Football Kicks Off Again, 129 Years Later

August 25, 2017

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

Buried in the text on the fourth page of the Saturday, October 27, 1888, Detroit Free Press is a single, concise sentence bearing a minimum amount of detail.

“The Windsor foot ball team will play the Detroit High School team this afternoon at 3.”

To date, this is the earliest account of a Michigan high school playing the game of “foot ball.”

The following day’s paper provides only a few more details. The game was played on the Windsor Cricket Grounds. Despite the great disadvantage of playing under “American Football rules … quite different from the Canadian Rugby Union rules …” the “older and larger” Windsors won the contest, 12-6. Rosters for each squad were provided.

Under American rules of the time, a touchdown was worth four points, with a conversion kick following a touchdown worth two additional points. At the time, a field goal counted for five points and a safety was worth two. The teams, however, may have agreed to a different scoring system before the contest.

Was this the first football game for a Michigan high school? That’s unlikely, but it is certainly among the earliest published accounts involving a prep game in the state. 

It’s a fair assumption that foot ball, or some version of the game, was being played in neighborhoods before that time, at least based on the following statement found in the Jackson Citizen Patriot, dated June 18, 1867.  Only days before, Dorrance & Goodwin’s, a store on Main Street in Jackson, had placed advertisements in the newspaper’s classifieds noting the pending arrival of this new product.

“Foot Ball – The pastime was inaugurated on our streets yesterday. Three or four balls were kept in motion all day on Main street alone. It affords no little amusement to the little boys, and is certainly a healthy exercise for the larger ones. It’s all right as long as no windows are broken or horses scared. Both calamities were barely escaped scores of times during the day.”

Rutgers and Princeton are credited with playing the first college football game in 1869. A decade later, in 1879, the University of Michigan established a football team.

Detroit High School played a number of games in 1888, besides the Windsor match, including a contest with the Tappen School from the Corktown area of Detroit. Played at the Detroit Athletic Club grounds on the afternoon of Thursday November 15, a final score was not mentioned in the following day’s Free Press.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, an account of the University of Michigan versus Detroit Athletic Club contest that appeared in the November 18 Free Press served as a fine introduction to the game, and the determination behind securing “possession of a leather-covered foot ball.”

“It was very interesting to see one speedy young man, after a desperate struggle in which the spectators fully expected to see him lose an arm or a leg, get away from his captors and start like a deer, with eight or ten of the opposite side in full pursuit. He is overtaken and the leader of the pursuing party springs upon the back of the man with the inflated trophy, bearing him to the ground with a dull thud … It is also an inspiring sight to see a fleet-footed player seize the ball and run at full speed in the direction of the goal of his opponents. Then a wing-footed opponent cuts across to intercept him, makes a flying leap, grasps the fugitive around the neck or waist and both go to grass with a suddenness and velocity that transforms them into human wheels …

“While one unaccustomed to  foot ball will naturally be startled by some of the acrobatic feats, still it is impossible to watch the game for any length of time without a tingling of the blood and holding of the breath. It is most intensely exciting, continuous in action and replete with fine points of play.

“It may be explained that the goals in a foot ball game are set at a distance of 330 feet from each other. The goal is made by placing two pieces of scantling twenty feet long upright in the ground, eighteen and one-half feet apart. Another piece runs midway horizontally between the uprights, and the ball must go over the horizontal piece and between the uprights to count a goal. There are eleven men on each side and the object is, of course, to get the ball through the goal of the other. The time of game is an hour and a half each side playing forty-five minutes from each goal, with an intermission of ten minutes between halves.”

A player who ran over an opponent’s goal line, “with the ball and touched it down” was then entitled to “bring the ball in front of the goal and attempt to kick it through”…

Among those playing for the Athletic Club squad that day was “little Hugh Brooks (captain) of the high school team.” Eligibility rules for players would evolve over time.

On Saturday, November 24, Detroit High School squared off for the first of two contests with Ann Arbor High School, this one at the Detroit Athletic Club grounds. Admission to the 2:45 p.m. contests was 25 cents. A crowd of around 300 watched “an exciting illustration of how Rugby foot ball is played. The exhibition by the Ann Arbor boys was considerably better than that of the Detroiters,” noted the Free Press, “the result of that being that Detroit’s banners have been kicked into the dust.”

Ann Arbor returned home with a 12-0 victory.

A second game with Ann Arbor was quickly scheduled.

In between, on Thursday, November 29, the Detroit High School squad played the Athletic Club before a crowd of about 200.

“While the Athletics won by 12 to 0, still their playing was very loose, probably the result of over confidence.   The Athletics will have to rid themselves of this by Saturday or the Albions will make short work of them.”

A large crowd gathered in the drizzling rain in Ann Arbor on Saturday, December 8, for what appears to be the final contest of the 1888 season for the high school teams of Detroit and Ann Arbor.

“It was a fine game. (Captain) Brooks, McGraw and Wisner, for Detroit, and Jewett, Diggert, Dupont, and Rathbone for Ann Arbor, made fine plays for their respective sides.” The result was an 8 to 2 win, and redemption, for the Detroit squad.

Today, 129 years later, “football” has seen wild expansion, numerous rule changes, and huge advancement in equipment worn when compared to those pioneer days of the sport. In 2017, more than 1 million individuals will suit up for high school teams across the United States. In Michigan alone, more than 36,000 participate in prep football.

And our state’s original programs live on. On Friday, Detroit Central opened its season with a win over Detroit Loyola. Ann Arbor High School, renamed Ann Arbor Pioneer in the late 1960s, fell in its Friday opener to Muskegon.

Welcome to another season of America’s favorite pastime.

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (Top) The Detroit Free Press included brief coverage of the first "reported" game on Oct. 28, 1888. (Middle) When Michigan’s state government moved from Detroit to Lansing in 1847, the old Capitol building was re-opened as the Detroit’s first city high school in 1863. To better accommodate Detroit’s growing population, the old two-story structure was remodeled into a four-story building, unrecognizable to most. The school served the city well until January 1893, when it burned to the ground. (Below) Erected in 1856 at the cost of $27,000, Ann Arbor High School at State and Huron (now site of the North Quad of the University of Michigan) was destroyed by fire in 1904. (Photos courtesy of Ron Pesch.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)