Remembering the first high school football games
The first games were played in Boston 150 years ago — the start of a great American tradition that endures today
On this late October day, there was no need for heavy overcoats, and no stylish fedoras. As the descendants of the Oneida Football Club gathered on Boston Common, it hardly looked like a reunion of the nation’s first high school football team. Among the gathering of six were an engineer, a chemist, and even a field hockey coach. Football brought their ancestors together 150 years ago. An e-mail did the same in 2012.
Just a few steps from Frog Pond, tourists walk by the monument to the Oneida boys, which was dedicated in 1925 in a ceremony attended by six of the seven surviving team members. The team began play in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War. Today, in the oldest city park in the country — 50 acres filled with majestic bronze statues — few notice the 6-foot, shoulder-width marble tablet that looks like an oversized cemetery headstone.
Its inscription reads: “On this field the Oneida Football Club of Boston, the first organized football club in the United States, played against all comers from 1862 to 1865. The Oneida goal was never crossed.”
The Oneida roster was as much a Massachusetts history lesson as it was a group of young men beating each other up on Boston Common. Carved into the back of the monument is the roster, the 16 original team members. Many are instantly recognizable as key figures in Boston history: captain and Oneida founder Gerrit Smith Miller, Edward Lincoln Arnold, Robert Apthorp Boit, Edward Bowditch, Walter Denison Brooks, George Davis, John Malcolm Forbes, John Power Hall, Robert Means Lawrence, James D’Wolf Lovett, Francis Greenwood Peabody, Winthrop Saltonstall Scudder, Alanson Tucker, Louis Thies, Robert Clifford Watson, and Huntington Frothingham Wolcott.
The names have a place in the long history of football, just the same as Lombardi, Halas, and Thorpe. But of the descendants gathered together by a reporter for a photo at the marker last month, only one knew of the monument and his family’s connection to football. The rest were seeing their place in football history for the first time.
Keeper of the flame
The Oneida Football Club hasn’t played in 147 years, yet Tom McGrath has as much enthusiasm for his team as any Patriots season ticket-holder does for his. McGrath, 64, is the self-appointed Oneida team president, a title the Beacon Hill resident takes seriously, and one he has held for almost two decades. He pays a yearly fee of $50 to the city of Boston to keep Oneida a registered organization, with himself as president. McGrath acts as the Oneida guardian, protecting it, as the monument states, “against all comers.”
When a rugby club in Cambridge tried to take the name, McGrath was there to stop it. And when the football carved into the monument top was changed to the current soccer ball shape in the early 1990s, McGrath said, it took him six months to identify who was responsible and convince them to provide $5,000 to reinforce the monument. All of this requires a small budget, and the Oneida Football Club, which ceased to exist after 1865, has a checking account in 2012 at Bank of America.
“It was one of those things, it doesn’t jump out at you as a major tablet to anything,’’ said McGrath of the monument. “I became just interested in the history of the organization — not the sport, I have to make that clear.
“I had no interest in sports. But it had something to do with my interest in historic preservation. I had been walking by that tablet for years and I noticed that there wasn’t a football on it anymore.
“I had always seen a football, just walking across the common and looking at it, and not knowing what the Oneida Football Club was, or cared. And then when I noticed it was not a football anymore, it was a soccer ball, I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ Then I started researching what the Oneida Football Club was.’’
Born in Whitman, McGrath graduated from Cardinal Spellman, where he had some interest in football but never got the chance to play for Peter Ambrose, the Brockton school’s longtime coach and a member of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Peter Ambrose wouldn’t let me on any of the teams because I was too skinny,” said McGrath. “I weighed about 120 pounds when I was 18.”
After graduating from high school in 1967, McGrath enrolled at Emerson College, where his roommate was a young man from Andover with a good sense of humor, Jay Leno. McGrath eventually left Emerson for Rome, where he studied architecture and became involved with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. Preserving history became a career, and when he returned to Boston, preserving the history of the Oneida Football Club became his passion.
From Dixwell to Nobles
Thirteen of the 16 Oneida players attended Epes Sargent Dixwell’s Private Latin School, better known as Dixwell. The school was just a few steps from the Common, behind what is now the State Transportation Building.
Founded in 1851, the school lasted until 1872 when Dixwell retired. The school was taken over by John Hopkinson, becoming the Hopkinson School. When Hopkinson closed in 1897, its students were split between the Volkmann School, which opened in 1895, and Nobles, which opened in 1866. Volkmann and Nobles and Greenough merged in 1917.
Nobles’s place in the story is important, and four of the school’s annual student awards pay homage to its past. The Epes Sargent Dixwell Medal goes to a Nobles student for excellence in Latin. The Winthrop S. Scudder Medal is awarded for excellence in fine arts. The James D’Wolfe Lovett Medal is awarded for excellence in baseball. And the Gerrit Smith Miller Award goes to a senior for excellence in scholarship and athletics. Last year’s Miller Award went to current Harvard freshman field hockey player Mary Kate Cruise.
