Helmetta’s man in first college football game

Herbert, son-in-law of town founder, recounted unique details of 1869 game

BY JOSEPH SAPIA Correspondent

After John Warne Herbert Jr. married into the Helme snuff mill family, he became a prominent Helmetta citizen.

John Warne Herbert Jr. John Warne Herbert Jr. But 16 years before marrying Olivia Antoinette “Etta” Helme, daughter of town founder George W. Helme and Margaret Appleby Helme, he had his own prominence. One, he was from the respected Herbert family of Wickatunk in Monmouth County. And, two, he was a member of the Rutgers University football team, the one that played Princeton University in the first collegiate football game 140 years ago, this week, on Nov. 6, 1869, at College Field in New Brunswick.

Years later, according to the website www.scarletknights.com, Herbert, a member of Rutgers’ class of 1872, wrote:

“To appreciate this game to the full, you must know something of its background. The two colleges were, and still are, of course, about 20 miles apart. The rivalry between them was intense. For years, each had striven for possession of an old Revolutionary cannon, making night forays and lugging it back and forth time and again. Not long before the first football game, the canny Princetonians had settled this competition in their own favor by ignominiously sinking the gun in several feet of concrete. In addition to this, I regret to report, Princeton had beaten Rutgers in baseball by the harrowing score of 40-2. Rutgers longed for a chance to square things.”

The circa-1880's mansion that once belonged to John Warne Herbert Jr. and his wife Olivia Antoinette "Etta" Helme is the last standing of Helmetta's three Helme mansions. The circa-1880’s mansion that once belonged to John Warne Herbert Jr. and his wife Olivia Antoinette “Etta” Helme is the last standing of Helmetta’s three Helme mansions. Onward to College Field, where about 100 spectators turned out. The Rutgers team, to distinguish itself from the bare-headed Princeton team, wore scarlet scarves turbanlike. Each team had 25 players at a time on the field in a game that was more rugby-like than today’s football. A score was a “game,” with 10 games ending the match.

“Though smaller on the average, the Rutgers players, as it developed, had ample speed and fine football sense,” Herbert wrote. “Receiving the ball, our men formed a perfect interference around it and with short, skillful kicks and dribbles, drove it down the field. Taken by surprise, the Princeton men fought valiantly, but, in five minutes, we had gotten the ball through to our captains on the enemy’s goal and S.G. Gano, ’71, and G.R. Dixon, ’73, neatly kicked it over. None thought of it, so far as I know, but we had without previous plan or thought evolved the play that became famous a few years later as ‘the flying wedge.’”

Herbert recalled, “Next period Rutgers bucked, or received the ball, hoping to repeat the flying wedge. But the first time we formed it, Big Mike came charging full upon us. It was our turn for surprise. The Princeton battering ram made no attempt to reach the ball but, forerunner of the interference-breaking ends of today, threw himself into our mass play, bursting us apart, and bowing us over.

Time and again, Rutgers formed the wedge and charged; as often, Big Mike broke it up. And, finally on one of these incredible break-ups, a Princeton bulldog with a long accurate, perhaps lucky, kick, sent the ball between the posts for the second score.

“The flying wedge thus checkmated, Rutgers might have been in a bad spot had not Madison Ball, ’73, come through. He had a trick of kicking the ball with his heel. All the game, he had been a puzzle to the Princetonians. The ball would be rolling toward the Rutgers goal, and, running ahead of it, instead of taking time to turn, he would heel it back. He made several such plays, greatly encouraging his team. Then, he capped all

this by one tremendous lucky backward drive directly to Dixon, standing squarely before Princeton’s goal. … Dixon easily scored, giving us a onegoal lead. Big Mike again rose, however, in a berserk endeavor, and, getting the ball, he called the Princeton men into a flying wedge of their own and straight-away they took the ball right down the field and put it over.”

“The fifth and sixth goals went to Rutgers. The stars of the latter period of play, in the memory of the players after the lapse of many years, were Big Mike and Large [former state Sen. George H. Large of Flemington, another Princeton player]. Someone by a random kick had driven the ball to one side, where it rolled against the fence and stopped. Large led the pursuit for the ball closely followed by Michael. They reached the fence on which students were perched, and unable to check their momentum, in a tremendous impact they struck it. The fence then gave way with a crash and over went the band of yelling students to the ground.

“Every college probably has the humorous tradition of some player who has scored against his own team. This tradition at Rutgers dated from this first game, for one of her players, whose identity is unknown, in the sixth period started to kick the ball between his own goal posts. The kick was blocked, but Princeton took advantage of the opportunity and soon made the goal. This turn of the game apparently disorganized Rutgers, for Princeton also scored the next goal after a few minutes of play, thus bringing the total up to four all.”

Eventually, Herbert’s team defeated Princeton, 6 to 4.

From “The Targum,” the Rutgers newspaper:

“To describe the varying fortunes of the match, game by game, would be a waste of labor, for every game was like the one before,” wrote the student reporter. “There was the same headlong running, wild shouting, and frantic kicking.

“In every game, the cool goaltenders saved the Rutgers goal half a dozen times; in every game, the heavy charger of the Princeton side overthrew everything he came in contact with; and in every game, just when the interest in one of those delightful rushes at the fence was culminating, the persecuted ball would fly for refuge into the next lot, and produce cessation of hostilities, until, after the invariable ‘foul,’ it was put in straight.

“To sum up, Princeton had the most muscle, but didn’t kick very well and wanted organization. They evidently don’t like to kick the ball on the ground. Our men, on the other hand, though comparativelyweak, ran well, and kicked well throughout. But their great point was the organization, for which great praise is due to the captain. The right men were always in the right place.”

Joe Sapia’s maternal family, the Onda-Poznanski family, settled in Helmetta more than 100 years ago. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com