An Entertaining, Yet Exaggerated Beginning
January 30—it’s a date synonymous with football at the University of Georgia, featuring a historic beginning recognized by many Bulldog enthusiasts.
A good portion of you are well aware of the event: Exactly 126 years ago today, 1,500 spectators gathered on the UGA campus at Alumni Athletic Field—later renamed “Herty Field” in honor of Georgia football's founding father, Charles Herty—to witness the first intercollegiate football game in the Deep South, pitting Mercer against host Georgia.
Assigning its “strong specimens” to start the contest, the Red and Black’s initial lineup averaged 156 pounds and 5-foot-10 in height per man. “Man’s best friend” was nowhere in sight. Instead, “the university goat was driven across the field by the boys and raised quite a ripple of laughter.” Soon after the introduction of UGA’s initial live mascot, the Red and Black student section hollered, “Rah, rah, rah, ta Georgia!” which was answered by the Mercer fans with a “Rah, rah, rah, U-ni-v-sis-boom ah Var-sity Mercer!” The game kicked off around 3 p.m.
At the time, football resembled more of a rugby scrum than the sport we know of today. The rules were considerably different: no forward passing the ball, five yards were needed for a first down, a kicked field goal was actually worth more than a touchdown, and because of a loophole in the game’s rules, a team kicking off could easily gain possession by nudging the ball forward, recovering it, and promptly go on the offensive. Mercer worked this type of onside kick from yesteryear to begin the game to perfection, and started with the ball around midfield.
On the first play in UGA football history, a Mercer ball-carrier was thrown for a three-yard loss. This was followed by a play for no gain, and a lost fumble recovered by Georgia left guard Georgia Shackelford. On the Red and Black’s first offensive play, right halfback Frank “Si” Herty, cousin of Charles Herty, made an “extraordinary” run, scoring a touchdown and giving Georgia an early advantage en route to a 50-0 rout.
Upon completion of the game, spectators’ hats were tossed into the air and Georgia players were hoisted onto the shoulders of patrons in celebration as “the red and crimson of the University of Georgia waves triumphantly, and a score of fifty to nothing shows the university boys know how to play football.”
Here’s the kicker—and this has always been my favorite part of the historic account—A.O. Halsey, right tackle on the 1892 Georgia squad, informed author John Stegeman decades later for his book, The Ghosts of Herty Field, "the official scorer had made two trips across to the dispensary during the game.” During these trips to the dispensary on Broad Street to drink “high-quality liquor,” the official scorer missed two Red and Black touchdowns, counting four points each at the time, and an extra point, worth two points.
Instead of 50-0, the score of the first football game in UGA history should have been Georgia 60, Mercer 0.
That’s how the story has always been told, and always been written—at least since the first printing of Stegeman’s book more than 50 years ago—including by yours truly in articles, books, and interviews. Yet, for January 30 every, say, two-three years for the past decade or so, I thoroughly research this same Georgia-Mercer game, hoping to discover something new—an aspect about UGA’s first football game which has never been revealed. Nevertheless, considering no witnesses have been alive for years, and the only existing accounts of the game (although relatively detailed) are from three different Georgia newspapers, I have discovered very little besides what has already been publicized for decades.
This brings me to yesterday, when I decided to put together a piece for the 126th anniversary of the first intercollegiate football game in the Deep South. First, I laid out before me, and then stared at, all three newspaper reports detailing the contest.
Only then did it dawn on me: How is it that a game, which officially resulted in a 50-0 score, reportedly featured 10 touchdowns (four points each), four conversions (two points each), and a safety (two points) totaled by Georgia—and there was no additional scoring—all according to three different newspapers/writers, including what is evidently a detailed play-by-play from the Athens Banner, yet the same game supposedly should have resulted in a 60-0 score according to one participant?
In other words, the official scorer may have taken two trips to the dispensary to drink liquor during the 1892 Georgia-Mercer game; however, in doing so, he seemingly didn’t miss any scoring unless the same three alleged scores equaling 10 points were somehow not recorded by all three writers.
Alas, it appeared what had always been my favorite part of the story of UGA’s first football game was likely concocted to make an even better, well, story—that is, unless the story is even more so extraordinary, and for each of the official scorer’s two trips to the dispensary, he was joined by his same three drinking/newspaper-writing buddies.