Posts about the first or oldest thing are easy and due mostly to my own laziness. In the past I’ve written about the oldest known photo of Goldy, the first women’s sport (it’s basketball), or the first sport played at the U (it’s baseball). Today I want to share the oldest known photo of Gopher football, partly because old things are cool, and a little because the picture is so dang cool.
Aside from the extremely cool looks these young men are cultivating, the hand written key telling us whom is in the picture is a great help. The first person to point out is the man with the ball (and the incredible mustache), class of 1889. John Paul Goode was the team’s center in 1887 and went on to be an influential Geologist. To Goode’s left (in that very hip cap) is Alf Pillsbury. Alf was the teams captain in 1887, probably because he had substantially changed the game of football at the U of M. Before 1886 ‘football’ resembled soccer, but Alf owned an American football (also in the above picture), and since his ball was the only one on campus the game was changed. I just realized this anecdote is a more literal interpretation of PJ Fleck’s mantra ‘the ball is the program’.
Along with that legacy, Alf had a small role in launching the career of the most famous person in this picture, Pudge Heffelfinger. The big, young looking kid in the back (third from the right), was only a high school junior when this photo was taken. One day at practice the U of M needed one more guy, Alf noticed the six foot three Heffelfinger nearby and invited him to play. The Minneapolis Central High Schooler, Pudge, played for the Gophers for 2 seasons before becoming an All-American at Yale and the first professional football player.
Not pictured is physics professor and second coach of the team Fredrick S. Jones. Coach Jones only led the team for three years (from 1886-1888), but somehow lucked into the nickname ‘Father of Minnesota Football”. After his coaching days Jones had more of an impact on the program by obtaining the land for Northrop Field and signing Dr. Henry L Williams to run the team.
So how did the 1887 season go? In a word, quickly. The school paper, The Ariel, reported that attempts to play Michigan failed so the team only played two games. One against ‘Minneapolis High School’ (8-0) and another against Alumni (14-0). The good news is the Gophers won both games and finished the season as one of 4 unbeaten teams in the country (5 if you count Virginia who tied its only game that year).