1897 madison team picture.png

Like a number of state titles in the early years, because there were no playoffs, it was hard to determine who was really the top team. The press usually helped crown the champion.

Before I get into this, I need to thank Jerrod Roll, the director of the Monroe County Local History Museum (Sparta) and his volunteer researcher, Barb as well as Lori Brost of the South Wood County Historical Museum (Wisconsin Rapids) for their outstanding efforts in getting me needed information.

There were a lot of contenders from around the state to charge for the title after the first four games that season. Marinette, Chippewa Falls, Oshkosh, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee North Division, Milwaukee South Division, Racine and Sparta were all in the running. The fifth week saw many of these teams fall and when it was finished it appeared that only three teams were strong enough to surge for the title matchup. But there were problems with all three remaining teams. Who would be the two finalists? Check out the schedules below and you can see that each of the contenders had blemishes.

When you look at the three contenders' schedules you will see that I matched up the schedules as closely as I could. Both Sparta and Oshkosh started the season in mid-September. Grand Rapids' first game was the last Saturday in September but they caught up with three games in the first 8 days of November, playing La Crosse on Saturday November 1, Nekoosa mid-week and Merrill on Saturday, November 8. Oshkosh only played seven games and had a long stretch between their next matchup after the Sparta game. Sparta and Oshkosh met on October 18 and following that battle the newspaper wars began. But perhaps, for the Oshkosh Northwestern it just continued as it had in previous years. The paper was always an unapologetic 'homer' for their local 11. The Northwestern was known for bashing opponents and making excuses for the hometown squad.

Alumni Games

Before I go on, I have to talk schedules a bit more. Were Alumni games really games? In some cases, they were, and in other cases they were just a scrimmage. I feel that if the Alumni game is listed in school yearbook, in their game schedule/scores or, in the case of Oshkosh, the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper gave a full game report then the game was official. Hopefully, schools have recorded these games in their all-time list of total wins/losses. Now, the problem is the Alumni games were not always reported to newspapers when they requested a list of games played. Sparta reported their Alumni game, Grand Rapids alluded to the game but didn't include it in their list to the press and in another issue about schedules, Oshkosh didn't count college games as part of their score list. Since the Alumni games were in the yearbooks (Sparta and Grand Rapids) or covered extensively in the paper (Oshkosh) I've included them as part of their overall record. But the question of how seriously either side took the competition at a given school in a given year can be endlessly debated.

In the story about the Sparta-Oshkosh game, the Northwestern said that their team was listless, maybe because of the trip to Sparta. Only three of their starters did their part to keep the team in the game. In the third period Oshkosh tried a drop-kick that fell short. A Sparta player grabbed it but fumbled the ball to Eddie Brand of Oshkosh who crossed the goal line. Sparta claimed to the umpire that their player had never touched the ball. The officials agreed and the touchdown as nullified. The umpire, as it turned out, was Earle "Runt" Jefferson, an assistant coach at Sparta who played for that school from 1906-08. Later in the game, Sparta had the ball with a first and ten on the six-inch line. Four runs failed to score as they were thrown for losses on each play. By the way, "Runt" Jefferson's brother, Roger, was the starting quarterback for Sparta.

Ten days following the game, it was reported in the La Crosse Tribune that Oshkosh Coach Glyer stated that his team would be glad to play Sparta in a re-match. He said that he preferred to play Sparta on any neutral field, preferably in Ripon or Appleton. Quoting from the Tribune, Glyer said,

"We have it pretty straight,' he says, ' that our boys were tipped off to the Sparta boys, because of the rumors current, and from what we learned afterward. The umpire favored the Sparta boys on every play in the false calls of the ball, when the Sparta boys drew us off side we were penalized, while this year's rules call that a foul and we didn't see why we should be penalized, nevertheless we got the penalties."

"I was under the impression that our manager, Mr. Lane, had written Sparta in regard to a return game, upon asking him I found he had not, but Nov. 15 is open and we are willing to play. There was talk of a return game when we left the grounds and I think that is where the misunderstanding came in about the return game."

