Bill Little commentary: The first Thanksgiving game
Thanksgiving morning, 1893, dawned a new day for the University of Texas, as their first football team played the vaunted Dallas Football Club.
Nov. 22, 2012
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
(As the Longhorns prepare to host TCU on Thanksgiving Night, here is a story of the first time The University of Texas ever played on Thanksgiving Day - in fact, it is a story of its very first game. As published in "Stadium Stories - Texas Football," here is an account of that day, and that time. BL)
It was a manly sport, this football, and for almost twenty-five years, those "Yanks" at the likes of Harvard, Rutgers, Princeton and Yale had played the game with fervor that captured the headlines in the newspapers and magazines of the time.
The University of Texas was a small college in Austin that was ten years old in 1893, and was going about the business of trying to establish itself as a "University of the First Class," the way the founders of the Republic - and later the state - had envisioned it fifty years before.
Through the mist, picture the way it was that November night when fifteen or so "wannabe" football players, and a couple hundred fans gathered at the train station in Austin for a ride to Dallas.
It was nearly midnight when the train of the International and Great Northern Railroad - its great engine straining to go - finally heard the conductor shout, "All aboard."
Thanksgiving morning, 1893, dawned a new day for that college in Austin, for those young men were destined for Fairgrounds Park in Dallas, where they would play the vaunted Dallas Football Club, the self-proclaimed "Champions of Texas."
Unbeaten for several years, and unscored on for a time as well, the Dallas club had heard a team had been formed at the state university down in Austin, and the bruisers from Dallas issued a challenge for the upstarts to "come on up."
The game was set for Thanksgiving Day in the hopes that it would draw a crowd in Dallas, which was then a bustling city of nearly 40,000.
To understand the game you must first understand the rules, and it helps to know that the game folks saw that day was considerably different than the game we know today.
The first college game between Rutgers and Princeton had been played in 1869, and fifty students participated in what amounted to a group of guys pulling off their coats to engage in a primitive game of soccer.
By 1893, eighty-eight colleges had football teams, and the game had been scaled down to where eleven players were on each side while on the playing field, which was 110 yards long.
Writer-historian Lou Maysel, in his book, "Here Come the Texas Longhorns," further explained the game of the day:
"...(the) goalposts (were) at each end and there was no end zone area. The ball was put into play from scrimmage by the center shoveling the ball back to his quarterback, who always handed it off to another player. Only lateral passes were legal, which made the game primarily one of frontal power runs. End runs were occasionally tried, but defensive ends were always played extremely wide to avoid being outflanked. The necessity of making only five yards on three consecutive downs to get a new set of downs also dictated straight ahead football.
"Teams could station any number of players on the line and tight mass formations were used. Players behind the line could start forward before the center shoveled the ball back and momentum plays employing this practice were the vogue then. Often, teammates would push or pull the ball carrier forward for additional gain while the defensive team tried to wrestle him down or carry him backward. Kicking was an integral part of the game then, as it is now, but the scoring was different from today's system. A field goal was worth five points, while a touchdown produced only four points. A successful goal-after-touchdown (free kick) counted two points, as did a safety."
The Texas team arrived in Dallas at 8:30 that morning, and quickly showed the Dallas ruffians they meant business, too.
"When we got there," recalled guard Billy Richardson, "we all bought big cigars and strutted down Main Street."
The day quickly took on the bantering that would later become famous in Dallas as the Texas-Oklahoma weekend.
Fans of the Texas team began their own yell, which went like this: "Hullabaloo, hullabaloo, `Ray, `ray, `ray. Hoo-ray, hoo-ray. Varsity, varsity, U. T. A."
In his book, Maysel recalls that a young newsboy listened to the yell and then responded in a loud voice: "Hullabaloo, hoo-ray, hoo-ray, Austin ain't in it today, today."
But he would be proved wrong.
"Varsity," as the team was known, took the field with determination on that mild November day.
"When the teams came out for the game, a spectator who had never seen football before was first taken by the players' bushy hair, which gave them their only cranial protection," wrote Maysel. "Uniforms consisted of lightly-padded breeches and home-made canvas vests tightly laced over long-sleeved jerseys. Heavy stockings and shoes, some with homemade leather cleats nailed on, completed the battle gear of that day."
Wrote the Dallas News that day, "To a man who has never heard of Walter Camp and doesn't know a halfback from a tackle, the professional game of foot ball (sic) looks very much like an Indian wrestling match with a lot of running thrown in."