A bronze tablet honoring Miller was unveiled at Noble and Greenough on Nov. 7, 1923. But look around the Dedham campus today and you won’t find the tablet. It disappeared soon after the unveiling, leaving only the four holes for the pins that held it on the wall of the old gymnasium.
His mother started a revolution, his grandfather a civil war.
When it comes to family history, few can match Gerrit Smith Miller, founder and captain of the Oneida Football Club.
Born in Cazenovia, N.Y., in 1845, Miller arrived at Dixwell, a school of about 55 students, in October 1860, a “handsome, husky-looking lad of 15,’’ according to an appreciation written by Winthrop Scudder for the Nobleman in 1924.
At the time, football was mainly played at recess, something for the boys to blow off a little steam. Miller organized occasional pickup games, often against Boston Latin. One day in June 1862, Miller and friends played Boston Latin in a best three-out-of-five set that lasted close to three hours. It was after this contest that Miller decided football must be organized.
Using players mainly from Dixwell, in the fall of 1862, he formed the Oneida Football Club.
The team’s name came from a lake that was a short distance from Miller’s home in New York. Oneida was composed of 13 Dixwell boys, two from Boston English (John Malcolm Forbes and John Power Hall) and one from Boston Latin (James D’Wolf Lovett).
The uniform was simple: a red silk handkerchief tied around the head and knotted behind. The most celebrated game Oneida ever played was on Nov. 7, 1863, against a combined team from Boston English and Boston Latin. Oneida won that day, and Miller held onto the ball they used for 59 years, until 1922, when he presented it, along with his red silk handkerchief, to the Boston Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, on Cambridge Street. The display is open to the public.
When Miller graduated from Dixwell and enrolled at Harvard in 1865, Oneida’s four-year run came to an end.
And we mentioned Miller’s family. His mother Elizabeth, while working around the family farm, is credited with inventing bloomers. And she was a big part of the women’s suffrage movement. Among her friends was Susan B. Anthony.
Gerrit’s grandfather of the same name was opposed to slavery, and among his best friends were abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. And it was Miller who funded John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 that would eventually lead to the Civil War.
Born in 1847, Robert Means Lawrence was the son of Amos Lawrence, one of three brothers responsible for creating the city of Lawrence. Robert Means Lawrence’s grandfather was Samuel Lawrence, an officer in the Revolutionary War who founded Groton Academy, which is now Lawrence Academy.
Francis Greenwood Peabody graduated from Dixwell, then Harvard, and like his father was a Unitarian minister. Peabody was a pioneer in social ethics and spearheaded the campaign to transform Harvard from a Unitarian-dominated college into a non-sectarian university.
According to Harvard historical documents, his biggest success was persuading Harvard to make attendance at chapel optional, making it the first traditional college in the nation to give students such as option. Some critics at the time complained that Peabody’s campaign meant that God had become an elective at Harvard.
Before Robert Apthorp Boit played for Oneida, his family almost packed up and left Boston. According to family records on Archive.org, Boit’s father Edward went to Chicago with the idea of moving to the Midwest, but after a short time there, he criticized Chicago for “its lack of civilization” and decided to remain in Boston.
Robert was the fun-loving jock in the Boit family, once getting suspended from Harvard for throwing snowballs at a professor’s window. His brother, Edward, was the artist. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has 43 paintings by Edward, three oil paintings and 40 watercolors.
John Malcolm Forbes was born in Milton in 1847, and attended Boston English and MIT. A distant cousin of Senator John Kerry, Forbes played for Oneida — though not in the famous game on Nov. 7, 1863. Despite being one of Oneida’s better players, Forbes was allowed to captain the opposing team that day. The ball from that game has all the Oneida team names on it, except Forbes’s.
And Forbes was more than a football player. He bred horses and owned the yacht Puritan, which in 1885 won the America’s Cup.
Have you ever played on Bowditch Field in Framingham? It is named for the family from which Edward Bowditch came. And it’s the same family as Nathaniel Bowditch, generally regarded as the father of modern naval navigation.
Huntington Frothingham Wolcott was the Oneida vice president. He was a member of the 2d Massachusetts Cavalry during the final year of the Civil War and died of fever after returning home to Boston in 1865. His brother Roger also played for the Oneida. You might remember him better as the Massachusetts governor from 1897-1900.
It was some team.
Etched in stone
The monument to Oneida on Boston Common was dedicated in 1925, with six surviving team members in attendance: Peabody, Lovett, Scudder, Miller, Lawrence, and Arnold. Edward Bowditch was alive but in England at the time. His great, great grandson Stephen Bowditch, however, had no such conflict and is included in the October picture.
Peabody spoke that November day, and his speech was recorded in a story in the Boston Traveler.
“We must not take this occasion too seriously,” he said. “This is not a war memorial or the record of any great achievement in the history of Boston. It simply commemorates the primitive play of some Boston boys. This Parade ground was their playground, and in their play they conceived the plan for organized football, which has now become accepted by thousands of eager contestants and watched by millions of shouting enthusiasts.’’