Well, maybe "Runt" Jefferson had favored his home team or maybe it was sour grapes on Oshkosh's feelings about the outcome. One thing is sure, someone should have pointed out to Coach Glyer that they were scheduled to play Ashland on November 15. Or were they? The information in the papers is muddled. As it wasn't until the WIAA outlawed state championship matches after 1924 and insisted that schools set schedules prior to the start of the season. Before then, many schools were added and dropped from schedules as the season went along. It was known that Marinette was trying to schedule Sparta and Grand Rapids while Oshkosh did drop a game with Racine in order to play Green Bay West.

Following the tie to Sparta it was reported in the Oshkosh Northwestern that Lawrence College had accused some of the high school players of sending information about that college's game plays to Beloit College and that is why Lawrence lost to Beloit. The paper termed the reports wrong but then accused some Lawrence players of sending special information about Oshkosh to Sparta so they knew how to deal with their opponent from the eastern part of the state. It seems that the messages that were sent to Sparta were from a Lawrence student originally from the western end. Was this just a sort of good scouting or was it cheating or revenge? The paper called the match between Oshkosh and Lawrence a 'practice game'. Lawrence doesn't feel that it was practice as the score is in the school's all-time list of scores against opponents.

Wausau Controversy

About this time there was controversy in the central part of the state. Grand Rapids would later change it's name to Wisconsin Rapids in 1920 to avoid confusion with Grand Rapids, Michigan. The local paper, the Wood County Reporter read: "GREAT FOOT BALL GAME" and "First Team Plays Wausau to a Tie," (The Second Team beat Wausau's Second in the season and in Grand Rapid's yearbook for that year the game was listed as a 2-0 victory over Wausau. Grand Rapids felt strongly that they had converted a safety. On a punt play just before the end of the half, the Wausau punter, and right guard H. Hill kicked the ball backwards behind his own end zone line. It was caught by the fullback who was tackled in the end zone resulting in what was initially called a safety. Wausau protested and after much debate the officials seemed to have changed the ruling to a touchback. Grand Rapids proceeded to fumble on multiple key plays in the second half, preventing them from taking a proper lead and the game ended in a tie according to three different papers between the two towns. Though the Wood County Reporter called the game a tie, they did say that "The decision was left entirely with the officials and they have left the matter in abeyance". It's unknown if the play had any sort of later ruling or if Grand Rapids just felt strongly enough that they decided to claim the 2-0 victory.

Whether there was a rule in 1913 that specifically addressed this, is unclear but the officials at the time seemed to have been spared the true implications of their decision to regard it as a touchback thanks to the end of half. If it were truly a touchback, where would the ball be placed? The kicking team's 20 yard line? No other situation results in a touchback of this sort. The receiving team's 20 yard line like a normal touchback? This would completely flip the field and be a massive benefit to the kicking team. The kicking team certainly wouldn't keep the ball. The only possible solution is to rule it a safety. So whether an official ruling ever came down, it seems clear that Grand Rapids was correct to claim the 2-0 victory.

Prior to meeting Sparta, Grand Rapids claimed that the game between the two was a battle for the state title. Both teams were unscored upon by high school teams to that point. Oshkosh submitted to newspapers their game results before the Sparta-Grand Rapids showdown. They reported a 3-0-1 record, omitting their games with Lawrence and Ripon. In the same story, Grand Rapids shows that they were undefeated, untied and unscored upon in seven games (but they omitted the loss to their Alumni and the game score). Oshkosh stated that Sparta should meet them on Thanksgiving. They discounted the Grand Rapids schedule. That request to play Oshkosh was refused as Sparta had a firm contest scheduled for that day with La Crosse. Sparta came back and suggested a game in very early December to be played in Madison. Oshkosh turned them down.

When the proposed Thanksgiving date was rejected, Oshkosh approached Oak Park High School in Illinois to play a home game. Oak Park had beaten Toledo (OH) Scott in a matchup for the National Championship. They were no slouches as they were four-time (1910-13) National Champs under the tutelage of Bob Zuppke (1910-12) and Glenn Thistlewaite (1913). Coach Zuppke left Oak Park after the 1912 season to coach at the University of Illinois and won four college national championships. Many teams besides Oshkosh tried to get a Thanksgiving or later game with Oak Park including Aurora West who was undefeated for the past 3 seasons. Aurora West, according to a Chicago Tribune snippet had clinched the "downstate title". I guess I can't read a map because to me Aurora is west of Chicago, not downstate. Anyway, the potential match with Oak Park fell through and Oshkosh played a game with their Alumni and the Sparta-La Crosse game went forward.

