Rutgers is the birthplace of college football (1). Street clothes clad students from Princeton showed up there November 6, 1869, responding to letters from Rutgers students challenging them to a game of football (2). A series of “games” were played, a victor declared with the first score. The scarlet turbans and handkerchiefs the Rutgers players wore to distinguish them from the Princetonians gave birth to “Scarlet Knights”. Princeton won this series 12-6 and was declared National Champion of 1869. Princeton proved to be quite the powerhouse in those early days, amassing 22 national championships (compared to Michigan’s meager 11), 10 conference titles (Ivy), and a Heisman trophy winner (Dick Kazmeier, halfback & QB, 1951). But Rutgers forever retains the title of where college football began. The game was played on the New Brunswick campus, across the Raritan River from the spiffy 52,454 seat SHI Stadium in Piscataway where the Scarlet Knights play now. End zones there are emblazoned with “birthplace of college football” but it didn’t happen there. It happened on College Avenue, now the site of College Avenue Gymnasium. A beautiful 8’ memorial has stood there since 1997, sculpted by Thomas Jay Warren.
By the way, Michigan didn’t get started till almost a decade later, when it met the Purple Stockings of Racine College on the playing grounds of the Chicago White Stockings by the shores of Lake Michigan May 30, 1879
The statue isn’t quite accurate, as the ball used in that first game was round and the London Rules followed prohibited carrying the ball. But it sure looks nice and is part of a new tradition called the “Scarlet Walk” where each player touches the statue en route to the stadium.
Although Jim Harbaugh is a student of history, I don’t think he was daunted by that 19th century stuff. Rutgers has tried to claw its way to big time football relevance. In November 2011, Rutgers left the Big East to join the Big 10, joining Maryland who left the ACC and Nebraska that left the Big-8 to do the same the previous year. It was part of Commissioner Jim Delaney’s effort to bring east coast markets into the Big 10 network. Purists like me complained about the Big 10 expanding past its Midwest origins, but $$ spoke. What it meant initially was all those U of M alums in NYC could take a short train ride down to New Brunswick to see their Wolverines in a road game. This didn’t go so well initially, as on 10/4/14, the Scarlet Knights beat a bad Brady Hoke team 26-24 to mark their first ever Big 10 win. Two years later a Harbaugh team returned to trounce them 78-0, and the relationship has been pretty one sided ever since. Rutgers hero Greg Schiano returned to coach from his NFL dalliance in 2020 and is as good a fit for Rutgers as Jim is for Michigan. I expect he will return Rutgers to respectability, if not greatness.
So, it was into all this we waded as we planned our annual road game. Over the years we’ve been to Columbus, Bloomington, Madison, Evanston, and Happy Valley. I went to West Lafayette decades ago with my dad. The experience is always fun: seeing the campus, negotiating the bars, mingling with the opposition. This year, Rutgers seemed like a good target. Easy flight from DTW and trains from Newark to New Brunswick. We’d learn from our AirBnB host that Uber was a much better deal.
The ride from EWR only reinforced what we’d thought about New Jersey, with gas storage tanks and chemical refineries as far as the eye could see. But as we came towards New Brunswick, the scene changed, with leafy trees, running water, and green everywhere. Our AirBnB was on a dead-end street, a house with a garage with a suite in the back just for us. Treks anywhere started across the back yard, though a gate, and onto a park. It was a mile or more to any civilization (bars, restaurants, stores) but always worth the walk.
But we were here for a football game, so what about that? Easy-peasy as it turned out. A walk across the Delaware canal then the Raritan River, a left and we’re there! Kathy took a reqqi in the early afternoon and ran into some Michigan folks from Ludington who invited us to their tailgate. The path to the stadium went through a park populated by tailgaters paying the $40 fee (can’t buy a parking space in AA for that!). Across from the Ludington folks were some Scarlet and Gray fans who were most magnanimous. They plied Kathy with peanut butter whiskey shots which I eschewed.
