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First team

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Before the Big East and the ACC there was the Literary Institute

BC football, 1893: Second row, center left, is sprinter Wefers; center right, is coach-quarterback Drum. John J. Burns Library

BC football, 1893: Second row, center left, is sprinter Wefers; center right, is coach-quarterback Drum. John J. Burns Library

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reid Oslin '68, senior media relations officer at BC, was for 24 years (1974 to 1997) the University's associate athletic director and sports information director. His new book, Tales from the Boston College Sideline, is an anecdotal history of football from the James Street days to the 2003 San Francisco Bowl:


It was a sweltering September night in 1973 in College Station, Texas, when the Boston College football team took the field for the first time against the famed Texas A&M Aggies. Just before kickoff, A&M sports information director Spec Gammon turned to his BC counterpart, Eddie Miller, and asked dryly, "When did y'all stop playin' club football?"

"1893," Miller replied.

BC went on to defeat the Aggies, 32-24.


EDWARD IGNATIUS Devitt, SJ, BC's ninth president (1891-94), had a clear priority for his administration: upgrading and expanding the 28-year-old school's small library.

It came as no surprise then, that in the spring of his first year as president, Fr. Devitt was not especially receptive to a proposal offered by two undergraduates—Joseph F. O'Connell, of the class of 1893, and Joseph Drum, of the class of 1894—to start a varsity football team.

Fr. Devitt pondered the students' idea—similar proposals had been denied by his predecessor, Robert Fulton, SJ. Two weeks into the fall semester of 1892, he grudgingly agreed to the request. There was one catch, however. Devitt wouldn't allocate any money to the new organization. Boston College football had been born.


AS AT MANY U.S. schools, athletics and physical education at BC did not formally begin until after the Civil War. During the 1880s, BC students took part in military drill exercises and a limited program of intramurals and class games.

Located then on James Street in Boston's South End, the school did not own a sports field, just a small gymnasium, with three pieces of gymnastics equipment and little else.

College football—an offshoot of rugby—grew in popularity after Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate game in 1869. But it would be nearly 20 years before the sport would surface at BC, in a series of interclass games.

Football then was far rougher than today's version, with no helmets and little protective equipment worn by the combatants. Pushing, pulling, and locked arms were allowed, and most offensive strategies consisted of onlythree plays: a dive into the line, a run around the end, and a punt. A favorite kick-return play was the "Flying Wedge," in which members of the receiving team joined arms in a massive surge to escort the ball carrier up the field. Injuries were commonplace. The wedge formation was outlawed in 1896.

One of Boston College's early running backs, Hughie McGrath, played the game with a leather strap sewed to the bottom of his trousers. His teammates would use the makeshift handle to toss him over the top of the scrimmage line in short yardage situations.


THE PLAYING and scoring rules changed frequently in those days. Originally, teams had three tries to make five yards and a first down; touchdowns were worth four points until 1898, when a score netted five. In 1912, a touchdown put six on the scoreboard. Conversely, the scoring value of a field goal steadily decreased, going from five points in 1883 to four in 1904, before the current figure of three was decided upon in 1909.


BEFORE THERE was an official football team at BC, there was the "Boston College Athletic Club," organized in 1884 to oversee physical education and athletic activities. It was the forerunner of the Boston College Athletic Association, which would be established in 1887. A young Jesuit scholastic, Leo Brand, SJ, was appointed as the first faculty director of athletics. Boston College athletics historian Nathaniel Hasenfus termed Brand "a clever liaison officer between students and president when a real diplomat was necessary," as interest and participation in sports mushroomed on James Street toward the end of the century.


IN 1892, BC's first team of football players, with no funding and no coach, scrambled to find practice fields and complete a schedule of games. The squad never played an actual game—opting instead for a series of informal practice scrimmages and exhibition matches against schools and amateur clubs in the area.

Senior Joe O'Connell, one of the students who had petitioned Fr. Devitt, was the captain. Many members of that 1892 squad went on to professional careers as doctors, lawyers, and educators, but two of the school's original football alumni had particularly significant careers: Lineman John Douglass became the first BC graduate to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving in Congress from 1925 until 1935; running back James Carlin entered the Society of Jesus after graduation that spring and was president of the College of Holy Cross from 1918 until 1924.

Another member of the 1892 squad, halfback Frank Brick, played the sport without the knowledge or approval of his parents. He was listed in the lineup as "Plinthos"—which his fellow students of Greek knew to be the word for "brick."


IN 1893, Joseph Drum, then a Boston College senior, was named head coach of the school's first "official" football team—an unpaid position. When he called the start of practice in September, 22 willing candidates reported. Among them was Bernie Wefers, a transfer from Holy Cross, who would later set four world track records in various sprint events. Drum immediately had himself a strong outside running threat—a coaching luxury that several of his successors would never enjoy.

Drum named himself starting quarterback when Boston College lined up for its first official game on October 26, 1893, against St. John's Literary Institute, a local amateur team. He completed his significant series of "firsts" for Boston College football when he scored the game's only touchdown, jarring the ball loose from a St. John's runner and carrying it across the goal line for a 4-0 BC victory.

Boston College's second game did not go so well. The James Street lads lost 6-0 to Technology '97—a team of freshmen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—at Clovis Field in Cambridge. BC's chances for a late-game comeback were stymied in this one. The contest was called off at halftime because the Harvard '96 team had a game scheduled against the Boston Athletic Association on the same field and demanded that BC and MIT relinquish the lined turf.


BOSTON COLLEGE'S University historian, Thomas H. O'Connor—a 1949 BC graduate and longtime football season-ticket-holder—offers a look at how one of BC's most visible athletic traditions, the maroon-and-gold school colors, came into being:

"In those early years when Boston College was located on James Street and was still a part of Boston College High School or vice versa, members of the student body had no particular colors of their own. Students on their way to various athletic contests had no striped ties to wear, no armbands to put on, and no pennants to wave to announce their school affiliation. To work out a solution to this problem, T.J. Hurley of the class of 1885, composer of such perennial favorites as 'For Boston' and 'Hail Alma Mater,' was chosen to head a committee to decide on a set of colors that would be distinctively BC.

"After considering the colors of such rival Jesuit institutions as Holy Cross, Fordham, and Georgetown, Hurley and his committee reported back to the student body that their choice was maroon and gold, in part because none of the other Jesuit colleges had those colors. The student body was unanimous in accepting the report and immediately set about having the first official banner made.

"According to T.J. Hurley's personal account, BC students convinced the ladies who worked at the New England Conservatory of Music—at that time located near the Jesuit institution on James Street—to produce the first maroon and gold banner, which was an instant success and was displayed at every event at the school.

"Unfortunately, after a celebration at the James Street school, the original hand-stitched banner mysteriously disappeared and was never seen again. Old and savvy alumni continue to look through attics and cellars in hopes that the original banner will be found."

Reid Oslin


© 2004 by Reid Oslin, reprinted by permission. Mr. Oslin will be discussing BC football at the BC Bookstore on September 11 at 6:00 p.m. (before the Penn State game).

 

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