But Oshkosh wasn't through claiming to be the State Champion. In a December 11 story they stated that Sparta should have played them and they, Oshkosh, were the champs. Why could they claim to be the state champs? Oshkosh discounted Sparta's domination of Grand Rapids. They felt Sparta played a weak schedule while they had played tougher foes. Oshkosh felt that since no high school had defeated them in six seasons that they retained the the mythical title until some one did. Since 1908, Oshkosh had defeated or tied every high school opponent with their only losses coming against college or alumni teams. In the six years from 1908-1913, Oshkosh had an impressive 27-0-5 record against high schools and was 31-11-5 against all foes. That means they were 4-11-0 against college or their alumni. I don't have any school's entire game by game record for this period except for Delafield St. John's Military Academy. In comparing their six-year record against that of Oshkosh , St. John's posted a 32-10-4 overall record and was 16-2-0 against high schools/academies (one of those losses was to Oak Park in 1910) and only four of those high schools were in Wisconsin. They posted a 16-11-4 record against college or club teams. So who played the tougher schedule? Hard to say as there was little overlap in opponents. Was Oshkosh good? Yes, clearly. But were they deserving of six straight state titles? The answer I gave in my book is no. I have awarded Oshkosh three state championships in these years, 1908, 1910 and 1912 which aligns to the consensus in the press (outside of the Oshkosh Northwestern) at the time.

So who was the real state champion in 1913? It was Sparta. After they defeated Grand Rapids the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote:

“Sparta, WIS. Nov. 22--Sparta Highs have added a still stronger grip to the state championship by defeating the heavy Grand Rapids team on Saturday, 61-2.* Outweighed about ten pounds to the man, the locals put up an aggressive and varied attack that the visitors were routed at the very start. Open style play in all its stages featured the game. Sparta scored four touchdowns in the first quarter, one in the second, and the balance in the last half.

The score for the Rapids came in the last half minute of play, when the ball had been forced to Sparta’s one yard line by three successive penalties of fifteen yards each. The punt was blocked and a Sparta man recovered the ball behind the goal line, there by scoring a safety for their opponents.

The Rapids concedes the championship to Sparta, as Oshkosh has refused to play them on two separate dates. Sparta winds up their successful season with La Crosse at Sparta.”

While far from decisive, Sparta's case was further bolstered by being able to claim very strong transitive victories. The Sparta yearbook pointed out that,

"In beating Tomah we accomplished a great deal. Besides just being able to get revenge on Tomah we advanced a step bearer to the title. Tomah defeated West Milwaukee, who defeated Madison. Madison defeated Beloit and Beloit defeated Janesville. This really gives us the championship over the southern part of the state."

The 1913 Sparta 'Spartins' Championship Team**

Additional notes:

*The Wood County Reporter had the score wrong at 61-0 in the Grand Rapids loss to Sparta and so that's what the Milwaukee Sentinel reported. Both school's yearbooks had the score at 60-0.

**Look at the team photo for Sparta. I've been asked how teams were able to score over 100 points in a game in the old days. The simple answer is, count how many players were on the team. Fifteen. This was the norm for almost all teams from the 1890s until the early 1920s. You didn't have a complete second or third string to send into the game to hold the score down. Injuries happened and so some players would have to gut it out because there wasn't a comparable position replacement. More often school's had a separate "second" (junior varsity) team.

Finally, I've included the alumni games as part of the team's schedules even though some schools only briefly mention them in their yearbooks or newspapers briefly mention the games in passing. The games could go either way in the records in different parts of the country. For instance, I have records of all the National Champions game-by-game. Looking at the 1912 Oak Park (IL) record it is listed as being 11-0-0 as they counted their 8-0 win over the alumni. But in 1913 they posted a 10-1-0 record according to a wikipedia post but their 'official ; record sent to the Chicago Tribune, in the November 25 edition, didn't show the alumni game loss at the beginning of the season and instead listed it as 10-0. So it may have just been a matter of good when you win, but not counted when they lost. In other parts of the country, the alumni games were considered practice and are definitely not in the records. What do you think?

