Take a group of college-aged young men and put them together in a dormitory, away from home for the first time, and something crazy is bound to happen.
That’s as true now as it was in the late 1800s, although the ideas on how to channel that energy might be a bit different these days.
In the fall of 1890, a group of male students at the University of Colorado decided to take their pent-up energy and create an athletic association. They had no idea that they were also cementing their place in history.
This year, college football is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first game, played on Nov. 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, N.J., between Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton). They played a second game a week later.
As the sport celebrates its beginning, it seems appropriate to look back at CU’s beginning. Friday marks the 129th anniversary of CU’s first game, a loss to Denver Athletic Club on Nov. 15, 1890.
At the time that Rutgers and Princeton played the first game, Colorado wasn’t even a state and CU didn’t exist. The school was founded and Colorado admitted to the Union in 1876.
College football didn’t exactly explode in popularity after that first game, either. In 1870, there were only two games played, one between Rutgers and Princeton and one between Rutgers and Columbia. In 1871, there were no games played.
The game, which more closely resembled rugby and featured touchdowns worth four points instead of six, slowly grew during the 1870s and 1880s, mostly in the east. By 1890, several schools in the west were picking up on the sport, and a state association was formed, including School of Mines, Denver Athletic and Colorado Springs.
A few of the male students at CU had learned an English version of football from a medical student who had played the game in England, but they had never played games with outside teams. That changed when, on Oct. 31, 1890, the school’s athletic association – formed by those energetic young men in the dorms – applied for admission to the state association. They were accepted.
The state association, however, played the rugby style game and not the English version of football that the CU students had been practicing. They began learning a new game, with only two weeks to prepare for the Nov. 15 matchup with the Denver Athletic Club.
“The rush of a Rugby team was likened to the stampede of a herd of Texas cattle,” John Nixon, a member of that first team, wrote in the Dec. 16, 1898, edition of Silver and Gold, CU’s first student newspaper.
During those two weeks, the University team (it wasn’t until 1934 that the nickname “Buffaloes” was adopted) figured out positions and set a lineup for the first game.
Led by their captain and quarterback, Charles L. Edmundson, a senior from Iowa, they took the field for the first time.
“With only two weeks preparation, learning the game almost entirely from the rule book, nine of the eleven having never seen a Rugby game, clad in the flannel suits without padding, the average weight of the team being about 140 pounds, we went down to Denver and lined up against the D.A.C. team, composed of graduated college players,” Nixon, who co-captained the first team, wrote in 1898.
That opener went about as expected. The Dec. 19, 1895, edition of Silver and Gold, which told the history of CU’s first six seasons, had the final score at 34-0 in favor of the Denver Athletic Club. CU’s current record book has the score as 20-0. Regardless, it was a convincing defeat.
From the 1895 edition of Silver and Gold: “This game was the first lesson for the Varsity. There was no team work and each man played his position as he thought best. The D.A.C.’s ran the ends at will and pushed through the center finding but feeble resistance. The Varsity was unable to gain any ground by bucking the line, and kicked most of the time.”
Edmundson suffered a severe knee injury during the game and, since he was a senior, never played again. He was replaced at quarterback by freshman Patrick Carney, who would captain the team the next three years (the only three-time captain during CU’s first 125 years).
Although his college football career lasted just one game, Edmundson goes down in history as CU’s first captain and quarterback. He graduated from CU’s medical school in the spring of 1891 and went on to a successful career as a doctor, first in Kingston, N.M., and then in Bisbee, Ariz. He also served as mayor of Bisbee.
Several injuries in the DAC game decimated the roster for the next week, a home game against a powerful Mines team. Mines won 103-0 in what is still the most lopsided game in CU history.
CU would finish 0-4 that season, while being outscored 217-4 (or 231-4, depending on which score from the opener was accurate). The only touchdown scored by CU came in the finale, on a 65-yard fumble return by George Darley.
“The result of this season can be summed up thus,” it was written in Silver and Gold in 1895. “There had been a start made, an enthusiasm aroused for the game. Although defeated, every game showed, as the players became acquainted with the game, that there was material in the University for a good team.”
It was certainly a rough start for CU, but it’s a team that paved the way for Kayo Lam, Byron “Whizzer” White, Carroll Hardy, Joe Romig, Bobby and Dick Anderson, Herb Orvis, Darian Hagan, Rashaan Salaam, Phillip Lindsay and so many others to become stars in Boulder.
It’s a team that set the tone for CU to win 709 games (ranking 26th all-time nationally) and claim a national championship in 1990, the year of its 100th anniversary as a program.
“Whatever may have been said of their playing,” Nixon wrote in 1898, “the boys were made of that stuff called, ‘American grit,’ and had no conception of what the word failure meant. To them defeat was simply a severe lesson which was to teach them how to win in the future.”
CU’s lineup for the Nov. 15, 1890, opener against Denver Athletic Club, and others who played during the 1890 season:
Quarterback – Charles Edmundson
Halfbacks – Homer James and Wesley Putman
Fullback – Bert Kennedy
Ends – Ed Ingram and John Nixon
Tackles – George Darley and Delos Holden
Guards – Howell Givens and Harry Layton
Center – Charles McConnell
Others on roster: Conrad Bluhm; Patrick Carney; Alex Durward; Charles Easley; James Garrett; EF Garrison; Abram L. Mumper; Ed Newcomb; Melvin Rust; Fritz Wilson