Early days of football: “Mud, sweat and cheers” at the Upcountry History Museum

“A field of carnage” Anderson Independent Farmer 1915, about the Clemson – Auburn game

To this day football remains one of the toughest and most unforgiving team sports games in America. And yet it is a far cry from its literally “bloody” beginnings. The Upcountry History Museum in downtown Greenville showcases the fascinating world of South Carolina football, from the 1880s through today. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors and college students, $3 children 4-18 and free those under 4.

The father of American football
“From ocean to ocean he is known as the father of American football, as the lover and upholder of all manly sports, as the prophet of physical well-being in the happily efficient life.” Dean Lebaron Russell Briggs

Walter Chauncey camp was born in New Haven, Connecticut.

The man who transformed American football

Walter Camp The Father of American Football

From 1876 to 1881, Camp played football for Yale (being a captain for 3 years). From 1882 to 1910 he served as an advisor to the Yale and Stanford football coaches.

Throughout his life Camp played a major role in the establishment of American football. He led the American Football Rules Committee and helped establish the NCAA. He invented the quarterback position, the scrimmage, and the forward pass. He reduced the number of players on the field from 15 to 11. He was responsible for the selection of the first All-American team.

Originally Camp aspired to become a doctor. However he left the Yale Medical School after two years and instead he began his career at New Haven Clock Company as a clerk. When he died, Camp was the company’s chairman and president. A monument honors his memory in front of the Yale Bowl, the home of the Yale football team.

The wild, wild west: rules, recruiting and wacky formations
“It was a common practice for partisan of certain larger institutions to make almost regular annual campaigns for drawing players away from smaller colleges.” American College Athletics 1929

Although football rules were codified by 1890s problems persisted with how to call off sides, what constituted a pass, what was a legal block and fair play on the field. At the line of scrimmage it was common for players to use their fists on their opponents. Compounding the problems, for a long time there was only one referee on the field.

The flying wedge
“What a grand play!…half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds.” – New York Times, November 30, 1892 describing the first use of the flying edge at a Harvard – Yale game.

Football carnage early 20th century

The flying wedge came crushing down


The flying edge was introduced in 1892 at a Harvard – Yale game. It consisted of two wings, the biggest linemen going in motion before four lighter players. Both wings would head at an angle toward the team captain, who would hand the ball to the halfback.

Once the two angles converged the ball carrier would follow the wedge down the field. Smaller defensive fronts could be overwhelmed with such a formation and often suffered severe injuries.

Within two years of its introduction in 1892 the “Wedge” was declared illegal. A modified version, in which a mass of players could pull, push and even punch its way through a defense with the ball carrier remained legal. This formation continued through most of 1910s.

The forward pass
“Until 1910 the plan was to put the man catching the forward pass out of commission before he got his hands on the ball. This football season may ‘make or break’ the forward pass” – The State Oct. 1, 1910.

Until 1906 the only way to advance the ball was by a lateral, running with it or kicking it. In an effort to reduce injury the pass was introduced. There were restrictions: the receiver could be blocked before the ball ever reached him (some protection was given to the receiver in 1910), you can only throw the ball a maximum of 20 yards and you had to be at least 5 years behind the line of scrimmage. Because of penalties and the large ball size many coaches used the forward pass infrequently. In 1912 the ball size was reduced and by 1940s most pass restrictions were dropped.

Safety gear 100 years evolution
Football players wore very little protection in the early games. In 1894, a doctor predicted “instant insanity” to a player if he was struck on the head again. A shoemaker in Annapolis, Maryland made the first leather helmet. It was not made mandatory for college football until 1939. Leather helmets guarded against injury to some extent however they were highly unreliable.

Helmet and pads design changes over 100 years

Tough business to be a football player in the 1900s

In the 1950s colored plastic helmets became popular and greatly reduced head injuries. In the 1970s improvements included inside air pockets and a four point chin strap.

In 2002 Riddell Sports “Revolution” helmet became the first major innovation to protective head-gear in 25 years.
With a spherical shape designed specifically to reduced concussions, head injuries were reduced by 30%. Although injuries still occur today football players are much safer than they were 100 years ago.

Pads – During the late 1890s some players put cushioning

Mud sweat and cheers exhibit Upcountry History Museum

What a silly looking man

under their sweaters, but their teammates often made fun of them. Leather shoulder and hip pads became common in the 1910s and 1920s as players and coaches became more aware of injuries.

By 1950s padding became more sophisticated yet also added some risks. The plastic will get dangerously hot and players suffered a high numbers of heat related injuries and even death. Over the years improvements were made and in the 1990s air-conditioned shoulder pads were introduced.

Today pads are specialized for different positions. Quarterback pads have fewer flaps to enable more arm movement and their larger size give ribs added protection from tackles. Running backs and receiver have smaller, lighter and more flexible pads to allow freedom of body movement.

Football comes to the Palmetto State
“On Saturday morning, December 14, 1889, the foot ball teams of Furman University and Wofford College played a very interesting and exciting game at the Encampment Grounds, Spartanburg, S.C.” Wofford College Journal, February 1890.

Although football was played back in the 1860s in the Northeast it took almost 30 years for it to arrive in South Carolina.

Football begins and the rest is history...

Furman - Wofford was the first football game played in South Carolina in 1889

The first documented game took place in 1889 between Furman and Wofford with little publicity.

Yet by 1910 college football had become a major fall event on most South Carolina campuses. The Citadel (1905) and Erskine (1915) were the two of the last ones in the state to introduce varsity football. As each school tried to get better and win games, student and alumni became increasingly passionate about recruiting. During the first decades of the game the player captain ran the team with a faculty member as an advisor. The full-time football coach was many years away.

The Purple Hurricane, Furman glory in mid 1920s
After playing in the state’s first ever football game, Furman struggled to maintain a winning season. The program was actually suspended from 1903 through 1912, when strong appeals from students brought re-instated it.

The “Purple Hurricane” came back roaring! In the 1920s Furman dominated the state competitions, winning the South Carolina Championship Cup, seven times through 1932.

Greatest Furman team ever

The Purple Hurricane played in and won the first Orange Bowl


In 1926, one of the biggest victories of the era came over heavily favored Georgia. Winning 14-6, Furman made a Georgia journalist to make good on his promise if his favorites lost. He walked 101 miles from Athens to Greenville where Furman students and town’s people greeted him as a “great sport”.

A year later, Furman had one of its best seasons ever, defeating Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina and Duke. The team received an invitation to play at Coral gables in Florida in what will later became the “Orange Bowl”. Furman beat Miami 38-7.

Bill Laval, became the only coach in the state history to lead three different colleges Furman, South Carolina and Newberry.

Nightime football frenzy begins in the Palmetto State

1929 ball from the first night game in South Carolina between Furman and Erskine

For most South Carolinians football revolves around its biggest and most accomplished schools South Carolina and Clemson. Read about the 100 plus years history of the state’s most heated football rivalry.

Note: Historic data, pictures and quotes used in this post are from the “Mud, Sweat & Cheers” exhibit.

Advertisements