Well, it all started in 1884 when the Reverend Sydney Smyth founded a private school in Delafield and it was called St. John’s Military Academy. Needing a way to entertain the students that fall he gathered some material he had on sports…there were really only a limited number of athletic activities available at that time. Besides baseball, running events and swimming, football was a sport he enjoyed as a student at Racine College where he studied for the ministry. He had a set of rules, the new and official rules that Yale’s Walter Camp and others had hammered out to refine the game, making it less of a version of rugby and more identifiably it's own thing. He was the first to utilize the IFA (Intercollegiate Football Association) rules, the first guidelines of the modern sport. Insisting that all the opposing teams played by the same rules, Smythe made or obtained copies for teams he hoped to play. St. John’s was the first school…public, private or college east of the Allegheny Mountains to follow the “Eastern” rules, as they were sometimes called. The school played two games in 1884 and won both contests.

In those days it wasn’t uncommon for a teacher or the team coach to play in the games. At about age 48, in 1890, Smythe was hurt in a game pitting St. John’s against Beloit College. He broke a thigh bone and walked with a limp for the next 33-years. After his injury Smythe demanded that only students of the school play for St John's and his opposing teams have only “proper aged” players…no teachers or ringers were to be allowed.

The game progressed and many schools and colleges began to play football. Madison High School had their first teams around 1892 or 1893. The Milwaukee high schools, North Side, South Side and East Side schools (Later known as North Division, South Division and Riverside high schools) started about this time to field teams as would West Side (Later known as West Division and now remade as Milwaukee High School of the Arts). They, along with other several colleges and St. John’s helped to form what would become the WIAA in 1896. After a few years the colleges were dropped from the active roster of schools in the organization and St. John’s, because it was a private school was not allowed to join the WIAA. It would be 104 years for private schools to formally be allowed to apply for membership in the WIAA.

The early years are difficult, as I have said in other blogs and my book, to track some teams. So, my research for this era has been a hard one in searching for the correct data. What I present here is based on the best information I could find. Let’s get started at looking at the best of the best from 1884-1909.

The Top 10 Teams for 1884-1909:

1) Delafield St. John’s Military Academy…1904…9-0-0

2) Milwaukee South Side…1898…7-0-0

3) Madison High School…1897…8-2-1

4) Chippewa Falls…1909…6-0-1

5) Sparta…1907…8-0-0

6) Oshkosh…1908…6-1-0

7) Eau Claire…1903…8-0-0

8) Delafield St. John’s Military Academy…1905…7-0-1

9) Eau Claire…1904…6-0-0

10) Fort Atkinson…1902…6-0-1

Why the 1904 St John's team at number 1? The team was undefeated, untied and unscored upon while scoring 355 points. Their opponents included four colleges (One was a combined Carroll College and Waukesha High School team), three private academies and two high school…beating Appleton 39-0 and Elkhorn 102-0. This season also began a run of 18 consecutive shutouts which is still a Wisconsin state record.

1898 Milwaukee South Side was also undefeated, untied and unscored upon beating two college teams and they even defeated St, John’s 39-0. They were honored as the second National Champion football team, the last Wisconsin high school to be so honored. South refused to play Madison in 1897 because there was a question of the capitol city team having age eligible players.

The 1897 Madison team was recognized in the state to be the best team that season. They are also recognized as the first National Champion team by beating Tonawanda, NY 14-0 in a game played in Detroit on Christmas Day. Their two losses were to the University of Wisconsin varsity squad and their tie was to Whitewater Normal College.

Chippewa Falls had a 12-game shutout streak that ended in 1909 when the team played a game against their own alumni, a 11-5 win. Powered by the great quarterback Gus Dorais, who was one of five all-state players on the team.

Sparta cruised through the 1907 season, including a 113-0 defeat of New Lisbon. In the title showdown they beat La Crosse 6-4. The team was bolstered by two all-state players, end Kessling Thayer, and center Moses “Mose” Smith along with quarterback/halfback Earle “Runt” Jefferson. The team was coached by a local dentist, Dr. George Hull Barlow.

