Tufts-Harvard first game story breaks nationally

By Paul Sweeney

            Tufts University has officially claimed it defeated Harvard in the first game of American football between two American colleges since Penn State sports historian Ron Smith researched the subject and agreed with that conclusion in 1986. The claim is in the Tufts football program every year, it's on a plaque embedded in the Captains' Gate at the entrance to Ellis Oval, and campus tour guides recite it to visitors.

Until recently, not many people outside of Tufts knew or cared about the claim. A Rutgers versus Princeton game on November 6, 1869 is historically referred to as the first game. The Tufts versus Harvard game, though it featured more elements similar to today's game of football, was barely a footnote in the sport's history.

That changed when the Boston Globe ran a story on Tufts' challenge to football history written by Kevin Paul Dupont on Thursday, September 23. "Carzo, the former Tufts football coach, athletic director, and now AD emeritus, makes a convincing case that the first true link in US college football's evolutionary chain was forged when Tufts squared off against Harvard at 3 p.m, June 4, 1875, on what was then Jarvis Field, just a short stroll north of Harvard Square," Dupont wrote.

Reaction was immediate. It was the first story listed in the day's top 10 on sportspages.com, the must-see stop for sportswriters, according to Mark McCarter, whose daughter Jordon went to Tufts, and who checked in from Huntsville, Alabama where he is a sports columnist. The next morning Carzo appeared on ESPN2's Cold Pizza morning show to debate the issue with Rutgers deputy athletic director Joe Quinlan.

"It's not a matter of changing history, it's a matter of clarifying it," Carzo said to Cold Pizza's Kit Hoover.

The Tufts claim is based upon the Rutgers-Princeton game more closely resembling soccer. As Dupont stated, an 1874 game between McGill University in Montreal and Harvard first employed the "Boston Rules" with 11 men on a side, and non-continuous play. Tufts and Harvard later became the first American colleges to play under these rules.

Interviewed by Dupont, Bob Casciola, president of the National Football Foundation/College Hall of Fame, supported Tufts' contention by saying that "the '69 game only allowed kicking the ball while picking up the ball and running with it to advance the offensive play was central to the '75 game."

The Newark Star-Ledger, smack-dab in Rutgers country, featured an article about Tufts' challenge on September 24. "Rutgers historians have never argued their game against Princeton was starkly different than the football that eventually evolved," wrote Steve Politi. "The game, the school Web site says, bore little resemblance to its modern-day counterpart."

Further evidence is presented in a Boston Daily Globe article about the Tufts-Harvard game that was printed on June 5, 1875. "Ere long five or six Tufts men found themselves laid on their back so violently that they imagined it was evening by the stars they saw. They soon repaid the compliment, however," Dupont cited from the original Globe story. "That sure sounds like the blood 'n guts gridiron game that Americans have grown to know and love," he added.

In dispute of the Tufts theory, Jerry Price, Princeton's longtime director of sports information, told Dupont, "If Tufts is willing to produce an eyewitness of the game they're talking about, maybe we'll be willing to accept it."

Though Carzo joked that he would dig one up, Tufts has the next best thing in the form of a letter from Eugene Bowen, the manager of the 1875 Tufts football team. Written to football coach Fred "Fish" Ellis and dated March 24, 1949, it provides more compelling proof of the game that was played that day.  Describing the only touchdown, scored by Tuftonian F.B. Harrington, Bowen wrote, "Harrington eluded the first Harvard would-be tackler and Cushman running interference shouldered off three Harvard players and Harrington scored."

            With the admission that Abner Doubleday was wrongly recognized as the inventor of American baseball for so many years, why can't this piece of college football history be updated? Carzo does not want to erase Rutgers and Princeton out of the history books. He just wants to see Tufts included.

"We understand, politically, the Princeton-Rutgers game is right there," he said to Dupont. "But just as the game changes, times change. We've got the evidence, and the point is, 135 years later, no one says it's Tufts. Well, it is Tufts, and our family wants to be recognized -- somehow, some place."

The national splash made by the story had Jumbo alums calling, faxing and sending emails. Overseeing the "Jumbo Footprints: History of Tufts Athletics" project since retiring as Athletic Director in 1999, Carzo more aggressively sought exposure for the Tufts claim. Paul Rich, a Tufts publicist in the 1960s, wrote in depth about the first game for Jumbo Footprints.

Harvard, with its place in the academic world already well established, did not join Tufts in this quest to correct history. However, Carzo informed Crimson officials of his intentions received their blessings to go forward. The Tufts side of the story did gain an important ally when Boston Globe sports columnist Will McDonough both wrote and said on a sports radio talk show that he was going to investigate the origin of American football, believing it began at Harvard. Carzo called McDonough and the flame was lit. However, McDonough soon passed away suddenly.

            Time passed, but Carzo kept the story alive with persistent calls to the Globe. He always received encouragement that the paper liked the story idea and would get it done. Just when the story seemed like it would never be written, Dupont called to set up an interview. One of nation's foremost hockey journalists, Dupont wasn't covering the Boston Bruins on a daily basis due to the current National Hockey League lockout. He dug into the story and put Tufts in the spotlight.

            Carzo concluded his comments on ESPN2 by stating that the network should sponsor a study to sanction the true first game of American college football. Or perhaps Rutgers-Princeton and Tufts-Harvard should play a challenge match on the 200th anniversary of the game in 2075. Though neither is likely, Tufts has finally received some "buzz" for this historic moment.