Game of Football

Jul 27, 2018

In May 1887 the Griggs Courier, of Cooperstown, reported that Mrs. Beebe was “a good deal annoyed” with the gang of boys creating a nuisance in her neighborhood. Confronting them in the street, “She had tried entreaties and threats to no purpose,” it was reported, “until the other day, when she had her innings.”

“Innings”--the editor’s metaphor is mixed up, because the game the boys were playing in the street, and incidentally trespassing on Mrs. Beebe’s residential property, was not cricket, but this new game, “foot-ball,” they called it.

The boys had the habit of hopping Mrs. Beebe’s fence when the oblong rubber ball flew into her yard--until the old woman pounced on it and took it into her house, shutting down the game. Deputations of boys called on her every half-hour, entreating for return of the ball, but Mrs. Beebe rejected their pleas--until finally giving it back to them at 8pm.

Believe it or not, there was a time when our prairie towns faced the advent of autumn without benefit of Friday night lights. The rise of American football, as an offshoot of English rugby, took place during our territorial period of settlement. A key element in the game’s emergence was the codification of American rules for the game by Walter Camp, who played and coached at Yale University.

In our railroad towns on the prairies, our boys followed the heroics of Camp’s Yalies and the other teams at the eastern colleges, and they were not slow to get in on the action. We can trace the stirrings of football fever in Dakota Territory through its newspapers.

The first reference I find is a report in May 1883 that “Doc” Phillip, of Hope, had sustained “a severe, though not dangerous, cut over the eye . . . while indulging in a game of foot-ball with the boys.” I imagine Doc Phillip gazing ruefully into the mirror as he stitches himself up, resolving thereafter to act his age. A month later I read in the Jamestown Alert:

The town of Carrington have the honor to challenge the city of Jamestown to a game of football to be played at Carrington on the Fourth day of July, 1883. Carrington to furnish the ball. . . . All communications to be addressed to “Football” in care of J. Morley Wyard, editor of the Carrington News.

Was this, perhaps, the first inter-city game of football played in Dakota Territory? Local historians, call me out on this!

In the West River you might think the boys would be busy roping calves and busting broncs for their bruises, but no. Medora’s Badlands Cowboy reports in April 1885, “Foot-ball and base-ball are becoming popular sports among the boys.” A football game was played in Williamsburg, Emmons County, on the 4th of July in 1886. They also had baseball, a sack race, and a game of quoits--look that one up for yourself.

Huron had a football club in 1883, and in 1888, it was reported that the boys in Yankton were taking advantage of the town’s new electric street lights to play on the street at night.

Although not yet a school sport, football was a boy’s or young man’s game--except when, like Doc Phillip, the old guys just could not contain themselves. Reported the Turner County Herald of Hurley in 1887, “A number of old soldier boys engaged in a game of foot-ball last Saturday, and it was surprising to see the alacrity with which the lame and the blind followed the ball around the grounds.” Thankfully, I know my limitations and act my age--in matters athletic, at least.

~Tom Isern