Press, though, counted two injured for Bates and one for Tufts.

Scoring a touchdown in the early days of American football. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

AFTER THE GAME

Albert Jakeman, who graduated from Bates in 1927 and proved something of a historian of the school, said in a brief account of the game that its point was for Bates’ squad to learn the game and “to form an acquaintance with the students of Tufts.”

Getting the ball back in play after it went out of bounds during an early game of American football. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1887

His unnamed source told him the Bates team members showed a “marked improvement in their playing toward the end of the game.”

And, yes, they also formed “a pleasant acquaintance” with the visitors.

At game’s end, the Portland paper noted, “Cheers were exchanged.”

Cushman, who offered the challenge to begin with and later ran a major shoe company in Auburn, took some time to show some of his classmates and Bates friends around Lewiston and Auburn from a carriage pulled by a fine pair of horses, Hutchins said.

During the ride, Hutchins told the Tufts men that “with a few weeks of practice and some knowledge of the rules, we could have given them a better game.”

He said one of the opponents responded, “You could fight like h—l.”

Before the sun went down, members of the Tufts club caught the 4:15 p.m. train back to Boston “with laurels on their brows and the cuticle off their shins,” the Journal said.

The next morning, since “neither sitting down nor standing up was comfortable,” the “bruised and battered” Bates Eleven skipped church services, Hutchins said.

THE YEARS SINCE

Neither Bates nor Tufts is on anyone’s list of football powerhouses.

But they’ve both been fielding teams annually for well over a century. Bates had played every year since 1893 except during World War II, with some standout seasons along the way.

Right after World War II, it even sent a team to a bowl game – the first Glass Bowl versus the University of Toledo Rockets in Ohio. After an undefeated season, Bates came up short.

This year, for the first time since 1945, Bates won’t be fielding a team.

Its league, the New England Small College Athletic Association, shut down fall sports rather than risk spreading a deadly coronavirus that has already killed more than 200,000 Americans.

Bates hasn’t forgotten its earliest football team despite all the intervening decades.

To mark the centennial of the match, the college put a small marker near historic Garcelon Field, one of the oldest football venues in the country, to recognize that long-ago showdown against Tufts.

The stone notes that “the first intercollegiate football game in the state of Maine was played on this campus/ Bates College vs Tufts University – November 6, 1875.”

There was no good reason to add that Bates lost.


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