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REVISITING THE FIRST NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AND MORE…PART 1

I had planned on doing just one blog on the first high school national championship team. I've used the analogy before...to paraphrase Forest Gump, when you do research, you never know what you're going to get. I got a lot more than what you will see in the three, but I condensed the information, and the one blog has turned into three. It's all history. I hope you like them.


One of the first stories that was in my book and the very first story blog was a reprint of the book-story on the 1897 Madison High School championship team…1897 Madison (8-2-1) - National Champions (wihifootball.com).


I was looking at some old national football records and here it is, three and a half years later from that above first post and I’ve decided to expand on the Madison High School story.  Madison High was opened in 1853 in the basement of a Methodist church with 90 students and one teacher.  It grew out of that location and eventually was finally located near Johnson Street and Wisconsin Avenue, not far from the state capitol.  Over the years the school expanded as did the student population.  In 1893 the school played its first football game, as noted in my blog on early football teams…NOTES ON SOME EARLY FOOTBALL PROGRAMS…PART 1 (wihifootball.com).  In 1894 the school had 354 young people attending classes.  Madison may have been a town/city of about 15,000 people but it could still be considered a large farming community despite it being the Wisconsin capitol.  Kids from all over attended school there.  Also noted in the above blogs the school had a powerhouse football and other sports program.  After posting a series of successful seasons (1893 3-0-0, 1894 7-1-0, 1895 5-0-0 and 1896 going 5-2-0), things for the Tigers looked bright for the upcoming 1897 season.  Their only two losses in 1896 were to the University of Wisconsin. The team had sent off to the local university several very good players, but they still had a solid core.  The team manager, Joseph Jackson got bold and worked three games against college teams as well as seven high school squads into the schedule.  Remember, the early games in a season were often set up and then the rest of the year was on a week-to-week basis.  Most games were on Saturday but there could be two games during a week.  Most seasons started in October, so it wasn’t unusual to play a December game now and then.  After “Tigers “mauled Oregon HS 32-0 in the season opener the Madison boys destroyed Evansville 50-0.  Now came a game against the University of Wisconsin at Camp Randall.  Though the team lost to the Badgers, against some of their old classmates, they only gave up two touchdowns (Four points each) in an 8-0 loss.  The Badgers were led by 25-year-old All-American fullback/kicker, Pat O'Dea. Next up was a battle with Whitewater Normal that resulted in a 10-10 tie.   The next week they beat a very good Waukesha team 30-0 but suffered several key injuries.


Again, manager Jackson worked a match against the University of Wisconsin, again at Camp Randall, but things turned disastrous as Madison took it on the chin 29-0.  The game was before a remarkable crowd of about 3,000 fans, huge for a high school game at that time but most were probably there to cheer on the University.  Those previous injuries kept several stars out of the game.  The school would have lost but maybe by a lessor margin.  Madison took a week off (Only because Eau Claire High backed out of a scheduled meet which Madison took as a forfeit but later dropped that from their official record) and then they played the top team in Minnesota, Minneapolis South and came away a 14-0 winner.  Things were now back on track. 


They followed up the Minneapolis victory with a victory over a Milwaukee high school, possibly East Side as South Side had cancelled the matchup of the two schools over eligibility issues.  No official record exists in any of the two school s records or newspaper accounts but the game was reported in a December Madison newspaper season account as a win.  Or, maybe, because South cancelled at the last-minute Madison may have called it a win by forfeit but the story is unclear.  As I mentioned above, the Eau Claire game was cancelled but maybe it was with enough notice and not the day of the game.  A possible three other games that season were also cancelled against Watertown, Janesville and Fort Atkinson when those schools voided their initial agreements.  Jackson also tried to get games with Beloit and Rockford (IL) but was unable to secure a suitable play date   Where all these games would have fit in but I’m sure there might have been several two games in a weeks' time.  A solid 22-0 victory against powerhouse Delafield St. John’s Military Academy followed the Milwaukee game and then a game against Elgin (IL) high school that resulted in a 28-0 win. 


