First college football game played at Rutgers in 1869


No lights, no cameras, no rowdy drunk college tailgaters – this was the scene of the first… No lights, no cameras, no rowdy drunk college tailgaters – this was the scene of the first intercollegiate football game. On a makeshift grass field, Rutgers battled Princeton to initiate a tradition that has encompassed college campuses for more than a century.

Rutgers would go on to defeat the Tigers 6-4 on Nov. 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, N.J. However, the team’s idea of football was quite rudimentary by current standards. Each team placed 25 players on the field, followed rugby-like rules and utilized a soccer ball. “Bulldogs,” or today’s offensive men, tried to score in a best of 10 games. Each score counted as one game. The “fielders,” or defense, would attempt to stop their opponents from advancing.

The battle of New Jersey was to occur in a best of three series in 1869. This sparked one of the first intercollegiate rivalries. Located only 17 miles apart, Rutgers and Princeton engaged in a “cannon war.” Students from their respective schools would sneak around the others’ campus in search for the special cannon. Today, the cannon is encased in cement on Princeton’s campus, but the rivalry lives on.

The first college football series was never finished that year. Instructors at Princeton and Rutgers complained the athletes and fans were being distracted from academics because of the friendly competition. Since then, college football has developed.

With such a strong foundation in football, one might assume Rutgers would have a dominating program. But the Scarlet Knights have a subpar program record of 553-549-42, and a poor showing for a team with a 133-year history.

Rutgers has a rich tradition based on pre-Revolutionary War history. It originated in 1766 as Queen’s College, the eighth institution chartered in the colonies. In 1825, the name was officially changed to Rutgers, honoring Colonel Henry Rutgers. A decade later, Rutgers chose a chanticleer as its mascot, which carried the negative connotation of a chicken. In 1955, Rutgers wanted to become a powerhouse for Division I athletics, and it officially changed the mascot to the ever-intimidating Scarlet Knight.

Robert Mulcahy credits this history for the majority of the pride that emanates through the entire athletic department, especially the football team.

“The wall at Rutgers Stadium is inscribed the ‘Birthplace of College Football’ and we erected a statue to commemorate that day in 1869,” said Mulcahy, who is in his fourth year as Rutgers’ athletic director. “That first collegiate game has and always will be a large part of Rutgers’ tradition and pride.”

Rutgers joined the Big East conference in 1991 and has compiled a 37-107-4 record under three different coaches. Despite the recent skid of the past 10 years, Rutgers was a somewhat dominating opponent from 1975-1979 as an independent under head coach Frank Burns. During this period, they were 45-11.

The Scarlet Knights had their best season to date in 1976, going 11-0 that year. Two seasons later, Rutgers made its first and only bowl appearance. Arizona State defeated the Scarlet Knights 34-18 in the Garden State Bowl in 1978.

Going back even further, Rutgers’ sole national ranking came in 1961 as a member of the Middle Atlantic Conference, where it emerged as No. 15 in the polls. They were 9-0 that season. Since then, the Rutgers football program has gone downhill.

Mulcahy has no regrets in joining the Big East.

“Football is a funny game and we have had a difficult task playing against the caliber of teams that are in the Big East,” Mulcahy said. “It is good for our program and gives us an even greater sense of pride to be able to compete.”

Rutgers has produced numerous professional players, three of which have gone on to win the Super Bowl. Nose guard Bill Pickel (’83) and tight end/ special teams player James Jenkins (’91) were victorious in Super Bowls XVIII and XXVI, respectively. Lineman Harry Swayne (’90), coming off a 15-year career, has attained three Super Bowl rings with Denver (twice) and Baltimore.

Rutgers also was the college home for local talent Mike McMahon. In 1996, McMahon carried his North Allegheny team to the WPIAL Quad A Championship game. Despite the loss in his senior year, McMahon went on to be a successful quarterback for the Scarlet Knights. He ranks second in Rutgers’ history with 6,793 offensive yards and 41 touchdown passes. McMahon was drafted in the fifth round by the Detroit Lions and is currently playing quarterback for them.

Mulcahy was able to watch McMahon finish his career out at Rutgers and is pleased with his ongoing success.

“He had an outstanding career as a Scarlet Knight,” Mulcahy said. “It is terrific to see him succeed at the next level.”

Ray Lucas is another Rutgers alumnus with National Football League experience. Lucas has been with the New England Patriots and New York Jets and is currently with the Miami Dolphins. During the past seven seasons, Lucas has seen playing time as a quarterback and a wide receiver. Lucas had a stellar career at Rutgers, being ranked first in both touchdown passes (43) and completions (514). He is also ranked second for 5,896 passing yards.

Rutgers is currently developing its athletic programs and Mulcahy could not be more pleased.

“We are developing a $10 million, state-of-the-art, football training complex on campus,” Mulcahy said. “These are the kinds of things that haven’t been done in the past. This is building an infrastructure for the long haul of Rutgers football. It is an exciting time to be a Scarlet Knight.”

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