Today's Tidbit... America's Oldest Football Field
I wrote about Wesleyan University's football team almost a year ago in the context of future President Woodrow Wilson being the team's faculty advisor and coach in 1888 and 1889. Then, while researching the ocean rowing training methods of coach Howard Reiter the other day, I came across another piece of information about Wesleyan football for the first time.
Wesleyan claims, and I have no reason to dispute it, that Andrus Field, the site of their football field and stadium, is the oldest existing football field in continuous use. Like many early athletic fields, what is now Andrus Field saw use for informal and team athletic activities for years before it saw substantial improvements. The image below shows the empty field adjoining the campus hosting an 1874 baseball game.
Another image shows the field in the 1880s when people set up tennis nets like we might set up volleyball nets at the local park.
Beginning in 1892, however, efforts started to fill in low spots and reduce the swampiness of the space, but it was not until 1897 that John E. Andrus, Class of 1862, donated the funds to create a proper football and baseball field on what became known as Andrus Field.
They tore down old fences, relocated some frame structures, and had architectural plans drawn up for an 800-person grandstand with dressing rooms underneath. The improvements accommodated baseball, football, and track on the field. The image below is the earliest I found of a football game being played on the field, though it is unclear whether the game occurred before or after the 1897-1898 improvements. (I think the game preceded the field improvements based on the players' uniforms.)
In contrast, here's a recent image of Corwin Stadium on Andrus Field.
The research on Andrus Field led me to another piece of football history, one you might consider a factoid or even a nugget, and it has to do with how the names for football positions developed. As covered previously, the traditional T formation in football's early days had seven linemen and four backs. Initially, the linemen were all considered forwards on offense and rushers on defense, but that changed as the game transitioned to structured positions and plays in the 1880s.
The designated "snapper," "snapper-back," or "snap-back" became known as the center since he aligned in the middle of the seven linemen. Before the neutral zone arrived in 1905, the center's teammates on either side protected him from defenders' jostling and slaps, so they became known as guards. The outermost positions on the line became the ends, while the players between the guards and end became known as tackles because they were often the primary tacklers while on defense. I had frequently encountered the "tackler" story and retold it as often, but I had not seen contemporary evidence of the story.
However, while searching old Wesleyan yearbooks for images of games played on Andrus Field, I found a list of the 1885 Wesleyan football starters listed by position. As seen below, E. Fish was the Left Tackler, and W. C. Gordon was the Right Tackler. All the other positions correspond to the position name origin story, except the full-back is called the back. (Fullbacks were often called backs or goal-tends through the 1880s.) Nevertheless, the name distinguished him from one back who was a quarter of the way back from the line and the two backs half the distance, so it shows the game's core position names were around by 1885, or when the Class of 1887 published the yearbook for the senior class ahead of then in 1886.
As ol’ Matthew once said, "Seek, and ye shall find." I’ll add a corollary: sometimes, you find what you're looking for, and other times, you find a different nugget.
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