NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – History can be found across the street from Skinny Vinnie's pizza joint.
Start at the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium and trace its long shadow all the way back through the evolution of the sport – back through Manning and Montana and Unitas and Tittle, Knute Rockne and Amos Alonzo Stagg and Walter Camp – and you wind up here, on the campus of Rutgers University, in what is now a parking lot near a restaurant with a blue awning and slices in the oven.
Back in 1869, Rutgers played Princeton in what is generally considered the first organized game of American football. From that afternoon battle, won by the home team on a plot of land which is now paved over and abutting a beloved old gym known as "The Barn," comes the goliath of sporting events, set to take place 35 miles north in a mammoth stadium with the whole world watching.
On that particular November day, there were about 100 people watching. And not everyone was a fan of what was taking place.
The contest grew out of the most elementary of situations: a rivalry. Rutgers and Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) were situated near each other but the students didn't always like each other. So they figured out ways to beat each other. John Herbert, who played in that original football game, portrayed the venom in 1933:
"For years each had striven for possession of an old Revolutionary cannon, making night forays and lugging it back and forth time and again. Not long before the first football game, the canny Princetonians had settled this competition in their own favor by ignominiously sinking the gun in several feet of concrete. In addition to this, I regret to report, Princeton had beaten Rutgers in baseball by the harrowing score of 40-2. Rutgers longed for a chance to square things."
That 40-2 shellacking bequeathed an idea: a football game. (It sure beat ferreting a cannon back and forth.) Students from the two schools agreed to a best-of-three, with Rutgers hosting the first game on Nov. 6, 1869. (Oddly, there was no uproar about how such an important game could possibly be played outside in cold weather.)
The most significant decision made in the game was how to play it: the students chose an amalgam of rugby and soccer instead of just going with one or the other. It was based on rules of the London Football Association, as suggested by Rutgers captain, William Leggett. Two players stood near the opposing goal (19th century cherry pickers, basically), while groups of 11 defensemen (or "fielders") and 12 forwards (or "bulldogs") did battle with the other team. It wasn't a completely novel concept, as similar games had been played on campus at Harvard and in Canada, but it was an intercollegiate game, which began a tradition that remains today.
Rutgers and Princeton decided to play to six, with a round ball. There was no rushing; the ball had to be advanced by kicking or hitting. Scores came from kicking the ball over the goal line. The Princeton men were notably larger, but the Rutgers players, bedecked in red turbans, were more aggressive and quicker. Smarter too, perhaps, as they used a primitive version of the wedge formation to drive the ball down the field. The home team won, 6-4.
Princeton hosted and won the rematch, 8-0, and then in a sign of things to come, academic interests intervened. The rubber match was canceled because faculty advisers felt the two teams were letting the game get in the way of their studies. In fact, a Rutgers professor shook an umbrella at the players during the original game, yelling, "You will come to no Christian end!" A painting of the day depicts the angry teacher and his umbrella.
Word of the contest traveled fast, even in those days, and soon Columbia fielded a team and other Ivy League schools picked up the sport. In 1873, representatives from several schools met at a New York City hotel (not far from where the NFL headquarters are now) and codified the rules of collegiate football. An Americanized version of the sport had caught on. Camp, Stagg, Rockne and others would develop football into the combination of rushing and passing we know now, but pretty much every historical account of the sport begins in 1869 with those 50 players. That's why it's somewhat remarkable how undecorated the grounds are now, considering football shrines in places like Canton and South Bend.
There is a statue of a 19th century Rutgers player by the football stadium, with an engraving commemorating the game, but it's driving distance from the spot where the game was played. The parking lot that marks the spot is behind the venerable College Avenue Gymnasium where sports including basketball have been played since that day, but you wouldn't know it's a football landmark. Rutgers has boxes of artifacts from football games that came after the original game, including headgear and padded pants, but nothing from the actual game. Even the rivalry itself has faded. Rutgers and Princeton don't play each other in football anymore. Some in the area want that long-awaited rubber match to be scheduled in 2019, on the 150th anniversary of the first game. But considering Rutgers is moving to the Big Ten and Princeton will forever be in the Ivy League, that doesn't seem likely (or fair).
That's not to say Rutgers has neglected its history. Anyone on campus who knows about the first game will proudly disclose the opponent and, of course, who won. It's just that New Jersey's first Super Bowl will be celebrated as history, while the site of the original intercollegiate football game is not marked with a museum or even a plaque. The man working the ovens at Skinny Vinnie's, like most of those parking in the lot behind the gym on the Monday of Super Bowl week, had no idea what happened nearly 150 years ago and how it started a tradition that everyone in the world knows of.
"I didn't know," said the man, who said his name is John. "That's amazing."
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