The six insisted that the ball on the stone be carved to resemble the shape the football had become, not the more rounded shape of the ball they used. And definitely not as the mortuary wreath proposed by the monument designer. A letter to the Boston Arts Commission and signed by Miller, Lovett, Lawrence, and Scudder, ends, “In our opinion, a Football monument without a pigskin, the acknowledged symbol of the game, is not to be considered.”
It was that ball that was altered in 1996, the marble trimmed to look like a soccer ball, a fact that irritated McGrath. The story goes that following the World Cup qualifying games in Foxborough in 1994, the Boston Arts Commission was contacted by officials from the National Soccer Hall of Fame as well as the World Cup.
Sarah Hutt, who is today responsible for statues and monuments on Boston Common for the Friends of the Public Garden, explained that those officials offered to clean the monument and restore the landscaping around it. The monument was taken to A Monti Granite in Quincy.
“The assumption was, it was going to be cleaned,” said Hutt.
But when it was returned to its spot on the Common, the football had been changed to a soccer ball. According to Hutt, no one knew why it was changed, and the Boston Arts Commission was stunned by the action.
“The last thing they thought is that it was going to be carved,” she said. “It paralyzed people.”
Efforts are under way to restore the soccer ball to a football. The Friends of the Public Gardens, through the Henry Lee Foundation, have created an endowment for the care of all the monuments, including the potential restoration of the Oneida ball.
But not everyone will agree with the change. Gerrit Smith Miller may have felt he was playing football 150 years ago, but to this day the timeline on the US Soccer website includes a reference to 1862 and calls the Oneidas “the first organized soccer club in America.”
A hybrid game
The game of football in 1862 wasn’t anything Bill Belichick would recognize, although he’d certainly appreciate its intensity.
Offsides was called “lurking” and, according to James D’Wolf Lovett’s book, “Old Boston Boys and the Games they Played,” “was considered by fair-minded boys an offense not to be countenanced for a moment, even if the boy guilty of it was on one’s own side.”
It wasn’t rugby, but it certainly incorporated elements of that sport. It wasn’t soccer, although, again, aspects of soccer were present. And it definitely wasn’t baseball, although Miller, an accomplished baseball player, used the terms “infielders” and “outfielders” to describe positions in Oneida formations.
A goal was scored by crossing a line at the end of the field. There were no goalposts or nets, no timeouts or time limits. To start the game, the ball was dropped into the middle of the field, and play was continuous until one side crossed the enemy’s goal line. The ball itself was more round than a modern football, but a visit to Historic New England shows that the actual one used in 1863 is not the classic soccer shape, either. It looks more like a square with the corners rounded off.
As different as the rules were, the players’ style may sound familiar, even if the wording is unlike anything in your morning newspaper. Take the description of Peabody in Lovett’s book. In a Wes Welker-like reference, he talks of players “steering clear of the ravenous wolves who were pursuing and rapidly hemming them in. Such players might be likened to the torpedo boats of a fleet, darting rapidly about and causing confusion to the enemy.”
There was also what could be the first reference ever to concussions in a football game. Lovett’s description of a play from the Nov. 7, 1863 game:
“Like a flash, [Edward Lincoln] Arnold shot one heel into the turf, came to a dead stop, ducked, and crouching low, covered his head just as the fellow came on, struck something, catapulted and landed 6 feet further on. Whether, if submitted to modern tests, he could then have given his correct name or age, is open to doubt.”
The game has changed, but maybe not as much as we think. The high school players gathering on fields across the state Thursday won’t have history on their minds, but they will certainly be a part of it.
For me, it all started with a Bob Walsh drawing. Nothing fancy, just a pencil-on-paper first noticed in the summer of 1996. The artist was a historian and retired army captain who had made the history of Massachusetts high school football his passion.
In the drawing, there were five men standing to the left, a milk-carton shaped tablet on the right. And on the tablet were the words, “Oneida Monument.”
With thanks . . .
The following individuals provided information for this story. Their assistance was greatly appreciated.
Jeremiah Manion, Boston Globe library.
Jenn Williams, archivist, Lawrence History Center.
Louise Sandberg, Lawrence Public Library.
Sarah Hutt and Elizabeth Vizza, Friends of the Public Garden.
Isa Schaff, Noble and Greenough archivist/historian.
Megan Pitts, Boston Latin School Association.
Lorna Condon, senior curator of library and archives at Historic New England.
Robin M. Tagliaferri, executive director, Forbes House Museum.
Tom McGrath, president of Oneida Football Club.
Elaine Grublin, head of reader services, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Marie Daly and Chris Child, New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Sally Alves, Forest Hills Cemetery.
Langdon Lawrence, for Peabody and Lawrence family history.
Peter Powilatis, Boston English trustee.
Tom Dennehy, Boston English historian.