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Gridiron gridlock

Citing research, Tufts claims football history is on its side

Rocky Carzo, 72 years old and a few million punts and passes gone by, figures it's time to kick up a little dirt on the sidelines, to be true to both his school and athletic history.

"We're not trying to displace anybody," Carzo said yesterday, sifting through a pile of papers in his office at Tufts University. "But it's just, hey, part of being in the academic business is being in the quest for truth -- and if we find it, we find it, and with that comes the obligation to say something about it."

Carzo, the former Tufts football coach, athletic director, and now AD emeritus, makes a convincing case that the first true link in US college football's evolutionary chain was forged when Tufts squared off against Harvard at 3 p.m, June 4, 1875, on what was then Jarvis Field, just a short stroll north of Harvard Square.

"The play opened briskly," reported the Daily Globe (3 cents per copy) the following day, "and ere long five or six Tufts men found themselves laid on their back so violently that they imagined it was evening by the stars they saw. They soon repaid the compliment, however . . ."

That sure sounds like the blood 'n guts gridiron game that Americans have grown to know and love. For the record, Tufts scored the only touchdown -- N.L. Campbell carried it over the line, and F.B. Harrington followed with the kick -- and upon returning to the Medford campus, the student body (approximately 100) treated the victors to a reception.

"This is the first game between two US colleges, playing rules as we really know football," said a polite but adamant Carzo. "From our point, it's indisputable: Tufts and Harvard played the first intercollegiate football game in America. I know some people are going to take shots at us for saying it, but that's good. That's OK."

At issue is the century-plus, nearly universal acknowledgment that Princeton and Rutgers, in their football game of Nov. 6, 1869, established that first link in the evolutionary chain. But by Carzo's research, as well as a detailed description of the '69 game on the Rutgers website, the rules governing the game that day on the Rutgers campus barely emulate the rules as we know them today. In fact, they were vastly different than the so-called "Boston Rules" employed less than six years later between Tufts and Harvard.

According to the Rutgers website, the '69 game, with 50 men on the field (25 aside), its ball smaller and rounder, and its play similar to rugby, "bore little resemblance to its modern-day counterpart."

Nonetheless, according to John Wooding, the Rutgers associate athletic director for communications, the '69 game remains the game's starting point.

"I don't make light of Coach Carzo's contention," Wooding said early yesterday afternoon, nearly 135 years after the Rutgers victory, a plaque commemorating the event housed in the campus gym. "But it's universally regarded -- with data and history to back it up -- that the first football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. Everything needs a starting point, and the game evolves from there."

Jerry Price, Princeton's longtime director of sports information, whimsically said Tuesday, when reached in his office, that he was reading from a book that stated ESPN made the 1869 tilt a game of the week. "And what more proof do you need than that?" he added.

"In all seriousness," said Price, "we're talking 1869, a long time ago. If Tufts is willing to produce an eyewitness of the game they're talking about, maybe we'll be willing to accept it. But our game, Princeton-Rutgers, has always been listed as the start of football. And whether it's 25 on a side, or 11 on a side . . . well, I suppose if you want to be technical, you could say it wasn't 11 men on a side, lined up with seven on the line, with four downs and 10 yards for a first down . . . all of that . . . until somewhere around 1911."

Carzo doesn't have a living eyewitness, but he stands by his research. He says it was actually an 1874 game between McGill University in Montreal and Harvard that first employed the "Boston Rules" with 11 men on a side, and non-continuous (or soccer-like) play. That game, said Carzo, should be recognized as the first football game between North American colleges. Tufts vs. Harvard, he said, should be duly credited as the first intercollegiate game between US-based colleges.

According to Carzo, in part because of his research, Tufts tour guides refer to the '75 Harvard-Tufts matchup as America's first college football game when they take prospective students and their parents for a tour of the campus. Invariably, said Carzo, the tour guides' subtle boastings lead to letters to the school president and school newspaper from parents who want to dispute the point.

"You know," chuckled Carzo, "they're Princeton or Rutgers grads, and that's not the story they know."

According to Carzo, by the early 1870s, Boston-area high schools were already playing a version of football that differed vastly from the brand played by Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. If anything, McGill, Harvard, and Tufts borrowed their most significant bits of the game from the public and private high schools of the days.

"McGill originally planned to use 15 players for that game," said Carzo. "But there was an academic restriction on campus, and they only suited up 11. That's kind of an interesting way to establish 11 men on a side, isn't it? But, no problem, Harvard put out 11 and they went at it."

Carzo's case for being at the top of the pigskin totem pole is very convincing, according to Bob Casciola, president of the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. Reached earlier this week in his New Jersey office, he substantiated the premise that the Rutgers-Princeton encounter was far more akin to European football, or soccer. For two US colleges playing the game as we know it, said Casciola, Tufts-Harvard is more the real McCoy.

"I think it's somewhat a matter of re-education, and I think it's definitely worth getting into," said Casciola, noting how impressed he has been by Carzo's detailed research and that the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., today acknowledges the differences between the two games. "It speaks to both evolution and refinement of the sport."

A major difference between the two periods, noted Casciola, is that the '69 game only allowed kicking the ball -- a ball smaller and rounder than that used in '75. Most significantly, he said, picking up the ball and running with it to advance the offensive play was central to the '75 game.

Asked if he felt there was veracity in Carzo's claim, Casciola said, "Oh, yeah. As far as it being more the game of football as we know it? Yes."

Carzo didn't stumble upon the evidence just recently. He came to Tufts in 1966 as football coach, and it was Paul Rich, then the school's sports information director, who led him toward the distinction between the '69 and '75 games. A couple of years earlier, upon his arrival at Tufts, Rich inherited department files that included a letter, typewritten by Eugene B. Bowen in March 24, 1949.

Bowen's account of the day and the game itself is remarkable in its detail, written some 74 years after the game. He was the team manager in '75, and he describes how the team made the trip from Medford to Cambridge on a horse-pulled haywagon, "a growing number of urchins and others at leisure calling us farmers and hayseeds, jeering our progress toward Cambridge to play mighty Harvard."

"I remember going through the files, including the Bowen letter, and thinking, `My God, what a great history,' " said the 67-year-old Rich, reached earlier this week at his home outside of Los Angeles, where he moved some 20 years ago after years of employment at Channel 5. "No question, the '69 game was more a soccer game. And, you know, it's been written about over the years. I know it made its way into the press when I was SID, but it never caught on, really, except on campus. Maybe we're to fault, because we didn't push it enough."

Pushing the pile now is Carzo, whose other labor of love these days is overseeing publication of "Jumbo Footprints: History of Tufts Athletics." The tome, which Carzo says will include substantial detail and support of his claim, is due out before Christmas. He may have to ask the publisher to send extra copies to Rutgers and Princeton, neighbors in New Jersey, as well as a supply of whiteout to edit their own history books.

"You know, we understand, politically, the Princeton-Rutgers game is right there," said Carzo. "No matter where you look, it's right there. But times change. Just as the game changes, times change. We've got the evidence, right here, and the point is, 135 years later, no one says it's Tufts. Well, it is Tufts, and our family wants to be recognized -- somehow, some place."

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