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1884: The Birth of A Rivalry

The same year Lehigh and Lafayette started their football Rivalry, the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid down on Beldoe's Island on August 5th, 1884.

In attendance at that event was the president at that time, Republican Chester A. Arthur, and Democrat Grover Cleveland, who would win the presidential election later in the year.

In 1884, Mark Twain lived in a house just outside Hartford, Connecticut, a Victorian Gothic mansion where he and his family settled after he had penned The Innocents Abroad.  That year, in the upstairs billiards room, he wrote Huckleberry Finn.

More local to the Rivalry, in that same year the city of Easton would get electric power for the first time in its history.  “Electric lights now burn brightly in Easton’s streets,” the Lafayette student newspaper noted, “and in many of her business houses and places of amusement.”  (South Bethlehem wouldn’t get electric streetlights until 1887.)

It also would be year of the first-ever meetings between Lehigh and Lafayette on the gridiron, only a couple of years after the early collegiate athletic powers of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and others had established standardized rules for “rugby football”, as it was still called at the time.

Football was not unknown to either campus before their fateful first few meetings.

During the fall in the early 1880s, both schools reported playing a "sort of soccer game," according to Lafayette historian Francis A. March, Jr., among members of the different classes.  Sophomores would play freshmen, and juniors would play seniors.

The person that Francis March credited for bringing football to Lafayette College was Theodore L. Welles, who would go on to become a successful engineer in the Lackawanna Coal and Iron company.

“I had played with the Wilkes-Barre Academy and the Princeton Freshmen of the class of ‘83 before coming to Lafayette, and as I was very enthusiastic for the game, proceeded to get it started for the class of ‘84,” he recalled to March.  “During my time in college, we had no regular trainer or training table, and all the training received was an endeavor by [teammate] H.L. Craven and myself to make the players keep good hours, refrain from beer and other intoxicants, get out to practice and run after practice from two to three miles a day around the circular track on campus.”

A similar story would play out two years later on Lehigh's campus, with different actors.

Richard Harding Davis was a member and tireless spokesman for Lehigh’s first football teams.

He didn’t only participate in Lehigh first intercollegiate team in 1884 - he also played in their first class-based games in 1883 that would set the stage for Lehigh’s first intercollegiate football team.

Later known nationally for writing in Harper’s Weekly about the exploits of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, as well as the German march on Brussels, he is known as the template of the foreign correspondent, even garnering a mention posthumously in the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name.

Davis also wrote extensively about football during his life, and thoroughly loved the game based on his collegiate experiences playing at Lehigh.  His style of writing, which frequently put him at the center of the action, was certainly an inspiration to writers, journalists, and even bloggers many years after his death.

1883 was a banner year in Lehigh's development in their athletics program, with the opening of their long-awaited gymnasium which spurred a boost of interest in intercollegiate competition.

And, Davis, a strong athlete, won the “hurdle race” his sophomore year in the fall track and field meet by five seconds, as well as winning the high jump at 5 feet and ¾ inches.

This would have clearly identified him as one of the better athletes at Lehigh.

When it came to taking credit for starting Lehigh’s football team, though, Davis stopped short.

J.S. Robeson is the father of football at Lehigh,” Davis recalled for the Lehigh Quarterly of 1891.  “It was he who induced the sophomores of the University of Pennsylvania to send their eleven up to play an eleven from the class from ‘86 on December 8th, 1883, and it was he who captained the ‘Varsity team the following year.”

Davis even downplayed his role on the team in his inimitable style.

“I was so much more of a spectator than a player in the first games of foot-ball at Lehigh that I felt I could not be fairly accused of writing in self-laudation if I accepted the invitation of the editor of The Quarterly and told something about them,” he said.  “My position as spectator was not back of the ropes, but behind the rush line to the right of the quarter, where I had an uninterrupted view of the field and absolute leisure, as the captain, though he did not know much, had at least sufficient judgment to always pass the ball to the other half, and I never got it by any chance unless he fumbled it and some one else did not fall on it first.”

Further evidence in the Lehigh Burr, the student newspaper, though, shows that Davis was actually not a bad runner at all, getting singled out for making “quite a number of excellent runs” in the interclass games of that time.

In J.S. Robeson's class game between Penn's and Lehigh's sophomores in 1883, won by Penn 16-0, one of the referees was a student from Lafayette, who undoubtedly must have informed Lafayette’s athletic association that Lehigh was planning to start up an intercollegiate “foot-ball” team, as the Maroon and White had two years earlier.

