Part of CU's first football team sitting on the steps in front of Old Main

About half of CU's first 21-member football team is shown sitting on the steps of Old Main. This photograph documented the new uniforms when they finally arrived in Feb. 1891. Back row left to right: Melvin Rust, Bert Kennedy (ex1895), John C. Nixon (A&S1901, Law1902) (captain). Middle: Edwin J. Ingram (A&S1893, Law1895). Front row: Patrick F. Carney (Law1896), Harry P. Layton (A&S1895), Ernest F. Garrison (ex1894), Charles E. McConnell, Alexander Durward (ex1893), George S. Darley (A&S1893), Wesley W. Putnam (A&S1893). Heritage Center, Alumni Magazine Collection, Colorado Alumnus, May 1929.

In the early 1880s, students were beginning to push for more physical activities, a gymnasium and organized sports on campus. So when English medical student, William Hosford (MD1890), introduced English football, or soccer, to his fellow roommates in 1889, there was a lot of interest. The men created a team, Hosford eagerly ordered flannel uniforms, and they played a few casual local games. Unfortunately, securing games in the fall of 1890 dissolved when there were no other soccer teams to compete against at the collegiate level. The newly formed campus Athletic Association decided to switch to American football, or rugby, at the late date of Oct. 31. This sudden switch created a big problem. Nine of the eleven players on this first team had never played football, let alone seen a game played. This rag-tag group of four Prep School students, five University sophomores, and two future doctors, aged 16 to 29, faced a challenging start to their first four-game season in “the maim-’em-and-kill-’em-era” of early football.
 
With Charles Edmundson (MD1891) selected as team captain, CU gained entry into the state's Athletic Association, at the time composed only of the State School of Mines, the Denver Athletic Club and the Colorado Springs Athletic Association. The Association agreed to a schedule for the four teams. With two weeks before their first game against the Denver Athletic Club, an aggressive practice schedule began. Once the men committed to playing rugby-style football, John Nixon (A&S1901, Law1902), the team's second captain, realized that their flannel soccer uniforms were too light-weight for the rough game and petitioned President Horace Hale to purchase new uniforms. Hale donated $100 ($2,850 in 2020) of his own money for the cause, but the new suits arrived too late for any first-season games.
 

Since they had no coach to guide them, Nixon scoured articles from as many issues of The Youth's Companion as he could find to study the diagrams, rules, and plays developed by Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football.” Of the Boulder townspeople who watched the practices, two or three men who had previously watched football did their best to coach the students. Years later, in an honest assessment of their first year, Edwin Ingram (A&S1893; Law1895), remarked that the rookie team knew “no more about football than a jackrabbit.”

Drawing of men playing football

Making an opening. Walter Camp Book of College Sports, 1893.

Game 1: CU vs. Denver Athletic Club, Nov. 15, 1890

Saturday, Nov. 15, came rapidly. The greenhorn CU team traveled down to 16th and Detroit streets in Denver and lined up against the Denver Athletic Club at their new Athletic Park, part of East High School’s field today. Donning their light-weight flannel uniforms, no helmets and weighing an average of 140 pounds, the CU contenders were learning the game on the fly as they faced a much more experienced Denver team. Graduates from eastern colleges had played rugby for years, and stars from some of those colleges helped shape a skilled Denver Athletic Club squad.  

About 300 spectators endured the chilly mid-November day to see how well the CU team would play after only two weeks of practice. The Rocky Mountain News reported that “in five minutes the Denver boys had rushed the ball into the university's territory and made a touchdown, but the kick for goal failed,” a quick score of 4-0. Early rules stated a touchdown, but a failed field goal earned 4 points, and a touchdown with a successfully kicked goal was 6 points. With no official coach and little opportunity to plan a team strategy, each CU player took his own approach to how to play his position. Verbal cues would have been easy for the opposing team to decipher when “rush hard, boys,” meant a play to the right, and “all together, boys,” indicated a play to the left. By the end of the first half, Denver totaled three touchdowns and a goal, making it 14-0.

The second half started better for CU. They learned quickly and were putting up a good fight against the continued rushes from the Denver team. But a significant knee injury suffered by Captain Charles Edmundson took the steam out of Boulder's improvements. The Rocky Mountain News reporter was kind and still gave CU solid marks stating, “they played a good up-hill game and deserve credit for keeping the score so low.” The final score was 34-0, but the team lost more than just the game. Even with the addition of four substitute players, injuries for the eleven starters added up, and Edmundson’s battered knee forced him out for the rest of the season. The team chose John Nixon to fill the leadership role of captain.