Oshkosh in 1908 ruled the Fox Valley and the north east part of the state as they beat Fort Atkinson for the title on a snow-covered field 4-0. Their only loss was to Ripon College in the season opener, 11-0.

The 1903 Eau Claire team was the best team in the state as they went 8-0-0. They claimed the title when Fort Atkinson failed to show for the championship game and was awarded a 2-0 forfeit win.

St. John’s in 1905 continued their shutout streak as they defeated three colleges, four private academies and tied 0-0 against Chicago area powerhouse Morgan Park Academy. The streak continued into 1906 when they shutout their first opponent before losing to St. Louis University 27-0. Several weeks earlier in 1906, St. Louis played Carroll College and attempted the first legal pass. The forward pass didn’t become legal until that year. The combined 1904 and 1905 seasons helped make St. John’s one of the most dominate teams in the state.

1904 Eau Claire again dominated the north as they shut out all of their six opponents including a 33-0 shellacking of Green Bay East for the state title. A follow up match with St. John’s never materialized because the two couldn’t agree to the date and location of the game. Eau Claire would have a 16-game shutout streak during the 1902-05 years.

Fort Atkinson was declared the 1902 state champion by several papers although Eau Claire also made a claim that season. Fort tied Janesville 0-0 and did trounce Stoughton 103-0 but they only scored 169 points on the season and did have a close 11-10 battle with Madison. None the less, they were a super team. Their coach, George Lloyd, was in strong competition for my Coach of the Decade as he led his teams from 1902-1909 to a 41-4-4 record.

The Best Game:

This is a tough call to pick a game. The 4-0 win by Oshkosh over Fort Atkinson in 1908 might have been the best game and it was for the state title. Fans crowed the field and made problems for the referee’s when the Oshkosh people shoved the Fort players in between plays after some of the team would run out of bounds or get close to the sidelines. The field had lots of snow on It and the conditions were slippery. It obviously was a see-saw battle. Fort Atkinson outweighed Oshkosh 154 pounds to 141 pounds. The game was played in Ripon. Early stats showed that Oshkosh outgained Fort 150-yards to 115-yards. A drop-kick from Fort's 43-yard line on the first half (They played two 25-minute half’s, not four quarters) was the difference. Field goals that season were worth 4-points. As the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper reported, the “little giants” of the north triumphed over the “giants” of the South. The actions by the Oshkosh fans led to stricter control of the sidelines around the state starting in 1909.

The Best Coach:

Like many coaches of the era, most didn’t stay at one school or even coach for very long. My pick is Louis C. Christofferson of Delafield St. John’s. Only at St. John’s for the two seasons (1904 and 1905) he developed a well-oiled machine that would, in 1905, earn honors for the school as they were awarded the National Military Prep Championship, the Western Prep Championship and the North Central Academy Association Championship. He left St. John’s to coach college ball.

As I noted before, Coach George Lloyd of Fort Atkinson was a close second.


You will see that for this issue of the top players of the decade that there is a first team and an honorable mention list. Future first team lists may have more than the usual 11-players along with the honorable mention list. As I progress into the 1970’s when the 2-platoon system became more common after substitution rules were relaxed, I will be presenting first team offense and defense teams as well as an honorable mention list.

Remember that Hercule Poirot (Remember the reference in my last blog) is still searching for the first names of older players and thanks to the help from Jarod Roll at the Monroe County Local History Room and Museum in Sparta I learned of the first names to two of the three players on my All-Decades Team and Honorable Mention list along with the first name of the team coach, Dr. George H. Barlow. Jarod helped me when I wrote my book in finding the scores for the 1907 and 1913 state champion Spartan’s and it is through his help and that of his research assistant that the names were finally tracked down.

I hope you like what you see here. From time-to-time I will be doing other decades of stars, coaches and teams.

Nearly everyone mentioned here is profiled in more detail in my book, The Great Teams.


