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January 30, 2010

An Auspicious Beginning

Sitting in their dorm windows, UGA students watch a baseball game played at Herty Field in 1899. (Photo: GeorgiaInfo) 

On this day 118 years ago, the University of Georgia competed in the very first of its 1,178 football games played through this past season.

The birth of one of college football’s most prominent programs began when 24-year-old Dr. Charles Herty decided to bring the sport to his alma mater after first witnessing it in Baltimore while earning his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins.

At the initial practice, Herty, considered more of a “trainer” than a coach, walked onto the field carrying a Walter Camp rule book. To start practice, he simply tossed a football in the air and then watched as a group of college boys fought for it.

George Shackelford, one of those boys, said in a 1946 interview with the Atlanta Journal: “[Herty] selected the strongest looking specimens for the first team. Luckily I was the one who recovered the ball and thus I was assigned a position.”

The “strong specimens” in Georgia’s starting lineup versus Mercer averaged 156 pounds and 5-foot, 10 inches in height, nearly 100 pounds lighter and a half foot shorter than the Bulldogs’ starting eleven on offense in the season opener of 2009.

On January 30, 1892, 1,500 spectators gathered at Alumni Athletic Field on the school’s campus to witness the first intercollegiate football game in the Deep South. A few years later, the field would be renamed “Herty Field” in honor of UGA football's founding father.

School records indicate Georgia’s mascot made its initial appearance at the Red and Black’s second game—a meeting with Auburn in Atlanta three weeks following the first contest. On the contrary, according to the Athens Banner, “the university goat was driven across the field by the boys and raised quite a ripple of laughter,” just prior to the 3:00 PM kickoff with Mercer.

Soon after the introduction of Georgia’s goat, the Red and Black student section hollered, “rah, rah, rah, ta Georgia!” This was answered by the Mercer fans with a “rah, rah, rah, U-ni-v-sis-boom ah Var-sity Mercer!”

At the time, football resembled more of a rugby scrum than the sport we know of today. The rules were considerably different: no passing, five yards were needed for a first down, a kicked field goal was actually worth more than a touchdown, and because of a loophole in the game’s rules, a team kicking off could easily gain possession by nudging the ball forward, recovering it, and promptly go on the offensive.

Mercer practiced this type of onside kick from yesteryear to begin the game and started with the ball around midfield.

On the first play in Georgia football history, a Mercer ball carrier was thrown for a three-yard loss. This was followed with a play for no gain and then a lost fumble recovered by Shackelford.

On the Red and Black’s first offensive play, Frank “Si” Herty, cousin of Dr. Herty, got the ball, made an “extraordinary” run, and scored a touchdown, giving Georgia an early 4-0 advantage.

Later in the contest, Georgia increased its lead to 16-0 when Shackelford made the play of the game by scoring a two-point safety in a most unusual fashion. “I picked up the ball-carrier,” said Shackelford, “and slung him over one shoulder, carrying him [along with the football] twenty yards across his own goal-line.”

The game ended with Georgia prevailing 50-0 over the visitors. “Si” Herty led the Red and Black by scoring six touchdowns, including Georgia’s final points where he somehow scored a touchdown together with fullback Henry Brown.

Reportedly, the final score should have been 60-0 but the official scorer made two trips to the Broad Street Dispensary during the game for some “refreshments” and missed two touchdowns and a successful kick-after by Georgia.

The Atlanta Constitution reported spectators’ hats were tossed into the air after the game and Georgia players were hoisted onto the shoulders of patrons in celebration as “the red and crimson of the University of Georgia waves triumphantly, and a score of fifty to nothing shows the university boys know how to play football.”

Exactly 118 years later, much has changed in the sport of college football, especially in its rules. However, some things do remain the same, in particular, the “university boys” still know how to play football, and play it well.

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