With quite a few men injured in the D.A.C. game, it forced the players to find new teammates. Rules for who could play on athletic teams were non-existent at the time, so Preparatory School students played alongside University students on the CU teams. It was quite common for schools to bring in someone unaffiliated with the institution when a team was a man or two short due to injuries. For the CU squad, they looked to the pool of current students and other friends. They even enlisted Melvin Rust, a former Prep School student who dropped out two years prior.

As recruiting new players continued, volunteers worked preparing a proper football field for the first home game against the State School of Mines. They cleared a 160- by 330-foot area by hand and hauled away rocks creating a groomed but hard-packed field. John Nixon and two teammates, Wesley Putnam (A&S1893) and Delos Holden (A&S1893), borrowed the university’s horse team and wagon for a mountain trip to cut the timber for the first goal posts. Roughly trimmed with axes, the players simply nailed the crossbars to the upright posts.

Football game outline sketch

The field. Walter Camp American Football, 1891.

Game 2: CU vs. State School of Mines, Nov. 22, 1890

With six new players to choose from, four were on the roster for the next game. After the challenging game against D.A.C. and getting new teammates up to speed, they had a tough battle ahead as they faced the School of Mines, the strongest team in the region. The Golden team traveled to Boulder for its first game with a large entourage of friends in tow. The Boulder News reported great weather for the game and that for a majority of the large crowd of spectators, this was their first football experience.

“The game is rough and exciting, and would have been more enjoyable if it had not been so one-sided,” a reporter from the Boulder News wrote, “it was seen from the start that the home team was no match for the visitors.” The Mines lineup was larger, stronger, and better trained, leaving the Boulder squad at a loss. Patrick Carney (Law1896) filled in for the injured Edmundson as the quarterback, but the team continued to struggle as a unit. Conrad Bluhm (A&S1895), one of the recruits, recollected that “we had a big problem, we had practiced soccer football most of the fall and didn’t know much about rugby. Basically, we had to learn the game as we played it. The score wasn’t that bad, considering those things.”

It was a painful game for Bluhm, who took such a beating during his first match that he never stepped on the field in uniform again. “Our line simply couldn't stop them,” he recalled, “they made big holes in it, and every play looked like an army was coming through those holes with nobody but me to challenge them. By the end of the game, I looked like a rolled beefsteak.” Others remembered similar dramatic moments from the stands. Harry McGinnis (A&S1895) said his “most vivid memory of the game is a picture of Conrad Bluhm...standing back of the line with blood streaming from his chin, exhorting the team in a prayerful manner to hold the line.”

Despite the crushing 103-0 loss to Mines, the Boulder News gave the fledgling CU Varsity high marks for “fine individual playing,” and showing “their grit, there was no letting down, and they played the last part of the game better than the first.” While physically recovering and preparing for their next game, they took lessons about strategy from this scrimmage. This game also cemented the beginning of a heated rivalry between these two schools that would last for decades.

Football play diagram

Play diagrams. Walter Camp Book of College Sports, 1893.

Game 3: CU vs. Colorado Springs Athletic Association, Nov. 29, 1890

With each game, the young team gained valuable experience and improved. At Thanksgiving, the squad traveled to Colorado Springs to take on the Athletic Association team and battled better than expected. Despite the uproar created by local college students loudly blowing horns as an insult to the visiting team, this was the first time CU succeeded in significantly advancing the ball down the field.

Boulder made occasional headway using the “wedge” or “V” play. A common approach by many teams, but CU never gained much yardage. With this offensive tactic, “the flying wedge thundered down the field with the ball carrier hidden inside it.” John Nixon describes that “the only way to stop it was to have a couple of men throw themselves in front of it to trip up the leaders, pile them up, and then trust someone to get the ball carrier.” Sometimes too many players piled on top, dangerously forcing air out of a player’s lungs slowly by pressure, rather than knocking the air out by a hit. Early rules allowed a first down if the ball advanced five yards, but CU’s ground game against C.S.A.A. wasn’t successful. They often only moved a few yards via the wedge, handing the ball to the Springs after the fourth down. Most of CU’s headway came returning punts, including a long run by Melvin Rust to the Springs’ 15-yard line. Rust’s sprint rallied the team, but Boulder never managed to get past the goal line.

Even with CU’s 44-0 loss against the Colorado Springs Athletic Association, a Weekly Gazette reporter gave CU's Varsity team praise. They refused to give up, give in, and they “played hard and earnestly up to the last and made the home team work for every point.”

Sketch of football players

Running around the end and touch-down. Walter Camp Book of College Sports, 1893.

