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January 30, 2015

When the University Boys Knew How to Play Football

An edited and updated piece of mine I originally posted five years ago: On this day 123 years ago, the University of Georgia competed in the very first of its 1,245 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, “[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.”

Assigned for a contest against Mercer, the “strong specimens” in Georgia’s initial starting lineup averaged 156 pounds and 5-foot-10 in height, or nearly 100 pounds lighter and a half foot shorter than the Bulldogs’ starting eleven on offense for the 2014 season.

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 venue 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. You also won't find in the UGA annals that the school's first mascot was almost not an animal, but literally a manan African-American gentleman, Old Tub.

Soon after the introduction of the 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 worked this type of onside kick from yesteryear to begin the game to perfection, 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 5½ touchdowns. Unofficially, Herty is awarded one-half of a touchdown since he reportedly scored a touchdown together somehow with fullback Henry Brown for Georgia's final points.

The kind of "refreshments" served
down at the Athens Dispensary...
Speaking of final points, the final score should have actually been 60-0 but the official scorer made two trips to the local dispensary during the game for some “refreshments,” missing two touchdowns and a successful kick-after by Georgia.

After the game, spectators’ hats were tossed into the air 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 123 years later, much has changed in the sport of college football, especially its rules. However, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, particularly, the “university boys” still know how to play some football, and play it pretty darn well.


Russ Fortson said...

Great article Patrick. Thanks for putting all this great information out there.

Patrick Garbin said...

Thank you, Russ.--Patrick

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