The stadium was a hop skip and jump from there. Rutgers played football on their New Brunswick campus until moving to this site in 1938. Works Progress Administration helped build the original, but it was torn down and a new one built atop of it in 1994, expanded in 2008 for $208 million, holding 52,454. Naming rights to defray cost of the structure included a sale to High Point Solutions (2011-18) then as of 7/19/19 SHI (“Software House International”) International Corp. Approaching the north entrance of the stadium from Johnson Park, the main tailgating area, actually found us at the back door. Here is where all the big trucks suppling the teams pull in. Still a pretty impressive face.
I told Kathy about SHI, basically a technology company. We wondered to each other if their full name had ever been “SHI Technologies”, generating an acronym Rutgers might not have wanted on its stadium. Because it’s the back entrance, those steps leading to the doors are only the beginning. Once in, to right and left are 3 flights of concrete stairs, not a defibrillator in site. The scenery on the ascent is pure concrete, maybe accentuating the eyeful once you exit on the top level.
We were very early, so had lots of time to explore. Turning right for a counterclockwise tour of the bowl, we came on the first of many beer stands. $14 got us 2 25 oz cans of cold Goose Island IPA. Food stands were ample, too, including one run by cuties from the Farleigh-Dickinson U woman’s softball team. There didn’t seem to be a bad seat in the place. Our seats in section 106 were in row 25, about halfway up, with a good straight on view of the 35-yard line. Behind us I found a beer cart vending “Tom Brady’s nightmare”, a New England Crusher, double IPA, 10% alcohol(!) made by 902 Brewing in Jersey City. I had two of those, but I still remember the game!
Most of those filing in after us were in blue, not red. In Michigan Stadium, the visitors sit in a couple rows at the top of the bowl in the end zone. The first folks to file onto the field were the Michigan coaches. We got to watch Denard Robinson trade 35-yard spirals with Milan Bolen-Morris, our female graduate assistant, who sported a hairstyle similar to Denard’s. One thing that can make pre games at Michigan a little unpleasant is the “music” that blares from the scoreboard. We employ a DJ to run it, and his choices are almost completely hard on hip-hop. The students apparently love it. My opinions clearly put me in the old fogey column. Rutgers plays lively music, too, but their scoreboard can’t achieve the same decibels, and the music is modern pop, no hip-hop.
Rutgers employs a number of devices to keep its fans stirred up. Most notable is the ancient cannon, reportedly with links to the revolutionary war, that sits to the west side of the south end zone. It is tended by a suitably clad crew, who will fire it at least 5 times every game: three before the opening kickoff, one at halftime and one at game’s end. But the cannon is also set off after every Rutgers score — even points after touchdowns. It’s very loud, shoots a long plume and plenty of smoke.
It’s been a part of Rutgers football since 1949, when the class of ’49 bought the cannon to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first collegiate football game (3). As Manhattan brewery heir Henry Rutgers was a colonel in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution, it is only fitting his school has a Revolutionary War cannon. Critics say Knights didn’t use cannons. Killjoys.
The blast of that cannon will be the loudest thing you’ll hear at SHI, but close behind is that damned train whistle (train horn, actually). They blow it every time the opponent faces a 3rd down or 4th down conversion attempt. Almost always, it’s followed by a blast of music from the scoreboard. Takes the pressure off the fans to drown out the opponent’s signals with their yelling.
Tho’ the blast is only a secondary feature, fireworks are a big deal at SHI, shot off from either side of either scoreboard, in unison. These aren’t ooh-ahh 4th of July Fireworks, just basically industrial Roman candles shooting colored balls in the air. They’re a big part of the pre-game, preceding every introduction. There was so much smoke on the field Saturday the first 2 minutes of the first quarter were played in fog. Of course, they get shot off when the Scarlet Knights do something good on the field, so the smoke rarely becomes a problem during the game.