It was probably there when Welles saw how important it was to leverage Lafayette's added experience into a nice tune-up game before contesting bigger games against Penn, Princeton, and Stevens Tech, all national powers at the time.

Welles knew that it would be difficult to replicate last year’s Lafayette football successes with many of their key players graduating, though their star quarterback, J.D. Updegrove, was still leading the team.  Beating the Brown and White would be a good way to test out the 1884 version of the Maroon and White.

Despite the presence on Lehigh's squad of Robeson and the Davis brothers on Lehigh’s squad who had some experience from the class games, the rest of the squad was very, very inexperienced.

“As simple as the game was then, the Lehigh men knew even less of it than any other team in the country,” Davis reflected later. “When the ‘Varsity took the field in 1884, Robeson, Knorr, Bradford, and [his brother Charles] B. Davis were the only men who had played the game before, and in the first match with Lafayette, which was the first University game played by Lehigh, the other seven men had learnt what little they knew of it in three weeks’ practice on the class elevens.”

Many of those men on the first Lehigh football team, including Robeson, would become very successful businessmen in their own right, working as surveyors or as executives in the steel industry.

Undaunted by the lack of experience, Davis used his charms to convince Lehigh to pay $52 for eleven striped brown and white jerseys, complete with brown and white stocking caps.

The team elected J.S. Robeson captain, chiefly, according to Davis, due to him owning the only foot-ball jacket in the school.  It was Robeson's jacket which was the pattern for his teammate’s jerseys that were hand-made at a local shop.

Davis would later joke that the $52 was the total expense for the 1884 football team.

“With this idea we went down to Easton,” Davis recalled, “where we thought what we did not know about the game was not worth learning.”

Back then, according to Legends of Lehigh-Lafayette by Todd Davidson and Bob Donchez, fields were 120 yards long, and not necessarily cleared of debris.  Admission to the game was 25 cents, collected from a field officer along the sidelines, though many spectators got around paying the admission because the playing area was not enclosed.

Lafayette's field was in the middle of a quad with dormitory buildings close by, and was the site of other athletic contests such as baseball as well.

While the first intercollegiate football matchup in Easton would end up being the first game of the most-played Rivalry in history, it certainly didn't have the feeling of a historic, a 56-0 romp by the Maroon and White.

"The college team played its first game of the season, on October 25, with Lehigh University and had too much of a walk over to make it an interesting match to spectators," The Lafayette reported.

Davis’ recollection of the game was slightly different.

“The score of that first game was 52 to 0, and my chief recollections of it consist of personal encounters with the spectators and Easton policemen, who had an instinctive prejudice to Lehigh men which they expressed by kicking them on the head whenever one of them went under the ropes for the ball,” Davis said.  “We knew so little of the game that only one man had strips [primitive cleats] on his shoes and the rest of us slid over the worn grass as though we were on roller skates.”

In fact, inexperienced Lehigh was the only team Lafayette managed to be able to defeat in that 1884 season.   After beating the Brown and White with ease, they would be dominated by the incredible score of 140-0 at Princeton four days later.

Lafayette would have another opportunity to play Lehigh that season, and get another victory.

The next game was played in Bethlehem, on a Wednesday at Lehigh’s athletic grounds, and would be the site of Lehigh’s first-ever intercollegiate home contest.

The athletic grounds, located off of Brodhead Avenue, was on more of an open field than Lafayette's intimate campus setting, but also had a turf that was filled with “rocks and broken bottles", according to Davis.

That game also ended in a Lehigh loss, but to the student reporters of The Lafayette it still didn't feel like a great victory.

"The brilliant prospects with which the season opened have been clouded by one defeat after another... the Lehigh team seems to be the only one we can defeat," The Lafayette reported.

In contrast, Richard Harding Davis was very encouraged by the fact that the Brown and White had actually scored in the second game, which Lehigh lost 34 to 4.

Who scored that first-ever touchdown for Lehigh? None other than Dick Davis himself.

"He often declared that he took keener satisfaction in making that first touchdown for Lehigh than in all the short stories and verses he ever wrote," a friend recalled in letters many years later.

There were also the antics of the Lehigh fans - who decided to declare victory in another way.

"We did not win... but we did give Lafayette the worst lickin' she ever had and many, many a sore head went back to Easton that night," a proud Lehigh alumnus recalled for the Lehigh Alumni magazine many years later.


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