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How Punts, Slush, And A Hall-Of-Fame Coach Broke Lafayette's Funk In 1898

It was a rough time to be a Leopard in 1898.

It was that year that the trial of the former Lafayette professor that burned Pardee Hall for the second time went forward, whose vandalism and (what would be called today) terrorism earned him six years in the slammer, after an Easton trial that rocked the community.

It was that summer when the main fighting in the Spanish-American War occurred (with the founder of the Lehigh football team, Richard Harding Davis, as war correspondent), and General Charles Augustus Wilkoff, Lafayette alumnus and resident of Easton, was killed  leading his men preparing for an attack on San Juan Hill.

If any souls attending Lafayette were hoping to get an inkling of inspiration from their football team, though, they'd be even more disappointed.

After the not-too-distant glory years of mythical national championships, upsetting Penn in 1896 and being considered a football power in the East, the Leopards fell upon hard times in 1898, losing eight straight in that dreary fall.  As Wilkoff was laid to rest on a rainy day in October, and the plans for yet another renovation of Pardee Hall were drawn up, Lafayette had to find out a way to beat Lehigh on Thanksgiving Day.
"A crowd of over 7,000 people witnessed the Lafayette-Pennsylvania game on Franklin Field last Saturday," the Lafayette student paper noted.  "They expected to see a walk-over for the University team, but Capt. Best's men surprised them in the strong game they put up."

That meant Penn, the national championship-caliber team Lafayette stunned at Franklin Field two years ago, "only" beat Lafayette 32-0.

Gone were most of the legends of those teams: Charles "Babe" Reinhart, George "Rose" Barclay, and most of the others.  Ed Bray, the fullback, punter and kicker, was the highest-profile player remaining from that great team.

Though the players didn't know it, their legendary head coach, Parke H. Davis, was just about to retire to set up his law practice, according to the History of Lafayette College.

Davis, who would be one of the important early chroniclers of early football, said in his book Athletics at Lafayette College that his 1898 squad basically had to be rebuilt from scratch after Reinhart and Barclay graduated.

Lafayette in those days were road warriors, playing the great majority of their games on the road.

Would it be too much to ask if Penn would occasionally play in Easton, and bring a fraction of their fans on the train from Philadelphia?  Yes it was - and it was the source of lots of big issues between the two Eastern powers for years to come.

The Leopard football team, losing to tiny Dickinson at home 12-6, seemed to be as gloomy as the goings-on at the campus, and the negative momentum carried over to the 28th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette.

Though Lehigh didn't have a great team that season, they had plenty to be able to "withstand the rushes of the Maroon and White", as they dominated Lafayette 22-0 in their first victory in their last five attempts - and their first since 1896, when they famously cancelled their games with Lafayette because of a player eligibility dispute.

"The whole Lehigh team moved as a machine," the Brown and White crooned, "while the visitors, especially after the removal of Bray, seemed a trifle disorganized.  At no time after the first few moments of play was Lafayette at all dangerous."

Down and out, it seemed like a fall of discontent for the Leopards - until Thanksgiving.

*****

In 1898, Lehigh was struggling almost as badly as Lafayette, but at this point in their history they were used to struggle.

It had been five years since the Brown and White had a winning record to close the season, and while they always had their rivals to the East, they hadn't tasted the same national success that they had in that 1896 season.  Lehigh, in many ways, was considered a small-time team, Lafayette's rival.  The exploits of the Maroon and White, on the other hand, were written up in the biggest papers of the time: The New York Times.  Harper's Weekly.  This Sporting Life.

That's why the 22-0 whitewash was such front page news in South Bethlehem - it was a way for the Maroon and White, rebuilding or not, to be humbled a little by their big Rivals.

But Lafayette had no intention to be swept by Lehigh in a season, especially at Easton, where they hadn't lost to the Brown and White since 1893.

In what would be Parke Davis' final game as head coach he'd be helped by something unexpected on the Lafayette Athletic Grounds - mother nature.

"Nonwithstanding the cold and dampness, the snow and sleet, fully 800 people turned out to see Lafayette defeat Lehigh on Thursday, thus wiping out the disgrace of November 5th, by ending a season of successive defeats with one grand, glorious victory!" the Lafayette said.  "Ulsters, heavy coats, mackintoshes, gum boots, umbrellas, and even horse blankets were called into service; yet even these failed to give sufficient protection against the driving rain and snow."

"The game was played in several inches of slush," the Brown and White said, "and the heavy snow storm almost hid the players from the view of those in the grandstand."

Davis, whether spurred by his final game at Lafayette or simply due to the reason that he wanted to reverse the losing to Lehigh, pulled out all the coaching stops to prepare his team for the game, pulling in three other head football coaches that were in-between jobs, George Brooke, a star fullback at Penn, Louis Vail and Dr. Silvanus Blanchard Newton, to help prepare and motivate his troops.

But it was clearly coaching that won this snowy, slushy day for Lafayette.

With the wind in their faces, Bray, their great punter and kicker, was "held back" for a more inexperienced player, kicking into the wind and snow.  While Lehigh's ground game was as effective as before, they were only up 5-0 at halftime (a touchdown being five points in those days).

But Bray, fresh off the bench in the second half, changed the entire game for the Leopards with his punting game.

Lafayette, who only earned three first downs all game, elected to punt it with Bray on first down every time, with the wind at their backs.

The Maroon and White would end up gaining field position each time, and eventually Lehigh's punt returner would fumble the ball, with Lafayette recovering and converting a quick touchdown and conversion to go ahead.

Fittingly, the deciding field goal would be kicked by the star kicker, Bray, using a brand-new method of converting kicks: the "placement kick", where a holder would hold the ball in place and the kicker would try to boot it through the uprights.

"Captain Best, the holder, and Bray, the kicker, scraped away the four inches of slush and snow so the ball could be placed on the ground for an attempt," Legends of Lehigh/Lafayette tells us.  "The visibility [on the 35 yard field goal] was so poor that the crowd at first was silent, not knowing exactly what had happened.  Several minutes later, the word spread that the kick was good, and the crowd exploded for the amazing feat (or foot) of Ed Bray).

Lafayette would win that game 11 to 5, and send the Maroon and White victorious to end the season, or a "blaze of glory", as Davis would later put it.

"It was Bray's wonderful work in punting and his goal from the field that with Lehigh in 1898," he also wrote, obviously proud of Bray and his role in having him go out a winner at Lafayette.

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