Generating no noise, but still altering senses, are the light guys. They like to play with the light switch at SHI, bringing dark so they can bring us light.
All this was on display as we experienced the pre-game ceremonies. Probably the most exciting part of the evening, not counting the band’s half time show. Helping matters was that this was their Veteran’s Day tribute. Sincere accolades abounded and were much appreciated. Also contributing to our enjoyment was the excellent weather, mid 60s and clear at gametime. Pretty good for early November when we’re usually looking at old man winter over our shoulder. The band got a shot and sounded great, leaving us eager for more. Then comes the buildup for the team entrance. Starting players had already been introduced on the scoreboard, complete with accentuations. Then came the entry of the Scarlet Knight himself. We use our billboard at Michigan Stadium to show James Earl Jones extolling the virtues of U of M (“the best University in the world!”). Rutgers shows the Knight, clad in all red armor riding a white steed, getting ready to ride to the stadium. Pretty soon, he’s here! At the same Northeast entry where the players will later enter. Galloping on the field, he’s here! Time for cannon and more fireworks. Then somehow, he disappears, and the lights go dark. The cannon, horn, fireworks, and lights go off, and the players stream in. As I watched it, I couldn’t help thinking of a human ejaculation. I told Kathy only one would reach his ultimate goal. Since the Knights scored but one offensive touchdown that evening, perhaps the analogy was apt.
The game had to begin, and we took it down the field like we owned them. I won’t get all sports reporter here. The final score was 52-17 and wasn’t as close as that. The Knights managed to be up 3 at halftime, but that was from 2 fluke plays and 2 missed 50-yard field goals by our Lou Groza award kicker.
Halftime brought out the Knights’ excellent marching band. A tease that something truly strange and wonderful might happen came in the 2nd quarter as they trotted out 7 xylophones to the sidelines. Yes, these were malleted upon during the halftime show, but nobody marched with them! The whole show was nothing but patriotic marches, truly outstanding. I wish John Pasquale (Michigan Marching Band director) would take notice.
With the brutal pounding that characterized the second half, fans began to trickle out, finally with a torrent up the aisles between 3rd and 4th quarters. Surprisingly, many wore blue. You’d think for the money they paid to be here they might stick around. Maybe some had trains to catch back to NYC. We stayed to the end, enjoying seeing our second string score a touchdown. We joined our remaining blue seatmates in a rousing chorus of The Victors, then headed to the exits as we heard news of defeats of Clemson and Alabama. All we missed was hearing the lamentations of their women.
The nearly full moon and the lights guided us back, across Johnson Park and over the river and canal and it was home for a long Jersey snooze, complete with that added hour.
The next morning, in the Delta lounge at EWR, I saw hanging on the wall two portraits: Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, New Jersey’s iconic crooners. But the singer with the best take on New Jersey is another New Jersey boy who left for Pennsylvania (4).
To bring this all back to Michigan, that song will play over the closing credits of the movie about Niles’ Tommy James (remember those Shondells?) “Me, the Mob, and Music” (5), if it ever gets made.
1. Broback J. Where is the birthplace of college football? gfProFootball 9/2/22. https://www.profootballnetwork.com/birthplace-of-college-football/
2. 1869 Princeton vs. Rutgers football game. Wikipedia 11/2/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1869_Princeton_vs._Rutgers_football_game
3. Tracy M. Demanding Liberty or Death, or Maybe a Touchdown. New York Times 9/20/14. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/21/sports/ncaafootball/rutgerss-celebratory-cannon-has-link-to-revolutionary
4. Folk Alley Sessions – John Gorka, “I’m from New Jersey”. YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yV4ikfCKaW0
5. McNary B. Tommy James Biopic ‘Me, the Mob and the Music’ in Development (EXCLUSIVE). Variety 7/18/19. https://variety.com/2019/film/news/tommy-james-biopic-me-the-mob-and-the-music-development-1203271345/