Although the Haverford football team has not taken the field since 1972, its origins stretch far beyond that of the Philadelphia Eagles, who will play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 57 today.
Throughout the 1870s students played the game informally, at a time when it resembled rugby far more than modern football. Classes played against each other behind Founders Green; play was informal because the school did not have enough students to field a team for an entire season.
The opening of Barclay Hall in 1877 expanded enrollment and enabled Haverford to face off against Swarthmore in 1879, the first game in what would become a nearly century-long rivalry. According to William Ambler ‘45, director of admissions at Haverford from 1956 to 1987, Haverford won this first game, despite points not being tallied. He notes that Haverford “scored a goal, a touchdown and a safety to Swarthmore’s thirteen safeties,” which would result in a 36-2 victory by modern scoring rules.
After a three-year hiatus, the sport returned in 1883. By that time the rules of the game had changed to include turnovers on downs – before this, offenses kept the ball until they either scored or turned it over to the defense. The early teams varied greatly in talent level, with several winless and undefeated teams. One of the less talented teams was the 1886 squad, which won only one game and whose offensive line weighed an average of just 147 pounds.
In the 1890s, parents and alumni raised several concerns about the dangers of football. Josiah Leeds, who kept his son out of Haverford football matches, petitioned then-president Isaac Sharpless to end intercollegiate athletics at Haverford altogether, citing health and academic concerns. Sharpless denied the request, but the issue remained prescient throughout his term.
Thomas Scattergood, another anxious parent, did not want his two sons to play on the team in 1895. After appeals from the entire team, Scattergood relented on the provision that “the game would be played cleanly by both sides as befitted gentlemen and sportsmen,” and that every Haverford student sign a pledge that they would not bet on the game. Ambler noted that “the idea of a student pledge and the promise to act as gentlemen were precursors of the student Honor System which would be enacted a year later.”
Rules changes before the 1906 season made the game look much more like modern football: the “neutral zone” was created; six men were mandated to be on the offensive line; offenses needed to gain ten yards for a first down, as opposed to five; onside kicks and forward passes were legalized. If a pass went untouched by either team before hitting the ground, the offense lost possession of the ball, so forward passes were rarely used during this time. The first forward pass for a touchdown in Haverford history came in a 23-16 win over Ursinus in 1907.
The program continued for another 65 years, until 1972. It ended, according to then-football coach and athletic director Dana Swan, because “the nucleus of experienced players was just too small to insure at the very least the safety of the squad.”
The closure marked the end of the third longest rivalry in college football history with Swarthmore. Despite the passage of nearly 100 years since their first matchup in 1879, the two schools faced off just 63 times; this is because no games were played during the World Wars, and because Haverford took a 15-year hiatus from the yearly game after an embarrassing 73-13 loss in 1926. As it stands, Haverford is 22-36-5 against the Garnet.