Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kent State's forgotten first football team

Ask just about anyone at Kent State what year the first football team played, and you'll get the answer: 1920. Indeed, KSU's first football game was against Ashland College and was played October 30, 1920 in Ashland, Ohio. The first home game was played a week later when KSU hosted Bowling Green at the first game at Rockwell Field, the grassy area now known as The Commons.

In going through Kent State yearbooks to find information about Rockwell Field, I found that while the 1920 team was the first team to actually play, it actually wasn't the first football team at what was then the Kent State Normal School. The 1915 Chestnut Burr, Kent State's yearbook, not only makes mention of a team being assembled, but it has the 12 man roster listed so we know who was on the team and what position they played.

Page 132 of the 1915 Chestnut Burr

This first team, though, as the Burr explains,  never played a formal game. It had two practice games against local high schools (which was common in those days since football players weren't the size we think of today). After those two practice games, it says the Executive Board and Faculty voted to discontinue to the team to focus on basketball. While there was hope that the team would return in 1915, there is no indication of any football team until the 1921 yearbook, which highlights that inaugural 1920 season. I thought it was interesting that I found mention of this first Kent State football team exactly 100 years after that first attempt!

Considering that the 1914-15 academic year was Kent State's second year of full existence (first classes were held in 1912 with the first classes on campus in May 1913), and the fact that the school was still a teacher training school (i.e. a "normal" school), it should be of no surprise that there was hardly a large amount of men on campus. Teaching was still a largely female dominated profession, far more so than today, and the school simply had few people period. The 1914 yearbook mentions that there were just five "boys" at the first meeting of the athletic association in 1913, out of 140 total students.  But later in the year, there were enough men on campus to start a men's basketball team, though the team only played local high schools the first season. The spring of 1914 saw the establishment of the first collegiate team, the baseball team, which was known as the "Normal Nine". The 1914 yearbook refers to them in the caption as the "Ex Tempore Base Ball Team".

Another important factor as to why the football team couldn't take root in 1914 beyond simple numbers was the lack of suitable playing field. In 1914, Kent did not have any dedicated football field anywhere in town. The local high school at the time (Kent High known as Theodore Roosevelt High School) had a football team, but where, exactly, they played isn't totally clear. Early references mention a "Central field"--most likely the yard in front of the old Union or Central School on North Mantua Street--but no other mentions are made. If it was played in the front yard of Central School (now occupied by the current Central School building built in 1952-53), then it was played on a sloped field as that was never leveled or graded in any way. Hardly ideal for any team, but especially a college one. Kent State would finally get a dedicated football field by 1920, but did not have a gymnasium until 1925.

From the 1917 Chestnut Burr, page 147, showing a summer term baseball game on front campus on or near the site of Rockwell Hall. Merrill Hall can be seen in the background center with the original facade of the Auditorium Building (Cartwright Hall) on the right.

Early Kent State athletic events were played on front campus on and around where Rockwell Hall is now, but the fields seem have been very primitive and makeshift and I have, so far, only been able to find one picture of such an event, a 1916 summer term baseball game. The first dedicated football field in Kent opened in 1917 with the dedication of DePeyster Field at the corner of Crain and Highland Avenues (which still is an open field where pickup games are regularly held), behind the DePeyster School (current Kent City Schools administrative offices). It served as the home of Kent High School football through the 1922 season (the first year the school was called Roosevelt) until the opening of Bowers Field behind the new high school building, now Davey Elementary School.

The first football team on campus that played was actually a high school team. Kent State Normal College had a teacher training school on campus that included a high school starting in 1914. It was first known as the Kent Normal High School (or Kent State Normal High School) and later simply as Kent State High School, "State", or "the University School" locally (official name was the Kent State University School, which included the Kent State University High School). By 1917, the beginning of the year for the high school's first graduating seniors (class of 1918), the school fielded its first competitive football team, though there are references to them playing scrimmages in years prior. I know at least one of their games was played at DePeyster Field that season, so I have assumed most, if not all, of their home games were also played there.