The Colgate Scene
September 2004

Leather helmets and the flying wedge: early football at Colgate
  The accomplishments of the 2003 Raider football team were among the greatest in university history, but Colgate's winning football tradition springs from humble beginnings in the late 19th century.

"The interest taken in foot-ball this fall is a pleasant feature of the University classes," wrote a reporter in the November 16, 1878 issue of the student newspaper Madisonensis. "It is better for all concerned to encourage the game of foot-ball than base-ball. There is less danger to life and limb. Several of our students will carry the marks of base-ball with them to their graves. Some men are as proud of these marks, as a warrior his scars. These men, or such men as these, may cry out against football. But for ourselves we prefer that sport.

"Somehow we cling to life; and we never play base-ball without taking one fond look at earth and sky, for fear it may be our last. Still, we do not intend to prohibit base-ball. But we do intend to encourage foot-ball as much as possible. Several interesting games have been played, and arrangements have been made for others, if winter holds off long enough. Let preparations be made for an active campaign in the spring."

The photographs on this page were featured in a summer exhibit titled "Leather helmets and the flying wedge: early football at Colgate, 1870-1899," assembled by university archivist Carl Peterson.

"The inspiration for the exhibit could well have come from a student several years ago," said Peterson. "He was fishing around for a fairly easy topic, and found to his surprise that the history of early football was very interesting."

This photo of the 1898 team lined up in a V formation was taken on or near the current rugby field bordering Hamilton Street, site of the early football games. Note that three of the players are wearing protective masks, which were usually worn to protect bones already broken, especially noses. [Enlarge] The 1895 Colgate football team had a 4-2 record, playing St. John's Academy, Williams College, Hobart, RPI, Syracuse University, and a team identified as the "Student's Athletic Association." This team also included Colgate's first African American player, who, unfortunately, cannot be identified from existing records. [Enlarge]

The Ford brothers were Colgate's first football standouts. This was before the days of All-American status, but S.J. "Big" Ford (third from left) was by all accounts one of the outstanding players of the early era. He was frequently described as a "brutal rusher," words that would likely warm the heart of any modern coach. [Enlarge]

The 1899 football team included Colgate's first two identified African American players, George L. Hayes (above), Class of 1903, and Samuel H. Archer, Class of 1903. Both men went on to distinguished careers as educators. Hayes retired as superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools. Archer was also the star of the Colgate Debate Team and was chosen as one of six commencement speakers in recognition of his speaking ability and standing as a student. He retired from public life as president of Morehouse College. [Enlarge]

This photograph of the 1890 team may have been taken before Colgate's first intercollegiate football game, a 32-14 loss to Hamilton College on November 15, 1890. According to the Madisonensis, "The playing of our foot-ball team in the game with Hamilton College last Saturday was highly gratifying. Before the game we had calculated if our men could play well enough to keep the score down to fifty to zero in favor of Hamilton that we should be well pleased with our start." [Enlarge] With a 3-0 record, the 1892 team was the first in Colgate history to go undefeated with victories over Hamilton, Rochester, and St. John's Academy. Samuel Colgate Jr., who was more of a manager than the iron hand running the team, coached the team. [Enlarge]

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Sports Next: Bookshelf >>