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.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)