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1897 Madison (8-2-1) - National Champions

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Great Teams: A History of Wisconsin High School Football

The 1897 Madison High School football squad was Wisconsin’s first great team. Not only that but Madison has the honor of being the first acknowledged high school national champion. Their team manager, Joseph Jackson, a student at Madison High School was also the coach. Jackson, who also acted as a scheduler and promoter, set up games with as many opponents as he could. The year before he tried playing football but quit as a player when he lost a tooth. He decided to stick to pitching on the school baseball team. Football, at the time, was still more like rugby and the scoring was different from today as a touchdown was worth four points and an extra point was worth two. When Madison played against the University of Wisconsin, they faced a team led by 25-year-old college all-American fullback Pat O’Dea, known as the “Kangaroo Kicker”. A prolific kicker, O’Dea once drop-kicked a 62-yard field goal vs Northwestern and had a 110-yard punt vs Minnesota. O’Dea was from Australia where he had played Australian rules football before coming to the United States. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame one day before his death in 1962. In early December, Jackson heard about a team from New York who claimed to be the “Champion of the East”. He contacted the team and set up a game for Christmas Day in Detroit. Jackson, with the help of Henry F. Cochems (an assistant athletic director and backup football player for the University of Wisconsin) and Joe Dean (Captain of the 1896 team and, later, founder of the Madison based Dean Medical Clinic in 1904) prepared three hours a day for the game.

Buffalo Evening News - 27 Dec 1897

From the outset it was clear that Madison, with its larger size (165 pounds per man vs North Tonawanda’s 138 pounds) would prevail. One story stated that with the Madison squad leading 14-0 at halftime on a cold and snowy afternoon, North Tonawanda refused to come out and finish the game. However, a story dated December 26, 1897 in the Buffalo Courier (NY) had a game report that Madison led 4-0 on a touchdown by end Bob Rathbun who carried the ball on a reverse pitch following the wedge formed by the other players. After 30 minutes of play the first half ended and there was a short rest before the onslaught by Madison began. In the second half, (25 minutes long) they plowed in for two more touchdowns, both attributed by the Courier to right tackle Arthur Curtis and two goals after touchdown by fullback Duffy Powell. However, given their positions it was likely the fullback Powell who scored the touchdowns and the lineman/kicker Curtis who kicked the goals. The newspapers praised Rathbun, Curtis and Powell for their great play. Madison was declared the winner and the first “national champion”. News stories, most just brief mentions of the game, appeared throughout the country in such cities as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, St. Joseph (MO), Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Spokane (WA), New York City and others. All the stories mentioned that it was a national championship game.

The team was 8-0-0 vs high school teams (which does not include a forfeit win against Eau Claire) and 0-2-1 vs known college teams. It is believed that they played at least a total of 14 games, but newspaper accounts are incomplete.

Spokane Chronicle - 24 Dec 1897

The stars on the team were many as most had a lot of experience starting for the 1896, 5-2-0 team (both losses were to the University of Wisconsin). Billy Roys was the quarterback, Bemis Pierce was the left halfback, Paul Newman played right halfback and Duffy Powell was the fullback. On the line Bob Rathbun was the left end, team captain Lucius Donkle was the left tackle, Harry Keenan played left guard. Ed Height was the team’s center, Earl Schreiber covered the right guard spot, Arthur Curtis was the right tackle and right end was covered by Matt Conlin.

Along with the 1896 captain, Joe Dean, six members of the 1897 team would later become physicians, Harry Keenen, Lucius Donkle, Dave Wheeler, Stanley Welch, Earl Schreiber and Arthur Hale Curtis. Manager Joseph Jackson would later manage the Jackson clinic, manned by his brother Dr James Jackson who acted as “team mascot” and appears about twelve in the official team picture. Joseph Jackson would later become a major Madison city civic leader.

Besides becoming a doctor in 1920, Curtis was head coach at Kansas (6-4-0 in 1902) and the head coach at Wisconsin from 1903-04, posting an 11-6-1 record. Art Curtis was a member of the Northwestern University Medical School faculty specializing as a gynecologist. He died in 1955 at age 74.

As you will see later with the 1909 Chippewa Falls state champion team roster, age eligibility in these early days was different than what is accepted today. In 1938, a Buffalo, New York newspaper rehashed the game between Madison and Tonawanda and stated that several North Tonawanda fans and players who were at the game remembered Madison playing athletes who were “21-28 years old”. While two players who are known to have played in the game were each 20 years old, if there were even older players, we may never know as the New York newspaper article written 40 years after the game is the only evidence. None of the contemporary newspaper accounts made such claims.

However, Madison would face eligibility problems for the next several years. The WIAA would rule that for various reasons the school played with “part-time” students. These players were ruled ineligible by the state athletic governing board, but the school still played them. It bothered some schools like Milwaukee South Side who cancelled their games with Madison in 1897 and 1898. Other schools kept Madison on the schedule. Notably, the 1909 Chippewa Falls team which featured several players over 18 years of age had none of these eligibility issues and all players were considered full-time students and acceptable under WIAA rules of the time.

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