Just to let you all know that the 11-player and 8-player record books have been updated again and have been posted on the WFCA web site. I’ve posted a link if you are interested… State Records (wifca.org) Thanks to all that submitted some 2021 stats that I missed and to those who sent in information about earlier seasons. One of the older updates deals with Coleman’s Mitch Champagne, 2009-11. I found that I had credited him with only 70 touchdowns on his career but it turns out that he scored 79 and an additional 23 2-point conversions which gave him a career total of 526 points. The total now places him #19 on the career scoring list. After the January 4 posting I was inundated with information and I want to thank Travis Wilson, first, for his article posted at WISSPORTS.NET alerting people to that original update and now I thank him for posting the new records on the WFCA web pages.


In late December Kerry Johnson sent me an interesting story from the November 18, 1933 Waukesha Freeman. Waukesha sure threw some wild post-game events back in the 1930s. It reads as follows:

Waukesha Loses Game

But Wins the Football

“West Milwaukee High school won the football game Saturday but Waukesha fans saw that the football used in the contest stayed in the Spring City.

While most of the spectators remained in the stands to watch, several hundred members of both factions crowded onto the field after the game to tussle for the oval, which someone had snatched from the referee.

For a half hour the fight waged. Noses were bloodied, hats trampled in the mud, and various and sundry articles of clothing torn as the ball passed from hand to hand in a swinging vortex of kicking, rushing, fist-waving humanity.

Even the law, in the person of Officer Tom Owen, entered the fray, but to no avail. It finally took Mike Rich, Carroll football star, to get into the clear with the ball. Given some nice interference, Mike reached the east exit.

He tossed a neat lateral to Frank De Santis who sprinted down the hill toward the railroad tracks by the West Milwaukee gangsters. Overtaken, De Santis handed the ball to a high school lad, who made a successful get-away and the last we heard, the ball was safely locked in the high school gym.

A tear gas squad was summoned at the height of the conflict but arrived too late to throw anything but dirty looks.”

Thanks again to Kerry for the story.


I have some new blogs in the pipeline. I intend to cover the best teams, coaches and players from the past each divided by decades. I'll be starting with the "decade" of 1884-1909 and then move onto actual 10-year periods. So, after the first story things will go 1910-1919, 1920-1929, etc. I hope you like it. While putting things together I’ve found that I needed to go back and re-look at previous research.

Do you like mystery novels? Some of the research is like reading an Agatha Christie novel with Hercule Poirot tracking down the murderer. Some of my new research has been trying to find first names for people that I hadn’t found in past tracings. As I’ve said before, many newspapers and yearbooks didn’t print first names which makes things frustrating for me. I actually was working on the 1910-1919 “Best Players of the Decade” and I’ve been working on finding the first names to a number of people from Fort Atkinson. Three players on my honorable mention list for the decade are from that school, mainly from the 1911 state champion team. Pottinger was an all-state center/guard, listed on all four of that season’s known all-state teams. Owens, a tackle, was named to two of the four all-state teams and Mussehl, an end, was also named to two of the all-state teams. Besides those three, I can’t find the first name of Coach Vosberg or for their fine coach on the period 1902-1909, Coach Lloyd.

I was reading the novel by Christie, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, rated by 600 major mystery writers from around the world in 2013 as the best mystery ever. Lots of twists and turns. I’m not Poirot but I do use my “little grey cells” to search for the names. I have reached out to the Fort Atkinson Wall of Fame organization, a group that honors past athletes and teams. I was surprised to find that none of their older players or coaches from their 1902 and 1911 state title football teams were not on the Wall. Even Howard Lee “Whitey” Woodin, their great guard from 1911-14 wasn’t even on their honored list. I’ve reached out to the group which will be honoring three new members on January 28 and I sent them info from my research and book and asked them to help with first names. Well, I'll see if they have information to help. With the cities historical society and the county historical society in Watertown closed because of COVID and the school and public library’s only have yearbooks dating back to about 1917 it’s looking like it might be difficult to “solve the case” but I’m still on it.

I expect to get a lot of feedback as I release my 1990-1999, 2000-2009 and 2010-2019 editions. Let me know who you think were the best coaches, teams and players of these or any decade and give me some reasons and I'll may include your thoughts in the blogs.

So, there you have it. Isn't it nice to read a short blog sometimes? I’ll catch you soon.