Sunday, November 6, 2011

First football, then the constitution, all on College Ave.

Today marks the 142nd anniversary of the first intercollegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton, played in New Brunswick. As any college football aficionado or proud son or daughter of Rutgers knows, the men in scarlet won the game six goals to four.

But did you know that the game was played at the same location where New Jersey's 1947 state constitution was drafted? And it's the same place the Scarlet Knights' mens basketball team played its home games en route to its storied 1975-76 NCAA Final Four appearance? That's some lucky real estate there, though some may have argument with the constitution.

Many Rutgers students pass the College Avenue Gym without ever realizing the history lurking within and beneath the building. There's a plaque by the front door, memorializing the constitutional convention, but the football connection is missing. Indeed, fans going to present day games couldn't be faulted for thinking the first game was held at the current stadium in Piscataway, given the bronze statue at the north entrance and the large "BIRTHPLACE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL" painted on the wall inside.

The historic November 6, 1869 game was played in much humbler surroundings, but student spirit was just as intense as it is today. Few know it, but the rivalry between the two New Jersey schools had been fueled by a dispute over who owned a particular Revolutionary War cannon, but that's a story for another day. That, plus a drubbing of the Rutgers baseball team by the Princeton nine, led to the first football game. About 100 spectators came to see the two teams of 25 men playing a game closer to soccer than today's football. Three games were to be played over the course of a few weeks, but only two were held. Seems that the faculties of both schools were concerned that athletic pursuits were getting in the way of academics. Imagine that!

The Barn, as the gym is known, was built in 1931 to replace the fire-ravaged Ballantine Gym which had been located near present day Zimmerli Gallery. While the mens' and womens' basketball teams now play at the Rutgers Athletic Center across the river, the Barn still hosts volleyball and wrestling matches. One wonders if the ghosts of 1869 ever come out to cheer for them. Perhaps when Princeton visits.

2 comments:

  1. It was Rutgers College v. College of New Jersey. Princeton didn't change its name until the 1890's. And the name of the field where the College Avenue Gym is now located was College Field. Stupid Rutgers missed out on housing the College Football Hall of Fame there!

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    1. Fine point of history there! Not even Princeton U. makes that distinction when it comes to the hype about the game. And wouldn't it have been something for Rutgers to host the College Football Hall of Fame. Who knows -- maybe someday it will.

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