During the first month of the 2014 NFL season the Oakland Raiders lost four games, were outscored by more than fifty points and fired their head coach Dennis Allen. At practice on October 6, 2014 Allen’s replacement Tony Sparano did something unusual: he buried a football. In video of the event Sparano said he was laying to rest the first four games of the season. Strange as it may seem, the burial at Raider practice was not the first documented football funeral. Instead that dubious honor goes to students at Harvard University who interred a different kind of pigskin way back in 1860.
The college game was not the same as the Raiders’ game although they did call it football. The main branches of the modern football tree – including soccer, rugby and NFL-style football – did not exist in 1860. Instead people played a variety of games all generally called football (sometimes written as foot ball). The sport was informally organized with unwritten rules that often changed depending on local whims or traditions. Some versions only allowed players to kick the ball, for example, while others permitted them to carry it too.
Football had been played at Harvard since at least 1827, when the first documented evidence of a game comes to light, but likely was present even earlier. Students met to play on an open patch of ground known as the Delta near the site on campus where Memorial Hall now stands. Little is known about the exact rules of such contests but the main purpose was to kick the ball over the opponent’s goal. Nobody wore pads or helmets and there were few limitations on physical play. One former Harvard man later described it as a “manly, straightforward game, rough and vigorous.” Black eyes, bruises and torn clothing were commonplace and a broken bone or two was not out of the question. Because it was Harvard, somebody even wrote a mock-heroic poem in 1827 that captured something of the flavor of the game and the movement of the ball:
Pick-up matches were common enough, but the Freshmen vs. Sophomore game traditionally played on the first Monday of the new school term soon became infamous. Later called “Bloody Monday” because of its violence, the game began as a wrestling match between the two classes and later transformed into something resembling football. By the 1850s, Bloody Monday was known across the region as large crowds came to watch and newspapers from Boston and New York sent reporters to cover the spectacle. The 1858 event showed the depths to which the game had sunk when both teams focused less on the ball and more on fighting. Eventually the violence of the contest, and perhaps its increasing notoriety, prompted the school to ban Bloody Monday games in 1860.
Partly in jest and partly in protest, students organized a funeral to bury football at Harvard both literally and symbolically. On September 3, 1860, a procession of well-dressed young men marched to the Delta led by a Grand Marshall who wore a bearskin cap and carried a baton. Two assistants followed with staffs and torches along with drummers and the young man chosen to give a eulogy for the football. Next, four shovel bearers led six pallbearers carrying a full sized coffin on their shoulders. Finally, the entire sophomore class shuffled by, looking appropriately mournful. At the appointed spot, the gravediggers began their solemn work and the coffin was opened for a final viewing of the tastefully dressed football, an inflated pig bladder held in a round leather cover, placed at the coffin’s head. The eulogy ended with a poem and afterward the mourners sang as the deceased sank to its final resting place (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne):
Once the last shovel of earth had been tossed into the grave they planted tombstones of black slate at the head and foot of the grave. The headstone read: “Here Lies Foot Ball Fightum aged 60 years. Died, July 2, 1860 Rise” while the footstone featured a winged skull topped by the words “In Memory of Foot Ball, 1860.”
Despite the funeral, the prohibition against football applied only to the Bloody Monday contest and students continued to play informal games on campus. After a few years the sport lost favor but was revived with the founding of the Harvard University Football Club in 1871. Four years later, on November 13, 1875, an official Harvard team wearing the first uniforms in college football traveled to Connecticut for the first Harvard-Yale game, launching one of the oldest rivalries in college football. Harvard won.
Coach Sparano can only hope the future of football in Oakland will be as bright.