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Yale Rugby

This day, November 13, 2017 marks the 142nd anniversary of the memorable 1875 Harvard versus Yale rugby game that gave birth to the sport's short-lived autumn ascendancy in America. By 1882, less than a decade in time, the conversion from rugby to gridiron football had begun as eastern colleges followed the rules’ changes and opted for the new version of the contact sport.

A year earlier in May 1874, Harvard welcomed McGill University from Montreal to play the Boston Game (some carrying and tackling) and, also a second game of regular rugby, the British game imported to Canada. Harvard delighted in the rugby version and was soon looking to convert other local colleges to rugby.

The match between Harvard and Yale, known as the "concessionary” game, was divided into two halves, the first, 11 men playing soccer football with a round ball, and the second game, rugby (which Yale had never played before) with an oval ball and rugby rules. In the latter, Harvard won 4-4-0, a system that required four touchdowns to qualify for one kick at goal. (That is: no points counted for a try.)

That first match, played at Hamilton Field, was well advertised in the Yale and New Haven newspapers, and drew a large crowd of 2,000 spectators paying fifty-cents per person. Yale guaranteed Harvard $75 for the appearance.

Yale arrived in dark pants, blue jerseys, and yellow caps while Harvard sported crimson breeches, shirts, and stockings.

Attending the contest were two Princeton undergraduates who returned to New Jersey as newly converted enthusiasts for rugby. Within a year, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association to govern the sport, especially, to codify the rules.

One of the Yale players in the first Harvard game was Walter Camp, who would play in the contest for the next five years, becoming the leading voice for significant alterations to the rugby game. By 1882, he had prevailed in reducing the number of players from 15 to 11, narrowed the width of the field, instituted three down to retain possession, and awarded points for scoring touchdowns.

(N.B. Camp’s changes witnessed Yale losing only three gridiron games over the next nine years, and amassing 4,660 points for to a mere 92 against.)

Rugby would fade away as other eastern colleges (Brown, Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Tufts, etc.) switched to gridiron. And this gridiron football game would soon spread south and to the Midwest in the following two decades. 

Of historic note is the successful paid attendance in 1875 at this Harvard-Yale debut, an indication that fans in large numbers would pay for an athletic event. As gridiron matches progressed, colleges welcomed the revenue from these autumn Saturday games and soon built stadiums (First in 1895 at the U. of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field at 30,000 capacity) to reap large sums for their athletic departments. Sport in the United States, first amateur, and then professional, would never be the same again…and much of it started with rugby.