Richard Retyi of U-M media relations posted a nice story recently on mgoblue.com, talking about the first touchdown in Michigan football history, widely attributed to a gent named Irving K. Pond. From the piece:
The team photo features 13 handsome gentlemen with team captain Dave N. DeTar standing in the back row with his mates. The team did not have a head coach until 1891. Hand written notes on the back of the team picture read:
"All except Collins H. Johnson were in Chicago for the game with Racine College on May 30, 1879. Petit was substitute and did not get into the game. Touchdown by Pond. Field goal by DeTar."
Pond described the feat in his autobiography:
My touchdown was made towards the end of the first half and involved a long distance run to where the ball must be grounded directly behind and between the goal posts … To Avoid being tackled I was forced to mount the bleachers and run eastward along them until I was opposite the goal when I stopped suddenly and — fearing that a touchdown in the bleachers would not count– jumped over the heads of my pursuers to the ground."
You’ve got a few sources claiming that Pond scored the first Michigan touchdown that’s certainly the accepted history. The ‘DeTar’ who made the kick in the description above is David DeTar, captain of the ’79 squad.
Fast forward to early last year. In January I was researching the history of the 100th anniversary of Michigan Football (in 1879-1979) for this mgo-guest post for Brian in 2009. While digging around at the Bentley Library, I came across a transcript of an article published in the Racine Advocate describing the first game, and its only score, much differently.
From a June 7, 1879 report that described the 1-0 Michigan victory, titled "RUGBY FOOT BALL – RACINE COLLEGE VS MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY":
Our Club [Racine] won the first "kick-off" and Mr. Parker sent the leather covered oval high in air and far over the field. There was a burst of applause from the grand stand which stilled as Campbell of the Michigan caught the ball, and at high speed rushed with it toward Racine’s goal. From this time on our boys had the worst of it…
This article even described the injuries (in the first period Racine had a man with a "nose bleed" and another with a sprained ankle). Despite the Michigan dominance the game was scoreless. They took a 15 minute break and then resumed. Here’s how they described the only tally of the game:
In the second struggle the goals were reversed, and the same tactics were employed as before, the Ann Arbor Club on the offensive and our boys simply endeavored to defend their goal. Mr. Chase made an excellent catch from a Racine kick, placed the ball directly in front of the Purple’s goal and Mr. D Tarr [sic] kicked the oval ball high and clean over our goal just as time was called. This ended the game in favor of Michigan…
I wrestled with this type of scenario when researching the Little Brown Jug. You’ve got an accepted version of the history, with a lot of people through time repeating that version, but some other accounts (and witnesses) that contradict or at least alter the events in the accepted story. But this is interesting—you have the Racine paper describing the score as a kick that broke a scoreless tie at the very end of the game, with Pond not even mentioned. Pond of course later his heroic and historic TD great detail, occurring "towards the end of the first half."
If his run were indeed that spectacular, you think it would have found a place amongst the descriptions of nose bleeds, high kicks, and excellent catches in the Advocate. Heck, Pond might have knocked the sportswriter over during his scamper down the bleachers.
It’s tough to say what to believe in this case. The Bentley Library has the score of the game 1-0, implying a mere kick settled the game. I couldn’t find a definitive guide to how score was kept back then and I’m not sure these teams would be following a standard set in the East. This said, there was a focus on kicking back then and a precedence for ignoring touchdowns and only counting kicks, as described in this recap of the early days of Harvard-Yale Football from the period:
Harvard bowed to Eugene Baker’s request to play only eleven men on a side and to ignore touchdowns in the scoring. Sure enough, Harvard pushed over three touchdowns but missed all the following goal attempts. Yale made a single successful kick to win the game, 1-0
It’s tough to say. I do know that over time there’s something to say for the accepted version of the history, but often the commonly understood story that endures is the one preferred and delivered by ‘the victor’. Given Pond’s success in his career (designer of the several college Unions including U-M, and a life worthy of a published autobiography) and his willingness to talk about it, it’s not a surprise that his version survived and hasn’t been seriously disputed. On top of that, you can imagine that the athletic department is reluctant to rewrite history after a nice story has been established. How much luck do you think I’ll have with the athletic department when I show the true origins of the Little Brown Jug rivalry?
Postscript: If they indeed did not score in that 1879 game, the first touchdown would have occurred in 1880 in that season’s only game—a 13-6 victory against Toronto played in Canada!
Want more? Check out MGoShoe’s excellent post on Pond here.