College football has many Wildcats, Tigers, and Bulldogs in its menagerie, so those nicknames are not uniquely tied to specific teams. However, a mention of the Horned Frogs, Ducks, or Badgers leaves everyone clear about who is who. Leaving the animal kingdom behind and focusing on nicknames based on humans, only one school comes to mind when hearing Midshipmen or Deacon Deacons. Still, based on their long-term success and unique nickname, Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish" may be college football's most iconic nickname.
I thought about this issue when I acquired the RPPC shown below, which does not show a team based in South Bend, but likely one based at the Lexington Avenue Armory on Manhattan's East Side.
The headgear and other equipment indicate this team played before 1910 and, most likely, the first five years of the century. Two elements stand out in the image. First, the two guys standing in the back wear overcoats rather than football gear, with one wearing a military cap bearing a crossed rifles badge. Their gear suggests that the team represents a military unit, such as a state militia (now National Guard) regiment.
As was typical in the day, the team captain holds a ball painted with identifying information, in this case, a "69," which points to the New York 69th Regiment. Formally organized in 1849, it included many natives of the Old Sod. The 69th fought valiantly in numerous Civil War battles, earning the nicknames the "Fighting 69th" or the "Fighting Irish." The latter name stuck, whether used in praise or scorn, and generalized to those of Irish descent that enjoyed a good scrap or two.
During the same period, newspaper articles covering Notre Dame’s football team often referred to them as the Catholics, just as Northwestern was the Methodists, and other religiously-affiliated schools were labeled based on their denomination.
Notre Dame's willingness to travel led to them sometimes being called the Ramblers. However, beginning in 1911, Notre Dame teams picked up the Fighting Irish name, and after it gained increased use, the school officially adopted the nickname in 1927. Nevertheless, our boys in the picture were the first Fighting Irish football team.
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