We call him the Father of Auburn Football. But chronologically speaking, it may be more accurate to speak of George Petrie as the Father Figure of Auburn football (or at least football at Auburn), the guy who came on the scene when we were just kids and taught us how to change a tire and tie a tie and told us we could do anything we set our minds to.
Ol’ G.P. actually hinted as much back in 1930. Here he is reflecting on how he found his first players for some Behind The Music: Auburn Football thing the alumni magazine ran:
“Football was first played (at Auburn) as a mass game on the front campus. Half of the college boys trying to kick it [the ball] one way and half the other. It was entirely a kicking game, no hands were put on the ball. And, believe me, there was a fierce time. In the confusion, many a kick missed the ball and landed… elsewhere.”
Out of this irregular scene of confusion emerged Auburn football.”
“That’s not football,” you say? “That’s some soccer meets kill the man with the ball mashup,” you say?
“Are you calling former Auburn coach John Heisman a liar,” I say?
Here’s Heisman describing his pigskin pubescence for Collier’s Magazine in 1928:
Forty-two years ago, I began playing football. It was as a member of the Titusville, Pennsylvania high school team. Since that distant day I have played much football, taught much football and have seen much; but the memory of those shin-breaking afternoons of Association football wherein active brains were secondary to durable legs is still bright.
Actually the game we played in Titusville was only a species of Association football. Of rules we observed few, having few. Signals we had none– needed nine, wanted none. We butted the ball, punched it, elbowed it and kicked it. Incidentally many were the butts, punches, kicks and assorted socks that fell short of the ball and found lodging on us. Fine, uncomplicated, two-fisted days those.
Yale, Harvard, Princeton and several other Eastern colleges were playing Walter Camp rules, still very much a mystery to us of the inland schools although Mr. Camp had evolved them seven years before from the free and easy American interpretation of old English rugby. He abolished the stupid bullheaded scrum and edited the faster and more spectacular scrimmage. Also he had reduced the number of players on a side from 15 to 11.
Also the members of the Intercollegiate Football Association were using signals. The camp rules gave possession of the ball definitely to one side or the other and tactics, trickery, fast thinking had crept into the game– as the great Eastern colleges plated.
Bah! What cared we in Titusville and innumerable points West and South for all this fuzz buzz. We were having the times of our lives assaulting a round, black rubber ball up and down expansive fields. We were 15 men on a side and in the game that we played, the ball belonged to him or them strong enough and fleet enough to take it. What did we want with signals? Let Yale and Harvard have their signals– whatever they were. They would have signals. Our simple attitude toward all that nonsense was that of the relatively recent and highly successful fullback who, five yards from the enemy’s goal line, silences the quarterback’s chatter with: “Ah, t’hell with these signals; gimme the ball.”
That’s 1886 he’s talking about, 17 years after what God and Wikipedia and ESPN say was the first game of real American U.S.A. college football…
… which, you know, a lot of people also consider to be the first American U.S.A. game of soccer.
Now that sounds insane. No—downright blasphemous is what it sounds like. But if you get into football genealogy, it’s right there: Football? Soccer? Rugby? They’re fraternal triplets, sprung from the same loins: A ball and a man’s desire to run up and down a patch of grass and do something with it.
I mean, that primordial 1869 game between Princeton and Rutgers was basically just 50 dudes running around trying to kick, punch, belly bump, blow on and do anything they could think of to a ball in order to move it down a 120 yard field. You couldn’t even hold the thing. And history calls that football. Heisman would call that football; he played that football. And if that was football, then by God what was happening in Auburn in 1888 was football.
Ten or so years before Petrie’s pigskin origin story ran in the Auburn Alumnus, another Early Auburn Gridiron article appeared in an Alabama newspaper, likely the Montgomery-based Alabama Journal.
Headline: “First Football Game Played at Auburn Is Reviewed by Lawmaker.”
Take it away, C.W. Ashcraft!
No, 1888 isn’t a typo. No, Ashcraft isn’t just off a few years — he actually graduated in 1888.
And no, that doesn’t exactly jibe with the general image we have of the sport’s arrival in Auburn: Petrie showing up on the shores–in eighteen hundred and ninety-two, George Petrie formed the Orange and Blue…–with a rowdy new religion totally foreign to the Plains. Sure, it was technically 1891—some old tyme records actually list an 1891 Auburn team–but there he is, a missionary, with a new PhD from John Hopkins where he’d spent the last three years learning things like history and “the scientific game.” He holds up an oblong spheroid upon his return—he was at Auburn for a year (1887-1888) before bolting to grad school–and the young lads of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama bow down and eagerly submit to baptism. Then beat Georgia. And God saw that it was very good.
But like Petrie’s recollections suggest, and like Ashcraft’s recollection explicitly state, the soil of the Loveliest Village wasn’t just fertile for football in 1891, it was technically already tilled.
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Related: Auburn—and America’s?—first homecoming was definitely held in 1909, not 1913.
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* Praise and worship standard ‘More Precious Than Silver’ inspired by 1978 french fry theft at Auburn McDonald’s
* Former Nitro Girl recalls time at Auburn
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Fascinating read. These are the stories that make this website special.
Blake McGilberry says
Love this story. Just one typo I see in its writing though. In 1888/1892, the venerable Dr. Petrie would have encountered Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical, not East Alabama Male College. Other than that; excellent article, as always.
Dang Good Stuff says
Dang Good Stuff