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Setting history in motion: Recalling a football first

The 1890 Ohio Wesleyan football team. (Courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan)
May 7, 2008 1:35:45 AM

The NCAA News

Speakers ranging from university presidents to a Heisman trophy winner to the coach of a national-championship football team wondered aloud during a ceremony -- and ultimately doubted -- whether the Ohio Wesleyan and Ohio State students who played each other in a football game more than a century ago comprehended what they were setting in motion.

The ceremony on Saturday featured the unveiling of a historic marker commemorating Ohio State’s first-ever football game -- a May 3, 1890, victory at Ohio Wesleyan on a site only recently pinpointed through a former OWU professor and football coach’s discovery of an archived letter that was written by a player in the game.

That game, which also was the first for Wesleyan’s Battling Bishops, was played just east of OWU’s Phillips Hall, alongside a stream called Delaware Run. That’s where representatives of both universities -- along with pep bands, cheerleaders and citizens of the city of Delaware -- gathered exactly 118 years later to dedicate the marker and recall the schools’ common history.

“While much has changed since that historic day in 1890, when horse-drawn wagons made their way north along the Olentangy River to witness that first game, much has also remained the same,” said Ohio Wesleyan Interim President David Robbins, setting the tone for the observance.

Ohio State President Gordon Gee later echoed his colleague’s remarks when he described Ohio Wesleyan and Ohio State as “uncommon universities in a common purpose.”

“It’s a celebration of football in one sense.” Gee said. “It’s (also) a celebration of a people and purpose, and it’s a celebration of higher education. It’s a celebration that this small institution (Ohio Wesleyan) and that large institution (Ohio State) open up minds and windows, and open up the ability for people to have better lives.”

The first game attracted a crowd of about 600 spectators -- boosted by the attendance of women who nearly were banned from the site of the rough sport -- to a hillside overlooking the field.

Some of the details of the game were described by a participant, C. Rollins Jones, in a letter recently uncovered by retired OWU professor and former football coach Dick Gordin. It was Jones’ letter that detailed the exact site where the game was played -- on the west side of Henry Street in an area bordered by a sulphur spring and Delaware Run

“At times the ball was kicked into Delaware Run, behind you, and they had to retrieve the ball so the game could proceed,” Gordin told the assemblage at the ceremony.

Ohio State won the game, 20-14, then didn’t play again until November, when the Buckeyes lost three contests to end its first “season” with a 1-3 record. The two teams would play 29 more times, with Ohio Wesleyan serving as the Buckeyes’ first opponent in the newly constructed Ohio Stadium in 1922.

In 1906, Ohio Wesleyan became a charter member of what eventually became the NCAA -- one year before Ohio State joined.

Representatives of Ohio Wesleyan and Ohio State -- including both institutions’ presidents, athletics directors, football coaches and mascots, as well as two-time Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin -- gathered Saturday to dedicate a historical marker on the OWU campus commemorating both schools’ first football game in 1890. (Photo by Jeff Bates/courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan)

The two schools’ current football coaches -- Ohio Wesleyan’s Mike Hollway and Ohio State’s Jim Tressel -- also spoke during the ceremony.

“I know coach Hollway and myself have been a part of football our entire lives,” Tressel said. “Football has really formed our lives. His family has a tremendous coaching background and my family has had tremendous opportunities in the coaching world, and to think that it was all sparked right here in 1890 -- what a great day to remember.”

Other speakers put that first game into the context of everything that has happened since at both institutions -- not just in athletics but in the lives of Ohioans.

“I doubt on May 3, 1890, the participants in the Ohio State-Ohio Wesleyan game realized that they were setting in motion something that would produce what we see today,” said two-time Heisman Trophy winner and current Ohio State Alumni Association President Archie Griffin. “I think it is tremendous, I think it is wonderful, to think about what happened in the past, and the people who played in that game should always be remembered.”

Newly named Ohio Wesleyan President Rock Jones, who assumes office July 1, also spoke.

“It’s not probable that the Battling Bishops and the Buckeyes will meet on a football field again anytime soon, but we have two great institutions that share a common purpose and as Dr. Gee said, a common calling -- to be about changing lives through the course of education -- and we’ll devote ourselves to doing that.”

Citizens of the city of Delaware joined former Ohio State football player Rick Middleton (who played high school football in Delaware) and 2007 Ohio Wesleyan football captain Patrick Trenor (whose great great uncle played for OWU in the 1922 game at Ohio Stadium) in unveiling the marker installed by the Delaware Bicentennial Commission.

“It’s always important for all of us to take time to pay tribute to those great moments in history that contributed to the opportunities that we have today in intercollegiate athletics,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State vice president and director of athletics. “This marker will always be a point where people can come together and talk about the … great memories of the Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan relationship.”

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