Thanksgiving and football! Collegiate combat on the gridiron is as much a part of Thanksgiving as Pilgrims and turkey. In football’s early years, high school games as well as collegiate games created fanatical enthusiasm.
That was certainly evident in the pages of the Nov. 24, 1915, Leavenworth Times. The headline on page three announced in bold letters “TURKEY DAY GAME AT HOME GRIDIRON PROMISES THRILLS.” Leavenworth’s Blue and White was scheduled to meet the high school team from Kansas City, Kan.
“Both teams have played good and bad ball during the season and the outcome of the game by watching the players line up and battle over the large rectangle, inch by inch.” The paper boasted, “Local Scoring Machine Trained for Speed With Each Man in Condition.”
Another story on the same page noted that the kin of former U.S. presidents were making names for themselves in college football. Grover Cleveland’s son, Richard Cleveland, “gives promise of becoming a star shot putter and football player.” Howard Taft’s son, Charlie Taft, and Newell Garfield, the grandson of James Garfield, were both recognized as good athletes at Yale.
Thanksgiving Day 1915 was Thursday, Nov. 24. Rain failed to dampen the festivities as hundreds of spectators produced the largest crowd of the football season. Spectacular runs combined with a muddy mid-field fight throughout the game resulted in a 14-0 win for the Leavenworth Blue and White.
Next to the Times’ high school football report, the paper rejoiced in a Kansas win over Missouri, boasting “Jayhawkers Blacken Tiger’s Eye in Annual Clash.”
Rain also plagued the game. “A downpour of rain started a few minutes before play began and continued during the contest. As a result, the 10,000 persons who were brave enough to sit in the unprotected bleachers on Rollins Field (Columbia, Mo.), were drenched. The players too, were black from contact with the muddy field.”
“The oval (football) was soggy and heavy,” contributing to an interesting game from a modern point of view. Halfback Adrian H. Lindsey missed a drop- kick, turning over the ball to Missouri on the “20-yard line.” In those days, the running back was the playmaker instead of the quarterback. The center passed (hiked) the ball over the running back’s head, sending it bounding over the goal line. To save a Kansas recovery, the running back was forced to fall on the ball, giving Kansas a safety. Lindsey redeemed himself for the missed drop-kick by sending the water-soaked oval over the Missouri posts for two field goals in the first quarter.
A back-and-forth battle led to very few “forward passes ... owing to the condition of the field and the wet ball.” The final score was 8-6.
By 1915, the University of Kansas had been playing football for 25 years. They played the first-ever college football game on Nov. 22, 1890. The Baker Methodists of Baldwin City, Kan., defeated Kansas 22-9. The editor of the Baker Beacon proudly announced, “It is with considerable gratification that we record the score of the football game Saturday.”
In light of the Kansas boast that “none of the colleges in the state could compete with her in athletics,” Baker could certainly hold their heads high. The “VICTORY” article concluded with the observation that “KSU (as KU was known) played well and honestly. Their gentlemanly deportment was very pleasing, and our boys shall be glad of an opportunity to play with them again.”
Baker was the powerhouse of the day. A Thanksgiving contest against a Denver team attracted 5,000 fans. Both teams were undefeated going into the match. The game was promoted as the championship of the states west of the Mississippi River. The Dec. 1, 1893, Wichita Eagle declared, “When the Kansans at the end of the game rolled up a score of 32 to their opponents’ 0, the visitors were cheered to the echo.”
The Kansas State Agricultural College (Kansas State University) played their first football game against St. Mary’s College on, you guessed it, Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 30, 1893. They won 18-10.
The American form of football originated out of the games of rugby and soccer (football outside the U.S.) A “foot-ball” game was supposedly played on Thanksgiving Day in 1869 between two cricket clubs in Philadelphia. Under rules that more closely resembled rugby, Yale played Princeton in the first Thanksgiving Day collegiate football game on Nov. 30, 1876.
Walter Camp, “the Father of American Football,” implemented new rules in the 1880s that included the line of scrimmage, quarterback position, offensive signal calling, limited number of downs and pretty much the basic rules we know today.
In 1882, the International Football Association began an annual Thanksgiving collegiate championship in New York City. In 1885, the University of Michigan inaugurated a season-ending Thanksgiving Day football game that continued for 17 years. They defeated the Peninsular Cricket Club 42-0 in the first match.
So, get out the snacks even though you’re probably filled to the gills with turkey and fixins, grab your favorite beverage and sink into the recliner. It’s Thanksgiving Day and there’s nothing more American than watching lots of football. You heard it here ... traditions are meant to be respected on The Way West!
““The Cowboy,” Jim Gray, can be reached at 220 21st Rd., Geneseo, KS 67444, phone (785) 531-2058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.