James Naismith (1861-1939), left, pictured in 1891 wearing his makeshift football helmet.

America’s Game: The history of early football in the Midwest 

At that first KU-MU football matchup in 1891 in Kansas City, there were likely Union and Confederate veterans in the stands.

By Diane Euston

  For many of us Kansas Citians, welcoming fall is more than changing leaves, pumpkin spice, cozy sweater weather and warming embers in the fireplace. Fall is also the height of football season where Friday night lights and screams echo in high school stadiums, Saturdays are for college football rivalries and Sunday’s lineup involves a series of NFL games.

  It certainly hasn’t always been this way, and the history of football and its early development in our backyards tells an interesting story of the emergence of competitive collegiate sports. And in our neighborhood, the earliest rivalry revolved around barely-healed war wounds.

“First Yale team playing under American intercollegiate foot ball rules. This team won from Harvard in the fall of ’76.” Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football,” is the second player top left. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Creation of Gridiron Football

  The future sport of American football holds its roots to its European counterparts. Variations of what would become football, including tackling, jumping and running dates back to Roman times.

  Variations of soccer can be traced back thousands of years. In the 1820s, a soccer ball was picked up, and instead of kicking it, the boys ran with it. Thus, the sport of rugby began. 

  In the mid 19th century, a sport morphed from both rugby and soccer and grew in popularity in New England. Gridiron football, called this after the vertical lines marking the field, was different from soccer because you could handle the ball with your hands. It was also different from rugby in that each team in gridiron football alternated possession of the ball. 

  Early gridiron football looked more like rugby in these early years than the modern football game we see today, and the sport was embraced by ivy league clubs. 

  On Nov. 6, 1869, Princeton played Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J. in “a soccer-style game with rules adapted from the London Football Association.” This is considered the first intercollegiate game in America.

  The early beginning of gridiron football was rough at best. No two teams at different colleges played by the same rules. In order to better organize the sport, Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Columbia met in 1873 to establish rules. This was the beginning of the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA). 

Walter Camp (1859-1925), the “Father of American Football,” pictured as captain of the 1878-79 Yale football team. Image printed in the 1916 book Football Days by William H. Edwards.

The Father of American Football

  Walter Camp (1859-1925) was a Yale undergraduate from 1876 to 1881, a medical student, halfback and captain of the Yale football team. A gifted athlete born in Connecticut, Walter noticed in his six years of football that there was a lack of rules and management. 

  The sport was often referred to as “Mob Football” due to the extensive amount of injuries and violence. When plays were disputed due to lack of rules, fist punches often replaced tackles. 

  Walter was invited to serve as a member of the newly-founded IFA, and is credited with drafting the rules of gridiron football that are familiar today.

  Newly established rules included that a team would give up the ball after failing to move down the field in a number of “downs,” the 11-man team, offensive signal calling, the quarterback position and the line of scrimmage.

  In 1883, the game further established scoring rules pioneered by Walter Camp. A touchdown was then worth four points, an extra point two points, a safety was two points and a field goal was a whopping five points.

  By 1887, the game had adapted to being played in two halfs at 45 minutes each. They also added two officials – a referee and an umpire -and for the first time allowed interference and blocking.

  Walter Camp worked his whole life at his family’s clock company in New Haven, Conn. while also serving until his death on the football rules committee. He is aptly known as the “Father of American Football” due to his innovations to the game.

The Second Border Wars: KU vs. MU

  Most football teams in the Midwest started in the 1880s as clubs versus organized high school or collegiate teams.

  In 1890, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri  caught the football bug and organized their first college football teams; KU’s was the first college team  in the state of Kansas. In October 1890 at Mizzou, a Foot Ball Association was formed. Curtis Hill, Mizzou’s first quarterback and later a state highway engineer, explained in 1911, “Our athletic field was a pasture where Missouri Bible College stands now. A stable served as a dressing room. Our coaches came from the faculty of the University.” 

