In 2019, the 150th anniversary of college football will be celebrated, a sport which has seen numerous changes over the years. Once a rudimentary cross between association football and rugby, today's college game is a tradition like none other, played at nearly 800 colleges and universities in the United States on a Saturday afternoon.
The earliest roots of football in the Nation's Capital were not far behind, where in the fall of 1874 students banded together at Georgetown University to bring the new game to its campus. This was not a foregone conclusion, however.
Sports, at least as we know them today, did not exist in the early 1870's. The National League still was two years away from its debut; a team called the Washington Blue Legs played one season as a professional team in 1873, but folded thereafter. Basketball had not yet been invented, the Kentucky Derby was still a year away, and competition between colleges was seen by some as incompatible with learning.
Such was not the philosophy of Patrick Healy S.J., who assumed the presidency of the College in 1873 at the age of 39. Among his many contributions to Georgetown, he set aside two afternoons each week (Tuesday and Thursday) where no classes were held, giving students unstructured time to study, to socialize, and even to compete. "Organizations for the practice of athletic sports are encouraged," read the University's 1874-75 catalogue. "Ample facilities for physical exercise and for bathing are provided." Then, as now, its facility claims were aspirational.
By the fall of 1874, the afternoon sessions proved popular for students to engage in outdoor activity. When news of the new sport of football were circulated among students, games were sure to follow.
Although the first varsity football game at Georgetown was not contested until 1887, the roots of the football program date to 1874, one of two intercollegiate sports at Georgetown founded by the remarkable John G. Agar.
Born to an immigrant Irish family in New Orleans in 1856, the young Agar was sent to Georgetown's preparatory program at the age of 13, graduating in 1872. As a collegiate student, Agar proved an exceptional leader. By his third year in the college division, he served as the prefect (president) of the Sodality, the treasurer of the Philodemic Society, the treasurer and future editor of the College Journal, and was among the leaders in forming the Georgetown University Boat Club, the earliest origins of the crew at the College.
By the fall of 1874, Agar and his classmates took on the role of forming an athletic association, with a fall sport at its helm. The College had welcomed a baseball team as far back as 1866 but had only held one intercollegiate game in the previous four years and no other teams for the autumn were established. Football had been founded just five years earlier at Rutgers College, and held at least three different sets of rules, but there were no colleges playing the sport south of Princeton and just nine overall in the entire nation. If Georgetown lacked opponents, it did not lack interest, and sought to arrange the first set of inter-class games by November.
Agar was named vice-president of the newly created Football Association; by rule of the College, a Jesuit served as the president of all student groups. That Jesuit, a 25 year old scholastic named Michael A. O'Kane, became president of Holy Cross in 1889, whereupon that college fielded its first football team in 1891. O'Kane, Agar, and Arthur J. Hood (C'1877) served as the executive committee at its founding meeting on November 1, 1874.
"A committee of three was appointed," noted the College Journal, "to draw up a code of laws, and another committee of ten was appointed to serve as referees. A small monthly collection from the students who wish to take part in the game will suffice for all expenses. The game is played only during the winter months."
If there were ten referees, it is likely that almost all of the College participated in the sport. Ten was a sizable number of any kind at this time; Georgetown graduated just seven students in 1875, and the entire preparatory and collegiate population numbered just 196 that year.
The first year of games went without any coverage, at least not in the College Journal, which served as the de facto chronicle of Georgetown in the years before The HOYA debuted in 1920. By 1875, the Football Association scheduled three intramural games and they received dutiful coverage. Agar served as vice president for a second term in 1875, with Enoch Abell (C'1877, G'1889) as secretary and Arthur Hood as Treasurer.
The College Journal reported the contests as follows:
"The first game of football between the Junior and Senior classes took place November 18. Victory perched on the banners of the Seniors. Despite the odds against them the Juniors fought or, rather, kicked nobly. Timmins captained the Seniors; Condon the Juniors.
There were two other games--on the 2d and 12th of December, the latter being indecisive. The championship remains unsettled. The opinion of our reporter about the game of the 2d is that it was the most earnest, the longest and the best contested game of football played within our knowledge for many years. There should have been three goals won to complete the game. "The first was won by the Seniors in 20 minutes, the second by the Juniors in 15. The third contest continued for an hour, or until darkness set it, without either of the determined antagonists being able to claim victory.
"If it had not been for the interference of [nightfall], kicks would certainly have settled the contest. On the part of the Juniors Condon, Hamilton, Slater and W. Agar, and on the part of the Seniors Timmins, McNeil, J. Agar, E. Dolan and James DeCourcey claim the thanks of their companions for their telling efforts.
"The game of the 12th, with the surging movement of the combatants, their outcries and the intensity of the whole action displayed would have made a fine study for one about to engage in reading an account of an old Homeric battle."
John Agar graduated from the College in 1876, and football apparently went dormant in his absence, at least in coverage. The first passing mention of a college football game in the local Washington press was not about Georgetown, but Princeton. The Dec. 10, 1877 edition of the Evening Star wrote that "A grand match at football of the Yale and Princeton clubs for the championship of college football teams of 1877 came off in Hoboken, N.J. today. The match was contested vigorously by both sides and lasted for two hours, and neither club having gained the advantage, it was declared a draw."
After studies in Europe and a law degree at Columbia, Agar returned to Georgetown just as football had returned, earning an M.A. in 1888 and a Ph.D in 1889. Twenty years later, he completed a doctorate in laws in 1910.