Princeton vs. Rutgers, 1869 -- the first college football game in history.









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1922: The team of destiny
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
"Football is 90 percent fight," Princeton coach Bill Roper once said, and he molded his teams by this ideal of guts and glory, smash-mouth spirit.

Knute Rockne may have asked his Notre Dame boys to win one for the Gipper in maudlin Hollywood style, but Roper was the man you wanted for a truly fierce pep talk - the type of profanity-laced rhetoric that left your eyes glowing red and made you want to get out there and pound the enemy into the dust.

The night of Oct. 25, 1922 was a time for Roper-style inspiration. His moderately talented boys were about to hit the road for the toughest game of their season in Chicago. It was a contest of undefeateds, but the big, burly undefeated team from the University of Chicago looked like it could overpower the small, scrappy undefeated team from Princeton, and no one outside the ivy-covered walls of Old Nassau seemed to think the Tigers had a chance.

Roper told them they would win. They had to win. This was, he said, not merely a game, but a crusade to uphold the honor and the tradition of the East.

In his long talk, however, there were two things Roper did not tell his team. He did not tell them that if they beat Chicago, they had a chance to become that year's national champions of the gridiron, nor did he tell them they could earn a place in history as the original "team of destiny."

But then, perhaps Roper himself could never have foreseen the greatness that his team would achieve.

The Tiger eleven of 1922 had a noble heritage to live up to, considering that college football itself began with Princeton. The first intercollegiate football game took place Nov. 6, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton. Rutgers won, 6-4, in a contest that closely resembled soccer.

By the 1870s, Princeton - working in tandem and in competition with the other "Big Three" Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale - would develop many of the features that made football into American football.

The schools began carrying the ball instead of kicking it, using a system of four downs and recruiting tough, brawny guys to plow through opposing lines.

Princeton's players early on earned the nickname "Tigers" for their orange-and-black uniforms. They also developed a crazed fan following who invented the first football cheer: "Sis! Boom! Bah!"

Odd as it may sound today, the Ivy League brand of football was not clever at all - it was just a lot of collisions and head-on, brute force. That changed in 1906, when growing revulsion over football violence prompted a rules committee to institute the forward pass. More than anything else, the passing game turned football into a game of speed, deception, intelligence and dexterity.

Princeton excelled in the new brand of football, and a new breed of athletic hero was born - the handsome, rugged but chivalrous fellow typified by Hobey Baker or Sam White. It was upon watching White score a touchdown to beat Harvard in 1913 that the teen-aged F. Scott Fitzgerald, a future Princeton alumnus, would write, "Sam White decides me for Princeton."

Johnny Poe '00, the grandnephew of Edgar Allan Poe, coined the slogan that inspired future squads: "The team that won't be beat, can't be beat." It was a message that stayed in the mind of his teammate on end, Bill Roper.

Roper, hired as Princeton's head football coach in 1919, was a bright and successful man outside of sport. He was a lawyer, an insurance man, and a Philadelphia city councilman.

But he treated football as more a matter of morale and pep than a strategic contest.

He had no playbook, no set of tactics; instead, he would let his players think for themselves. Occasionally, he would dictate a play - if some other team had used it in the game before to beat Princeton.

"There was no rhyme or reason about (the plays)," recalled one Roper player, Ted Drews, in a '60s interview, "and none was keyed to any other play."

This haphazard approach to the game actually worked, since Princeton constantly kept the other team guessing. No one could believe that a punt returner would lateral the ball to
a teammate to begin the game or that a defensive player would try to snatch up a fumble and run with it instead of diving atop the ball. Yet the Tigers played just that sort of risk-filled game.

Roper's colorfully furious speeches seemed to help, too. "Don't be so inde-goddamn-pendent," he would say, to encourage team spirit, and he used a lot stronger cuss words.

Still, each speech was less a tongue-lashing than an encouragement to do better.

Princeton entered 1922 with a squad depleted of all its senior stars and featuring only three returning starters, end Whoops Snively, tackle Pink Baker and the team's best back, speedy
Jack Cleaves. The average size of the starting 11 was 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. The quarterback was the agile Gorman - 5-foot-7, 154 pounds.

Even for that era, this was a small team. Sportswriters picked them to finish last among the Big Three. But, playing their daring, tough brand of ball, they shut out four teams in a row -- Johns Hopkins, Virginia, Colgate and Maryland - and suddenly they were a steamroller. "In economy of efforts and results, they are the 'hitless wonders' of football," the New York Times reported.

But now Princeton had to face its toughest schedule test: Chicago. The Chicago Maroons were coached by the most revered man in the sport, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and featured one of the game's best runners, John Thomas. They had come east to Princeton the previous year and whipped the Tigers soundly, and the rematch aroused intense interest. All 32,000 seats in Stagg Stadium were sold out.

For the first time in history, a team from the East would make a road trip to the west. Also for the first time, a radio station - Newark's WOR - would broadcast a football game.

The contest took place Oct. 28, and Thomas threatened to dominate, scoring two touchdowns in the first half. However, the Chicago kicking game was terrible -- it missed one extra-point kick and had another blocked -- and Snively, on an option, fired a 33-yard pass that set up a touchdown
run by Cleaves. At the half, it was Chicago, 12; Princeton, 7.

Late in the third quarter, Thomas crossed the goal line again, making the score 18-7. Chicago missed the extra point again, too, but it hardly seemed to matter, once Princeton turned the ball over on the kickoff return.

But on their next possession, the Maroons lost the ball, too. Princeton's Howdy Gray scooped it up and ran 40 yards into the end zone.

Gray's dad, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad, wildly waved his program and clobbered a woman in the shoulder.

"Hey, that's my wife," a man shouted at him. "Sorry," the excited father said, "but that was my boy who scored."

"Oh," the husband said. "Hit her again."

Another possession later, Princeton battered its way all the way to the Chicago one-yard line. On fourth down, Harry Crum was brought off the bench to make the touchdown plunge.

There was a pileup, a ref searching for the ball, and a signal - touchdown. Princeton went up, 21-18.

Chicago had another chance to win the game after it carried the ball to the Tiger one-yard line on fourth down. The Maroons lined up, shifted and handed the ball to John Thomas, scorer of three touchdowns already in this game. Pink Baker dived into the backfield and dropped him for a
two-yard loss. The game was over.

In the press box, America's most famous sportswriter, Grantland Rice, was already composing his lead. "The team of destiny," he called Princeton.

The rest of the season was, in fact, seemingly scripted by fate.

Princeton beat Harvard, then took on archrival Yale at Palmer Stadium for what would be its first Big Three title since 1911. The final score was 3-0, Princeton, and the Tigers had their perfect season of eight wins, no losses.

There was no bowl game or wire-service poll, but Princeton was the consensus national champion. It was the last football championships ever for an Ivy League club.

In the future, big Midwestern universities would overturn the sports dominance of elite, prestigious universities from the East. In the '60s, Princeton accepted a demotion into Division I-AA.

The last survivor on the '22 Tigers, lineman Don Griffin, revealed to an interviewer in 1991 that Princeton survived its Chicago goal-line stand simply because the opponents couldn't hear any signals over the roaring crowd. "We took credit for stopping them, but the truth is their plays were messed up," Griffin said.

So the Team of Destiny was also a team that got lucky. But no one's ever going to take that perfect record away from them.