Before the establishment of professional football (the American Professional Football Association was founded in 1920), there was college football. Many of the core practices of American football (or "new football") were worked out in this time period, from team cheers to rules of play to techniques for keeping crowds off the field. Interestingly, even a cursory reading of reports from before 1920 shows the extent to which the audience was very much a part of the experience. While today fans might cheer, in the 1890s cheering itself was seriously considered a “play,” contributing to the outcome of any game. For example, regarding the Yale-Princeton Game of 1892, one writer complained that the crowd was not involved enough; Yale won despite the spectators’ lackluster involvement. (“Yale and Princeton, -92.” The Illustrated American, Vol. 12, December 10, 1892, 579):
“The new football,” says a writer in the Nineteenth Century, “is a far more effectual arouser of the unregenerate passions of mankind than either a political gathering or a race meeting…At a modern football match…it is a distinct point that the players are human beings, with sensibilities much on a par with the sensibilities of the spectators. These latter are well aware of the fact. And it is by playing loudly upon their sensibilities that the spectators endeavor to incite their darlings to strain every nerve to win.”
Not very loudly did the forty odd thousand persons present at the football match, played between the Yale and Princeton teams at the Manhattan Athletic Field, New York-city on Thanksgiving Day, play upon the susceptibilities of the young collegians, but sufficiently loudly to incite Yale to win by 12 to 0.
It was not nearly as interesting a game as that played between Yale and Harvard at Springsfield, Mass., the Saturday before, for it was a metropolitan game. It was the right thing to see, and probably half the people present knew nothing about and cared less for the game. At the Springfield game, on the other hand, nearly every one who saw it knew something about football and everyone was enthusiastic. In New York it is not "good form" to express too loudly your ‘unregenerate passions….There are many more descriptions and issues around audience for pre-professional football, some of which I will deal with in separate posts. For now, let me share a description of the emotions of the crowd during a college game, by Freeman Furbush. (“Football As We Find It.” National Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1897: 161+). For him, football is all about the spectators. Humorous pieces like this, offered at a time when football was growing as popular entertainment, helped to educate naïve readers—including the literary-minded, middle-class subscribers to National Magazine--about how to think about their own potential participation in the game.
The Rush To A Big Game
Now let us live through one of the big games. It is a November morning, cold, crisp and sharp. The excitement of the day and the hour has thrown its spell over everything. Into the big depots at New York, New Haven, and Boston throngs of people rush to take the special trains for the scene of the great contest, Springfield. A merry crowd they make, ladened down with ulsters, shawls, flags, and lunches…And so train after train wheels towards this athletic Mecca, the passengers beguiling the ride with the morning paper, cards, eating and a thorough sizing-up of the chances of the game. By noon these trains begin to reach Springfield and their heavy loads are precipitated into the town with a yell and a rush….The approach to the field itself is a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle to the man who witnesses it for the first time. A clod of earth he is indeed if his hair does not tingle at the roots and his throat tighten with excitement. Stretched before him is a scene that parallels the ancient Greek arenas. Around the four sides of a green carpeted enclosure rise, tier upon tier, the grand stands for the spectators. If you are a Harvard man you enter at one side of the field, if a Yale man at the other. A neutral person enters by whichever gate his ticket permits him to….
Just Before the Game
It is never weary work waiting an hour or two for the great game to begin—that is when the weather is good. When it snows, sleets, or showers there are other places, of course, more conducive to your bodily comfort, but nevertheless, for none of them would you for that moment exchange your two dollar and a half seat. The spectacle doesn’t permit it. For instance, you wouldn’t want to miss the jostling of the good-natured crowd, the banter of words, the giving of gibes and the taking of jokes. You wouldn’t want to miss seeing the “old grads” come marching in, nor the cheers that greet those of them who were well known when in college. It’s fun, too, to hear the fellows shout for the favorite professors, the pretty girls, the governors, for anybody of distinction who passes by the different sections on the way to their seats. A continuous ovation it seems to be, an ovation that reaches its climax at half past two when by some sudden impulse the whole twenty odd thousand people jump to their feet and commence a prolonged cheering that rents the blue sky above….
When Greek Meets Greek
The next hour and a half beggars description. No eye in the multitude leaves for an instant that group of players as sway back and forth on the gridiron. Not a play, not a movement, not the slightest detail is lost up on the spectators. At frequent internals form the blue grand stand comes the short, snappy, piercing cheer: “Rah-rah-rah; rah-rah-rah; rah-rah-rah, Yale.” And then from the crimson phalanx exhoes a cheer in slower cadence, but with full, swelling volume: “Rah—rah—rah, rah—rah—rah, rah—rah—rah, Har—vard." …Thus the game goes on. Hope rises and falls with each slight advance and retreat of your favorite cohort. At times you cease almost to breathe, so intense is the critical moment. In that hour and a half you live a century of suspense. The greatest moment of all comes when one side scores. Say it is Yale. In an instant the air is cleft in twain by deafening cheers that carry dismay to the thunder gods themselves—and to the Harvard hearts. The Yale side of the field is a hurricane of blue. Every mother’s son and son’s mother is on tiptoe shouting themselves hoarse and beating each other on heads with their flag sticks. Old men throw up their hats and dance around in a glee that would be absurd at other times and places. Ribs are punched, backs are slapped, hands are grasped, and lungs are broken until verily all the world seems to have gone crazy....
After the Game
The retrocessional of a great game is the reverse picture of its processional. The crowds, after the last play has been made and time called, swarm out of the arena and pour their legions back to the special trains that await them on all the side-tracks. If you are a winner your march to the station is one of triumph. You do not hurry. All the world is your friend and you want to slap its back. So large is your heart that it seems to be bursting. On every third corner you have to stop and give a rousing cheer; it makes you feel better. This opening of the safety valve is necessary in the train all the way home. A continuous performance in singing and yelling is the program…But oh! The other fellow. If you have been a loser how different the light in the heavens; it is lurid, sickening, sorry-laden and altogether distasteful. Your thoughts are unthinkable, your words unforgivable. Of good there is none to be found in the world. Strong men weep, weak men wallow. The girls whimper. Oh, woeful day! It is an honor to catch the “first special” home and sleep soundly all the way….A few hours later the keenness of defeat’s sting has been softened somewhat. One begins to be reconciled, and murmurs something about the “old guard never surrenders but dies.” And then just before you creep into bed your room-mate places his hand on your shoulder and says with a smile of faith:--“Next year—old man—next year.”
By the way, there's an interesting documentary on PBS right now, "8: Ivy League Football and America," about the history of the league, including some good bits about audience traditions and rituals. And, of course, the Super Bowl. May the best fans win.