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Playing the Game: Football at Trinity College

Post contributed by Hillary Gatlin, Records Manager.

With the 150th anniversary of the first American college football game fast approaching (Rutgers faced off with Princeton on November 6, 1869), let’s take a look back at Duke University’s early football history.

Trinity College Football Team, 1888
Trinity College Football Team, 1888

The beginnings of Duke football stretch all the way back to Trinity College. The first “Duke” football game was played on Thanksgiving Day 1888. Football was introduced to Trinity College by President John Franklin Crowell, who imported it from the northeast. Born in York, Pennsylvania, Crowell had attended Dartmouth College before transferring to Yale where he earned a B.A. degree in 1883. Crowell then served as principal of Schuylkill Seminary in Pennsylvania, eventually returning to Yale to study at both the Divinity and Graduate Schools. Crowell began his presidency at Trinity College in 1887.

Crowell was a strong advocate of physical fitness and felt a football team would benefit the health of the Trinity College community, a far cry from current health concerns about the modern game. Crowell was in fact the coach of the first football team, which defeated the University of North Carolina in its first game 16-0 on Thanksgiving Day 1888 at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh. Crowell’s version of football, imported from Yale, used an oval ball and focused on rushing rather than kicking. These new “scientific rules” of the American Intercollegiate Conference resulted in this game being considered the first true college football game in the American South.

Crowell brought football to Trinity College, but not without controversy. Many church leaders, highly influential given Trinity’s close relationship with the Methodist Church, complained about and protested the matches, declaring the sport to be too dangerous. After Crowell’s resignation as President in 1894, the next President of Trinity College, John Carlisle Kilgo, banned football that December, stating that it was too dangerous to play.

Trinity students and alumni were not happy about the ban. They routinely complained about the absence of football and fought for its reinstatement. There was even a demonstration in the fall of 1913. However, administrators would not budge. Football was too dangerous, too expensive, immoral “in the methods used to win victories”, and resulted in scandalous conduct. Intercollegiate football remained banned at Trinity College.

Football began to be reinstated in 1918. A commission was formed to review the case for football on campus, and play eventually resumed on October 1, 1920 with Trinity beating Guildford College 20-6.

A player heroically dives for the ball during a game in the 1920's.
A player heroically dives for the ball during a game in the 1920’s.

College football has been a continual presence on campus since 1920, including through the creation of Duke University and the beginnings of West Campus. The first football game at Wallace Wade Stadium, then called Duke Stadium, took place on October 5, 1929. Over 90 years ago, Duke’s reinstated program lost big to Pittsburgh, 57 to 7.

This is the kick-off to a Duke game in Duke Stadium, later known as Wallace Wade Stadium, circa 1929.
This is the kick-off to a Duke game in Duke Stadium, later known as Wallace Wade Stadium, circa 1929.

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