  The 1890 Missouri Tigers football team was eager to play Thanksgiving Day against Washington University in St. Louis. The name “Tigers” was adopted by the football team and is named after a group of local militia who fought guerrilla warfare around Columbia during the Civil War.

  Their team was haphazardly thrown together, and the results were less than favorable. Washington University had established a team in 1887 and was much more familiar with football. In front of 3,000 people, Washington beat Mizzou 28 to 0.

  Football rules were completely foreign to the Tigers. Burton Thompson, fullback for Missouri, commented later that they were “taught that our only defense must be with the shoulders and arms or by interference with the body. We had been strictly warned not to use our hands, open or closed, in warding off a man; but, alas! The umpire and referee observed no such rules of the game.”

Kansas City Star, November 2, 1891.

  The first matchup between Mizzou and KU football teams happened October 31, 1891 in Kansas City at Exposition Park. The beginning of the modern-day “border wars,” the Jayhawks were able to secure a 22-8 win over the Tigers.

  The “border wars” namesake derived from the earlier (and much bloodier) battle that ravaged the Kansas-Missouri border from 1856 to the end of the Civil War. While Kansas “free-staters” fought to be free from slavery, their eastern neighbors were hellbent on ensuring its spread. What ensued were years of bloody fights instigated on Jayhawkers from Kansas and bushwhackers from Missouri. 

  The Thanksgiving date was used for the Border Wars game starting on November 30, 1893 in Kansas City, Mo. 3,000 people packed the small stadium, a record crowd for the day, and Mizzou was able to secure a 12-4 win over the Jayhawks. The first twelve Thanksgiving Day games were played in Kansas City; it was said that “neither team felt safe in the opposing team’s hometown.”

The Leavenworth Standard, December 1, 1893 marks the Tigers win on the first Thanksgiving Day matchup.

  Collegiate football was gaining momentum in the Midwest, and in 1892, the Western Interstate Football Association was organized with the University of Nebraska, University of Iowa, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri. 

A Football Helmet?

  Many jokes about the dangers of football were printed in newspapers as the sport gained popularity. In 1883, J.H. Snooks of Oshkosh, Wis. wrote, “My son, James Henry, passed the entrance examination to the foot-ball team at Yale with the loss of all but three teeth and one eye. I attribute his success entirely to your admirable teaching.” 

  The protective gear required in football was nonexistent in the early decades. The uniform included zero protective padding, simply providing matching attire made of canvas and moleskin. Protecting the head from injury, unfortunately, was not a priority.

  The origin of the football helmet is disputed, but two early stories of its origins showcase the lack of regulation and protection of players.

  One story attributed the first football helmet as being worn by Admiral Joseph Mason “Bull” Reeves (1872-1948). Reeves, who played for the Navy, was hit in the head so often that his doctor warned that another hit could lead to “instant insanity.” 

  Reeves went to a shoemaker and “had him fashion a moleskin with earflaps,” a lucrative “helmet” that he wore first at an 1893 Army-Navy football matchup. 

  But, there is another account that states that none other than James Naismith (1861-1939) created the first football helmet. Starting in 1890, Naismith taught physical education at YMCA’s International Training School in Springfield, Mass. 

  1891 was a good, creative year for Naismith. He was asked to come up with an indoor game to help athletes keep in shape in the cold. In 14 days, he created the sport of basketball. In that same year, Naismith, along with pioneer sportsman Amos Alonzo Stagg, formed a football team.

  Both Naismith and Stagg were “veterans” of football; Naismith played at McGill University, and Stagg was a former player at Yale. Naismith resurrected his football career by playing center, a position that continually suffered blows to the head. Opposing lineman would grab Naismith’s cauliflower ears and throw him to the ground. 

  According to the Los Angeles Times, “His solution was, with the help of his girlfriend, Maude (who later became his wife), to use some pieces of flannel as ear muffs. Later on, Naismith would use pieces of leather for the muffs.” 

