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Courtesy McGill University Archives

The historic 140th anniversary of the first rugby game in the United States passed without giving proper recognition to the contest between McGill University of Montreal and Harvard, played in Cambridge, Mass. over two-days on May 14 and 15, 1874.

The visit by the Canadians effectively introduced a passing-tackling rugby version with defined rules to an American college for the first time. A year later in 1875, Harvard would challenge Yale to a dual football (read: soccer) and rugby contest, which would be known as the “concessionary’ game. The year after that in 1876, witnessed the beginning of rugby among Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other eastern schools, dropping soccer for the newly introduced contact sport. But rugby (then 20 players a side) with different rules from today (and even yesterday) would have a short window before Walter Camp of Yale altered the game with his “series of downs” and line of scrimmage for yardage, thus introducing gridiron football by 1882.


On November 6, 1869, Princeton and Rutgers played a game of soccer, which some refer to as the first “football” game played in the United States. In terms of nomenclature, this is correct when linking the kicking only game played that day to international football, or soccer. To trace the beginnings of “football” in modern American parlance, the McGill-Harvard game is the official start of tackling and running with the ball.

Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Rutgers and Stevens Institute formed a football association to play soccer, but Harvard refused to join since it had been playing something called the “Boston game” that included running and tackling. With no opponents willing to play the contact sport, Harvard (which eschewed playing soccer against the other eastern colleges), looked for competition, and serendipitously, found it not in the States but in Canada.

The McGill vs. Harvard Contest

When McGill learned that Harvard played a football sport similar, it decided to visit, agreeing to a two-day contest to play both versions; the Boston game, followed by rugby. The oddity of the Boston game was that a man could only run with the ball if an opponent opted to pursue.

And, the balls were radically different, Harvard played with a round ball, while McGill played with the traditional oval ball made of leather. Both teams fielded ten players a side.

The Harvard Advocate, the school newspaper, wrote of the first day’s game, which Harvard won:

            “…the visitors…have not the opportunity to practice the game

            as played by us, and this, together with their never having used

            a rubber football before, may largely account for the ease with

            which our victory was won. The match played by their rules

            takes place today, and we may look for a much harder fight

            with a doubtful issue.”

This game increased players to 13 but neither side scored in the rugby version. Yet, the winner that day was rugby with a concise set of rules established in the UK and Ireland. Of note is the Harvard uniform of the day: gauze undershirts, full length gym costumes, baseball shoes, handkerchiefs knotted on the heads, black football turbans, and some wore white canvass hats.

Harvard traveled to McGill in the fall of 1874, winning the return game three tries to nil, playing the rugby game. A year later, Harvard and Yale would play “The Game” in New Haven for the first time.