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No rules, just vibes: ND football in the 19th century

| Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

“There are so many valuable, important stories to be told regarding collegiate football, tales that help us better understand ourselves and the unfolding drama of athletics and sports in America,” writes Moose Krause (of circle fame) in a foreword to Michael R. Steele’s compendium “The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia.” And while this is true, while Notre Dame’s storied history of national championships and heroic comebacks is significant, this wasn’t always so. 

When I came across this encyclopedia, I was immediately fascinated by the beginnings of Notre Dame’s football program. Before the Four Horsemen were outlined against a blue-gray October sky, before the team won one for the Gipper, before they even considered waking up the echoes that would later go on to cheer her name, Notre Dame football was just some guys hanging out. Upon reading the section of the book entitled “The Early Years: 1887 to 1899,” I felt it was my obligation not only as a very serious journalist but as a fan of Irish football to tell you about the dudes who started it all.

When the team started, the University did not own a football. It really just started out as 15 guys at an interest meeting with absolutely no equipment. Eventually, they got all the right stuff — faculty member Brother Joachim ordered a football from Chicago, the campus literary society fundraised to buy some all-white cotton uniforms and they used a patch of land near Sorin Hall as their field. However, when the team roster was selected, there were only 11 players on it, since that was the number of uniforms the literary society had been able to afford.

During the first unofficial game, the team finished with only nine of its 11 players. Apparently, while playing a scrimmage against the South Bend Shamrock Athletic Club in April of 1887, several of ND’s players were knocked unconscious. It probably had something to do with their uniforms.

We didn’t just play colleges. In the olden days, random organizations could just have their own football teams. Some of Notre Dame’s earliest non-collegiate opponents included the Illinois Cycling Club, the Indianapolis Light Artillery and the Chicago Physicians and Surgeons, which is separate from the Chicago Dental Infirmary, who they also played. ND also faced off against a number of very unfortunate local high schools.

The rules were nonexistent. In their only game of 1889, one ND player stopped an opponent from running the ball by sitting on them. In the same game, another player got a gain of 25 yards by dribbling the football down the field. In 1896, a man named Frank Hering was simultaneously the team’s coach, quarterback and captain. And Charles Roby, an absolute unit, has two utterly wild plays attributed to his name from the 1893 season. Once, he scored a touchdown by crawling into the end zone with three opponents piled on top of him. Another time, Roby physically picked up his teammate Fred Schillo, who had the ball, and carried him for a gain of five yards. It’s clear that the only rule during this era of football was to have fun and be yourself.

Of course, Notre Dame football eventually grew out of this awkward, fledgling phase. Frank Hering, that aforementioned triple threat, would eventually take football at ND from a club activity to an actual intercollegiate sport. (He would also go on to be the first coach of both basketball and baseball at ND, to campaign to establish Mother’s Day as a national holiday and to start community outreach programs in South Bend. A true legend.) But I don’t think we should ever forget the first years of our football program, if only for the fact that they were kind of ridiculous.

After ND’s first official game, the student newspaper wrote that the “coming years [would hopefully] witness a series of these contests.” I’m grateful for all of the so-called contests that followed that first game, but I urge all ND football fans to always remember their roots — no rules, no equipment, just some dudes wearing footie pajamas for uniforms and demolishing dentists and high school teams with plays that make no sense.

Ella Wisniewski is a junior studying English and Economics. She tries her best not to take herself too seriously. You can reach her at [email protected] or @ellawisn on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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