  This contraption was a tad bit short of full head protection, but it did work to protect Naismith from having his ears ripped off.

  Naismith’s grandson, James, claimed in 1960 that his grandfather was “prouder over the fact that he invented the football helmet than he was over his basketball discovery.”

  This is likely an exaggeration; Naismith never played basketball and was certainly glad he survived his football career with two ears due to his helmet.

  In 1898, James Naismith arrived in Lawrence seven years after his creation of basketball where he founded the KU basketball program and coached until 1907. Ironically, he is the only coach in KU’s basketball history to have a losing record (55-60).

  By the early 1900s, football “helmets” were sometimes worn by players, but they were rudimentary padded caps. The first hard helmets were introduced in the 1920s. Shockingly, football helmets were not part of the required uniform until 1943.

The Serious Dangers of the Game Addressed

  In its early days, football was in danger of being banned from college sports altogether due to its brutality. Deaths due to the game were far too frequent.

  One game in KU’s history resulted in the death of a player. On Nov. 14, 1896, KU played Doane College at home. Bert Serf, 18, played for Doane and was injured weeks prior. The Hastings Daily Republican reported, “Since that time a slight injury to the head would make him unconscious and sometimes delirious.” 

  Early in the game against KU, Bert was hurt and laid on the field “fully five minutes unable to play.” Players were concerned and asked for the captain to pull him from the game, but Doane was short players and couldn’t afford to lose him. 

  With one minute left of the game, KU was in the endzone when Bert tackled a player with the ball. He was thrown backwards and hit the back of his head. Bert was unconscious and was carried back to the Eldridge House where the team was staying. He died later that night.

 The event stunned the Midwest football community. A game that was supposed to be played the following week at Exposition Park in Kansas City was canceled, and Bert’s death sparked an effort to outlaw football in Nebraska.

  Kansas didn’t fail to act, either. Although Doane wrote a letter signed by the team exonerating KU of any blame, a lot of KU faculty weren’t in favor of football continuing. 

  Football continued on college campuses despite the dangers, but in 1904, 13 reported deaths from injuries that year alone sparked the call for reform. Injuries resulting in death included fractures skulls, internal injuries, broken necks and lockjaw.

Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1905

   In 1905, the New York Herald reported there had been 45 deaths in five years – and the number was increasing every year. The Chicago Tribune reported 19 deaths for the same year due to football and 137 seriously injured; 11 of the deaths were of high school boys under 17. 

  A 15-year-old boy in Sedalia, Mo. playing for Southeast High School was paralyzed from the neck down and later died from his injuries in November 1905. The Moberly Evening Democrat wrote, “Why don’t the courts stop such a brutal and deadly sport?” They called for a ban of football.

  Real reform took effect when the White House took personal notice of the dangers of the game. 

  President Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Theodore, Jr., played on Harvard’s freshman team, and it was reported he was “laid out twice.” Ted, Jr.’s nose was broken so badly from playing football that he needed surgery. He gave up his first football season to see a Boston specialist “to have his broken nose put into proper place once more.”

  President Roosevelt wanted to “clean up football,” so on Oct. 9, 1905, he invited coaches from Princeton, Yale and Harvard along with heads of the alumni committees to the White House to “lay out methods to decrease gratuitous violence.” As a result of the meeting, the coaches publicly denounced on-field viciousness.

  These deaths and the outcry from the White House resulted in the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), first known as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) in 1906. This completely reformed the rules of college sports and essentially saved football from being outlawed.

A cartoon in the Kansas City Journal, Nov. 24, 1893 commemorated the first Thanksgiving KU-MU matchup in Kansas City.

Continuing the Border Wars Rivalry on Thanksgiving and Beyond

  President Teddy Roosevelt is credited for intervening and “saving” college football from being banned, but his distant relative, President Franklin D. Roosevelt caused serious chaos in 1939 when his decision to change the Thanksgiving date interfered with the annual KU-MU football game.