Game 4: CU vs. State School of Mines, Dec. 13, 1890

During the two weeks before their second game against the School of Mines in Golden, the CU squad devoted intense and systematic practice to teamwork and tackling. With three challenging games under their belt and continuing with demanding workouts, the results against Golden proved that the Varsity team had a better grasp on the game of football.

In this match, CU’s improved skills gave Mines a run for their money. They challenged every yard and made Golden earn every touchdown. Tackling was much improved, and they gained ground on offense by breaking through the Golden line. The biggest thrill of the day was when George Darley (A&S1893) picked up a fumble after a Mines halfback was tackled and ran 65 yards down a clear field for a touchdown. In later years, the players involved couldn’t recall the exact details of how the events happened. No one was quite sure whether Darley pulled the ball away, it flew up in the air, or someone knocked it out of the Mines player’s arms and straight into Darley’s.

No matter the circumstances of how the touchdown happened and despite the 50-4 loss against Mines, CU had an exceptionally memorable day. Professor of Greek, Maurice Dunham, hailed Darley as CU’s star player by presenting him with a “flaming red handkerchief” for scoring the goal. Captain John Nixon most likely summed up the experience for all who witnessed the first touchdown CU ever made, recalling ‘that was the biggest thrill I ever got out of the game, to see one of our players cross the Mines goal line.’

One more game against Colorado Springs was on the roster but got canceled, allowing the season to close on an exciting high note. The 21 men who faced uncertainty and endured playing the first football at CU forged great excitement for the game and proved to their classmates, campus and community that they had a stable team to build on for the years to come. Eight players from the 1890 team returned the following year. With six new players added to the veteran crew, the 1891 team had high hopes for a great second season, one where they would finally see their first win.

1891 CU football team

1891 team standing left to right: Howell Givens, Patrick F. Carney (Law1896) (captain), Bert Kennedy (ex1895), Henry “Harry” Gamble (Law1897), Wesley Putnam (A&S1893), Ed Newcomb (ex1896), Jim Garrett, Conrad Bluhm (A&S1895). Center: CU president Horace Hale. Sitting: Homer James (MD1892), Bill McIntosh (A&S1894), Vivian Pennock (MD1894), Clarence Perry (ex1895), Charles Easley (A&S1897), Harry Layton (A&S1895). Heritage Center, Paddock Family Collection.

Player Biographies

Go to our CU’s First Football Team gallery, explore the map and learn more about the lives of these 21 players. We used various sources to develop these biographies, so please contact us if you have any questions. If you know more about any of these individuals or are related to them, please reach out to the Heritage Center’s Chief Curiosity Correspondent and help us fill in the gaps!

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Sources:
Periodicals

“What Was–What Should Be,” University Portfolio, v. 1 n. 3 (Apr 1880).

“Boulder Is Beaten. The Denver Athletic Club Foot Ball Team Defeats the Boulder University Eleven,” Rocky Mountain News, 16 Nov 1890.

“Football. The State School of Mines Walk All Over the University Team,” Boulder News, 27 Nov 1890.

“Foot Ball,” The Weekly Gazette (Colorado Springs), 6 Dec 1890.

Boulder News, 18 Dec 1890.

“Foot Ball History,” Silver & Gold, 19 Dec 1895.

“A Decade of Football,” Silver and Gold, 17 Dec 1901.

Bill Braddock, “First Football Star,” Colorado Alumnus, v. 20, n. 5 (Jan 1930).

“Darley Ran Field’s Length in Scoring University’s First Touchdown,” Colorado Alumnus, v. 20 n. 7 (Mar 1930).

“50 Years Haven't Improved Baseball,” Colorado Alumnus, v. 23 n. 1 (Oct 1932).

“Big Moments in Lives of Football Vets,” Greeley Daily Tribune, 25 Nov 1932.

Harry McGinnis, “Days of Old When Football Began,” Colorado Alumnus, v. 39, n. 3 (Nov 1948).

Books

Camp, Walter. American Football with Thirty-One Portraits. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.

Camp, Walter. Walter Camp’s Book of College Sports. New York: The Century Co., 1893.

Casotti, Fred. The Golden Buffaloes Colorado Football. Huntsville, AL: Strode Publishing, 1980.

Catalogue of the University of Colorado. Various years between 1883-1891 created by various publishers in Boulder and Denver, CO.

General Catalog of the Officers and Graduates of the University of Colorado 1877-1910. Boulder, CO: The Boulder Publishing Company. 1911.

Horner, John W. Colorado University: The Austere Years (The Story of Its First Quarter-Century). Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, 2004.