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Missouri's Unauthorized Trip to Play the First Football Games in Mexico
Like many Yale football players of the time, Frank A. Patterson accepted an offer to coach football following his graduation in 1895, so he headed to Columbia, Missouri, to teach those Tigers a thing or two. He must not have taught them much since the Tigers went 3-5 in the regular season, losing five border battles while beating Vanderbilt and two schools that no longer exist.
They endured a stomping by Kansas in the regular-season finale, brightened only by the prospect of meeting the University of Texas a few weeks later. Missouri’s faculty had given the team permission to travel to and play one game in Texas, just had they had two years earlier in one of football’s earliest post-season games.
Texas’ coach was Harry O. Robinson, who played at Tufts before coaching Missouri in 1893 and 1894, so it was Robinson that led Missouri in their 28-0 beatdown of Texas in 1894. Arriving in Austin in 1896, most Texas fans believed Robinson had made strides with the team. Their record stood at 4-1-1 as they prepared to host Missouri on December 14.
So it was that the Missouri Tigers left Columbia the evening of December 10, 1896, for what was to be a seven-day trip. They arrived in Dallas the next night and awoke to the news of a game arranged with the Dallas Athletic Club, who had previously played Texas, tying once and losing the second game. Missouri dispatched Dallas 26-0. Following the game, George Hill, an agent for the Mexican National Railroad, and Texas’ Harry Robinson approached Missouri about a potential trip to Mexico to play several exhibition games. Hill wanted to package the games as part of an excursion he had booked for one hundred tourists. Originally planning for Texas to play an all-star team, Hill turned his attention to Missouri after the all-star team fell through.
The Missouri team tentatively accepted the offer, allowing Hill to continue his planning while Missouri traveled to Austin for their game with Texas. Missouri and Texas played on December 14, with Missouri winning 10-0 in a game the Missouri yearbook described as “slow and uninteresting.” The Tigers spent the next day touring Austin, including a visit to the Texas Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, leading to Missouri arranging a game with the Asylum the following day. The Tigers won 39-0. Their victory over the “Austin Mutes” remains an official game on Missouri’s books to this day. Missouri then entrained for San Antonio where they beat the local YMCA team 29-0.
While Missouri was picking up its third and fourth victories on their supposed one-game road trip, George Hill requested and received permission from the President of Mexico to allow the teams to travel in Mexico and play several games. President Diaz even committed to attending the game in Mexico City on the 27th, though he proved to be a no-show. As a result, Missouri skedaddled back to Austin to hop aboard the train to Laredo, where they crossed into Mexico.
Once through customs, the team traveled on a narrow-gauge railway with five sleeper cars and one car each devoted to baggage, the kitchen, dining, and a day coach, arriving in Monterrey on Christmas Eve. After touring the city in the morning, Missouri and Texas played the first American football game on Mexican soil that afternoon, with Missouri besting Texas 18-4. The following morning saw them board the train, headed to Mexico City, where they arrived on the 27th. Rather than playing rematches of the game in Monterrey, Mexico City witnessed two games with teams using a mix of Missouri and Texas players, all the while being warmly received and entertained by the American, British and French ex-pats of the city.
Four notes about the Mexico City games are worth mentioning. First, the Mexican newspapers were highly critical of American football, likening it to bullfighting, though the latter seemed entirely proper to the press. Second, the lack of familiarity with American football resulted in the local police attempting to break up one of the games, thinking the Americans in odd clothing were fighting one another. Third, the local oddsmakers saw the opportunity to make a few bucks, so the teams avoided potential temptations by arranging for the second game in Mexico City to end in a tie. Fourth, while the teams were comprised of young men in good football trim, playing at altitude led to frequent time-outs as players collapsed on the field gasping for oxygen.
Departing after six days in the capital, the teams began their long trek home. An accident on the track ahead of them led to a missed connection and a 24-hour delay in Laredo, leading to the teams playing a final exhibition game before 300 fans. From there, the teams split from one another, with the Texans returning to Austin without fanfare.
The arrival of the Missouri team in Columbia on January 7 was another story. It seems no one in the Missouri traveling party had notified the university or gained permission to go to Mexico back in December. The Missouri authorities only knew of the team's adventure through newspaper reports so the one week, one game trip that became a twenty-eight-day, eight-game odyssey left the authorities rather displeased. They fired Coach Patterson. Tom Shawhan, the captain, was ruled ineligible for future involvement in Mizzou athletics, and George English, the team manager, was suspended from the university. Other players suffered punishments for participating in the 6,000-mile excursion, far exceeding the 1,600 miles authorized by the university.
Frank Patterson never coached again, going on to a successful law career advising international banks and participating in various New York State banking commissions. His estate endowed a fund that still awards prizes and scholarships for political science students at Yale. Harry O. Robinson, a Maine native, coached the Maine Black Bears in 1897 before embarking on a long career as an engineer running mines in Latin and South America.
Neither university recognizes the games in Mexico and Laredo as part of their official athletic records. Still, they were the first known games played under American football rules outside the United States other than games played by U.S. Navy teams in the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1892.
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