  Every Thanksgiving Day since 1893 (except for 1918 during the flu pandemic), KU and MU battled for who reigned supreme on the football field.  The games were played in Kansas City until 1910 when the teams took turns hosting at home.

  The Depression era had depleted the nation’s economy, and just like today, the sales during the holiday season was a make-or-break for many merchants. 

  Traditionally, the fourth Thursday in November was the default date across the country as appointed annually by the president since 1863; however, the fourth Thursday would land Thanksgiving  on Nov. 30, 1939. 

   The concern was that losing extra shopping days between turkey day and Christmas would be harmful to the economy. In response, FDR was pressured to issue a proclamation declaring the third Thursday the “official” Thanksgiving, moving the date to November 23.

  The response nationwide was one of havoc and confusion. In addition, it threw a bombshell on football schedules set a year in advance. Locally, one tradition was in danger of being lost and had Missouri and Kansas up in arms- again. In 1939, it was KU’s turn to host the Tigers in Lawrence, but the confusion over the date had things on hold.

  Because President Roosevelt’s proclamation truly only affected the District of Columbia and territories belonging to the United States, it was up to the governors of each state to decide when to celebrate the day. 

  The MU-KU game was scheduled to be held on November 30 on the date everyone assumed would be Thanksgiving.

  This had the governors of each state deciding whether to follow President Roosevelt or hold to the generally-accepted fourth Thursday in November. And just like the Border Wars, Missouri and Kansas chose two different sides. Kansas chose to keep the original date of November 30, and Missouri’s governor announced in August, “We will have only one Thanksgiving day in Missouri. That will be the date set by the President of the United States.” Because school schedules included holidays, the two schools were deadlocked on when they could have their annual Border Wars game.

  A solution was reached; the game, traditionally held on Thanksgiving Day, was moved to Sat., Nov. 25 “because of the two conflicting turkey dates in the two states.” Mizzou won 20-0.

  The Thanksgiving Day Border Wars game continued until the 1950s.

  Congress passed a law Dec. 26, 1941 giving us a “unified Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.” Thankfully since then, there has been no confusion as to when we gather to give our thanks across the nation.

Resurrecting the Earliest Rivalry West of the Mississippi

  Football firsts didn’t just occur on the east coast where the sport was created. One of the biggest traditions practiced in high schools and colleges today began with our own rivalry – the biggest rivalry west of the Mississippi. 

  On Nov. 24, 1911, Mizzou coach Chester Brewer invited alumni to return “home” to Columbia and watch the Tigers take on the Jayhawks. This is attributed as the very first homecoming football game in the nation. The game ended in a 3-3 tie.

  Whether you’re a bird or a tiger, you likely miss the Border Wars rivalry that once fueled friendly fun with our neighbors. In 2004, the matchup received a more politically correct name of the “Border Showdown.”

  Ask any long-standing, die-hard fan what the rivalry is called, and it isn’t “The Border Showdown.” Good try, though.

  This rivalry is rich in our area’s history, and in some ways, its creation was one avenue to heal much deeper wounds cut during our area’s tumultuous past. 

  At that first KU-MU football matchup in 1891 in Kansas City, there were likely Union and Confederate veterans in the stands. Through the cheers and jeers, the game continued year after year.

  This abruptly ended in 2012 when MU left the Big 12, and KU declined to participate in a non-conference series that would have kept it around. But the rivalry will be resurrected in 2025 and 2026. Surprisingly, the rivalry remains almost completely even- Mizzou leads 56-55 with nine ties in the KU-MU football final scores.

  The early history of football in this country is fraught with issues that were sorted out as play became widespread and conferences across the country were created. 

  Much has changed with football over the years, especially with safety and regulations of play. But the heart and soul of America’s most popular sport, full of welcomed rivalries, continues to draw athletes of all ages to dream of being a starter on an 11-man roster. Even in the 19th century, the harsh hits, tackles and touchdowns drew athletes like moths to a flame to gridiron football. 

  They left it all on the field then, much as they do today.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com 

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