Eleven men dropped their sweaters and trotted out on the newly marked turf to play the first football games of their lives.
Dusty wagons and polished buggies lined the unpaved curbs. A few fashionable tandems leaned into the long grass beside the board walk. The roof of every adjacent shed, each nearby fir tree and even the precarious fence tops were seized by the overflow crowd of anxious spectators.
It was a sunny day in March 1894, and the University of Oregon was about to witness 11 unequipped, inexperienced students write the first page of its football history.
So begins my uncle’s 1947 account of Oregon’s first two football seasons, including its first-ever game, against heavily favored Albany College.
My uncle, Wallace Adams, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the UO (classes of ’49 and ’52) and received his doctorate from Stanford University.
Wally served with the US State Department at the embassy in France. He returned to the states steeped in French language, culture, and history, and taught Western civilization at Stanford from 1956 to 1958, then joined Arizona State University as a professor of European history. Wally died in 1980 and was posthumously awarded ASU’s Distinguished Achievement Award.
He was also a US Army veteran, and after his World War II service he did freelance writing while at the UO. I was going through family archives recently and found a photocopy of his article, “First Duck Tracks on the Gridiron,” which details the simple, rugged nature of the game’s early days.
The forward pass and lateral had not yet been developed. When you took the ball, you hung onto it and ran as far as you could. Touchdowns counted four points and the extra point was worth two.
Although the photocopy doesn’t show it, the story ran in the Nov. 23, 1947, edition of the Oregonian, where Wally did work for its sports column, “Greg’s Gossip,” written by L. H. Gregory. His article clearly shows his passion for history in the broadest sense—as well as his sense of humor.
“How could we lose?” asked coach Cal Young. “Not only was I Oregon’s coach, but since there was no one around Eugene to take the job, I refereed the game.”
The Webfoots didn’t need any homer calls, as they walloped heavily favored Albany 44-2, but they could have used more familiarity with the rules.
Albany’s two points came from inexperience on the Oregon team. When the ball was kicked across the Oregon goal line, one of the men became confused and touched it down to award Albany a safety.
In their next games the Webfoots lost twice and mustered only a tie. But it was enough success to warrant a new field, built where Johnson Hall now stands.
The bleachers, consisting of only four tiers, were a remote ancestor of today’s stadiums, and a gate receipt of $300 was about normal.
Perhaps inspired by the new field, the 1895 team went undefeated, besting Portland, Willamette University (twice), and Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State), 42-10. The rest, as my uncle would say, is history.
—By Scott Barkhurst
Scott Barkhurst, BA ’68 (journalism), has been the announcer for the Oregon Marching Band since 1998.
1894 team: University Archives Photographs, UA REF 3, box 43, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon