The first known high school football games in Pennsylvania were played in 1885, per the Dr. Roger Saylor football record spreadsheets. Shortlidge-Media Academy played Pennsylvania Military College twice, losing 15-5 and 16-2. However, I may have found a few games that pre-date these contests and there’s a chance that further research could uncover more.
I tweeted out several clippings of games this evening, but I wanted to put them all in one post here for future reference. These were found using a simple search to cover years in the late 1870s and early 1880s; there may be more games out there for me to find in the future, but these are the games (or reports of cancelled games) that I’ve found so far.
Before I list the clippings, it’s important to go over a few things. First, because newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s were both hyper-local in their focus and not always full of detail, I’ve included some clippings here that may or may not actually be high school football games. I’ve had to make judgment calls here because local newspapers would often simply refer to “the football team” or “our football team.” If the newspaper is located in a town with a college, it’s tough to say whose football team it actually was. In this era, there is an additional layer of uncertainty because football teams may have also represented a local athletic club – such as a YMCA – or the town itself. Without further details, it is not entirely clear in some cases whether the game actually refers to the high school team, but I’ve included the games I’ve found that could at least plausibly refer to a scholastic team.
And about that idea of a “scholastic team”: in the 19th century, this concept was typically loose at best. Remember, this is well before interscholastic athletics had any kind of oversight or supervision to check the competitive urges of academic institutions. Pennsylvania didn’t have anything of the sort until the WPIAL was founded in 1906 and the PIAA didn’t come about for nearly another decade after that. What happens when teams want to win and there is a Wild West scenario in terms of eligibility requirements? Ringers. Teams with players in their early-to-mid twenties and even older. Players from other towns. Players who don’t – and maybe haven’t ever – attend that school. Today, teams with rosters like this are unheard of, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were widespread. While they may have not been pure scholastic teams, everyone seemed to be playing the same game from a roster perspective until at least the late 1890s, so there is still an apples-to-apples comparison in my opinion. For this reason, I will still consider these high school teams to be scholastic programs.
Finally, there is a bit of a gray area in terms of which games should “count” as high school games in the pre-World War I era. This is often one of the reasons why a school’s all-time record may differ depending on the source. I tend to stick pretty closely to the games Dr. Saylor included in his team records, but this approach isn’t without its questions. Saylor noted that he only included games against academic institutions, meaning he omitted games against athletic clubs, railroad workers (seriously), and others. But this standard also means that teams have “official” (by Saylor’s reckoning) games against colleges, university JV or freshmen teams, trade schools, and others.
Now, onto the games:
Nov. 11, 1879: Pennsylvania Military Academy vs. unknown university. Didn’t I tell you that 19th century newspapers weren’t big on details? This article spends multiple paragraphs discussing the PMA football program and its recent game, but fails to mention who the team actually played. PMA is also almost certainly the same institution that Shortlidge-Media Academy played in 1885, which Saylor refers to as Pennsylvania Military College. It can be debated whether PMA itself at this point in time was a high school program, but I’m including them for now.
Nov. 24, 1879: Pennsylvania Military Academy vs. Chester HS (game scheduled, but not played). PMA later became Widener University. This clipping clearly states that the cadets were to play “high school boys,” but does not indicate which high school they would represent. Because PMA was located in Chester and the article was printed in The Delaware County Daily Times, the assumption would be Chester High School.
Nov. 17, 1882: Wilkes-Barre Academy vs. unknown university. Another game in which the article did not mention the names of both teams participating. Saylor’s record spreadsheets don’t seem to have a mention of a Wilkes-Barre Academy, but towns often had “academies” that ended up evolving into that community’s public school. I had at first thought it could have been an early incarnation of either King’s or Wilkes, but both of those universities were founded much later.
Nov. 30, 1883: Indiana Normal School vs. Indiana HS. Indiana Normal is now known as Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The article describes the Normal school playing against a team known simply as “Indiana.” Whether this team was comprised of Indiana High School students or community members is largely a moot point; as I said before, having “high school” teams that represented the community at large was commonplace during this era. Out of the four articles I found, this was the only one to include a final score, which reflects the scoring system used at the time (Normal 3 goals, Indiana 1 goal).
I’m going to continue researching this time period to see if I can come up with more articles that reference scholastic football games. I find it difficult to imagine that multiple high schools only played one or two games over a 10-year period, so it’s almost a certainty that other games were held during this era. Whether reports of those games made it into print is another question, however.