Not in their wildest imagination could those young men of the late 19th century have envisioned where their game might lead. Even getting to Dallas wasn't an easy task in those days.
Where today's football teams travel first class and stay in five-star hotels, the eager collegians of 1893 didn't have adequate funds to make the 200 mile trip to Dallas. A local clothing goods store, Harrell & Wilcox, loaned the team one hundred dollars to cover food and lodging.
The ticket agent for the International and Great Northern Railroad, a fellow named Peter Lawless, supplied the round-trip tickets for the team.
There were only a couple of buildings on the campus of the young university, which had been started only ten years earlier. University tuition was only thirty dollars and that allowed a student to attend as long as was needed in his course of study. To get into school, a diploma from an approved high school was the only entrance requirement. Graduates of Sam Houston Normal (now Sam Houston State) and Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College were also accepted. You could earn a bachelor's degree in the arts, literature, science, civil engineering and law, and a medical degree was available at the University's branch in Galveston.
Austin itself had 15,000 residents.
It had taken nine hours to get there on the train, but when the big engine pulled into the station in Dallas, the city was awake and ready for a festive day.
The grandstand on the Exposition Grounds of the State Fair was packed long before the scheduled 2:30 kickoff. It was almost balmy, particularly for a late November day, as the temperature reached the low 70s. But as two thousand people watched, the biggest crowd ever to see a game in Dallas up to then was about to really heat up.
Even though Dallas had a reputation as the giants of the gridiron, there actually wasn't much difference in the size of the young collegians and the seasoned city fellows.
Both the Texas and Dallas teams supposedly averaged almost 162 pounds per man, and the backs for both teams weighed in at between 135 and 155 pounds.
The teams were full of colorful characters, but none more so than the workhorse of the Texas offense, a young cowboy from Ballinger, Texas, named Addison "Ad" Day. Not only was Day the main rusher for the team, he was the first kicker in school history. It was Day who would set the tone as the game began.
Texas took the opening kickoff of the game and drove down the field using power plays. When Day pounded the center of the line right at the Dallas goal and the ball popped free, teammate James Morrison, a tackle, picked up the ball and ran in for the first score. When Ad Day kicked the ball through the goal posts for the two-point conversion, the young college kids had a 6-0 lead.
Dallas would never recover. Day scored another touchdown and kicked the ensuing goal, but by halftime, the Dallas Football Club had regrouped and cut the score to 12-10.
The forty-five minute half was followed by a bicycle race at intermission, and the officials needed the time. There were no penalties in those days for "unsportsmanlike conduct," and players regularly openly argued with officials, so much so that referee Fred Shelley of the Austin Athletic Club got enough of Dallas' bickering that he quit after the first half.
His fellow official (there were only two), umpire Tom Lake of the Fort Worth football team, recruited one of his teammates to be the referee for the final stanza.
But when the second half started, there was Addison Day again, pounding his way and finally running fifteen yards for a touchdown and kicking the goal for an 18-10 lead.
With a minute remaining, Dallas scored again, but the touchdown and kicked goal only narrowed the score to 18-16. Under the modern table of points, that would have been a 21-20 Texas victory.
If the goal of the Dallas team was to intimidate the collegians, it didn't work. Texas played the full ninety minutes with only one player leaving for an injury. Dallas' reputation for roughness was answered by Texas.
Maysel, writing of the game in his book, recounted a conversation with tackle Robert E. Lee Roy, who went on to be a District Judge in Fort Worth.
"He did not name the team involved," wrote Maysel, "but from his references, it was clearly the Dallas gang."
"We went up against one team that had the reputation of being a killing team and before we went to the town to play them, our captain, Paul McLane, taught us a `killing code' just in case," Maysel quoted Roy as saying. "The game had not been going long until the other side made a deliberate attempt to break the leg of one of our men. Then McLane gave us the `killing code' and we put three of the other side out in less than ten minutes of play. The captain of the other side called for time and came across with the request we try to play the rest of the game without any rough stuff."
The upset victory so stunned Dallas that end Tom Monagan, who played the game with a broken finger suffered early in the fray, said afterwards, "Our name is pants, and our glory has departed.
"With that," wrote Maysel, "he pulled on his overcoat, jerked his cap down over his eyes, wiped some blood off his face and started for home."
For the Texas team, the fun was just beginning. John Henry "Baby" Myers, the team heavyweight at 210 pounds, had handled the kickoff return duties, even though he was a center.
He claimed he had just gotten the hang of the game when time ran out.
"Why are we quitting now?" he asked teammate Morrison. "It's nowhere near sundown."