The season seemed to be over to the players but not to the ingenious Joe Jackson.  Somehow, he learned of a team back east in New York that claimed to be the top team in the East if not the nation.  So, Jackson made contact with the North Tonawanda school and after multiple telegrams and phone calls he was able to get that school to agree to play Madison. 


NOTE: Moving forward I may occasionally use the initials NT to refer to North Tonawanda.


Now, they needed a place to play and formally set a date.  Jackson’s players were very agreeable to playing one more game for a “National Title”.  Remember, the team had no formal coach.  Jackson, a senior at Madison High School, drew up some plays as did the team captain, left tackle Lucius Donkle, and a few of the other players.  Jackson’s main job was to get games scheduled, get the players to and from the game and settle the game receipts. He was an ingenious young man who later became a manager of his brother, Dr. James Jackson’s medical clinic and a civic leader.


So, here we are, early December 1897.  The game was set up through a third party from the Detroit Athletic Club who offered to host the game on Christmas Day.  North Tonawanda had been proclaimed by the upper New York press as the “Champion of the East”.  Football west of Pittsburgh and the Allegany Mountains was considered to be “backwater, not capable of standing up to the “superior” eastern powers.   


Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1897


With the game set up, all the two teams needed to do was get ready and get to the train station for the trip to Detroit.  On Madison’s side they got help from several UW football players…Harry F. Cochems (An assistant athletic director, student and a back-up member of the Badger football team) and UW freshman Joe Dean (A member of Madison Highs 1894-96 teams) Cochems and Dean worked the team for three hours a day, for the three weeks in the sun, the rain and snow to get the Madison boy’s ready.  Much more about those UW helpers later but first, how did North Tonawanda become known as the best team in the East?  That’s a good question.


 Some of the other early Eastern high school powerhouses:  William Penn Charter (Philadelphia, PA), Germantown Academy (Fort Washington, PA), Haverhill (MA), Salem (MA) and New Briton (Conn) were all some of the top teams in the period 1892-1899 but none were undefeated in 1897.  They all had at least one loss, several with two defeats they weren’t in the mix to be called one of the East’s top team that year.  NT was a regularly powerful team in the upper New York area and they ended the regular season with a 5-0-0 record with multiple games cancelled.  Maybe the press from Erie, Buffalo, Erie and Rochester just pumped the team up and the rest of the region bought in.  Anyway, the game was on schedule.



The matchups of seasonal schedules were:




Today’s players average over 210 pounds but in the 1890’s size mattered a great deal as athletes were smaller in both weight and height.  If you look at the last line of the “Off to Detroit” story you will see that it says the two teams will average 147 pounds.  In reality, North Tonawanda’s squad averaged only 138 pounds while the Madison team was a “heavy” 165.  That size would be a big difference in the game along with the coaching from Dean and Cochems.  Publicity and fans from New York showed their teams red and blue colors around NT’s headquarters, the St. Claire Hotel in downtown Detroit.  Even football fans living in the Detroit area seemed to favor the Eastern squad.  The Lumberjacks seemed to be at ease and freely mingled with their fans. Meanwhile, at the Wayne Hotel, about a mile away the Madison Tigers were keeping things low key and stayed behind closed doors until just before game time.  Their quiet and restrained manner worked well for the pre-game meetings.


The Detroit Athletic Club was formed in 1887 to encourage armature athletics.  They built a large bicycle track and a clubhouse nearby.  The football game would be played on the inner grass area of the quarter-mile track.  There were no grandstands at the time of the championship game.  Located between Woodward Ave., Forest Ave. East, Cass Ave. and Canfield Ave.  The Club would later relocate about two and a half miles closer to the Detroit River and it now is only about two blocks from Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team.


Christmas morning the sky was clear with temperatures in the low 20’s but it would get to about 30 with no snow in the forecast.  The game was scheduled to start at 2:30pm.  North Tonawanda decided to leave the hotel early by walking and arrived at the Detroit Athletic Club about three miles north at about 11:45am followed by about 30 rooters.  Madison stayed at the St. Claire until close to game time and they didn’t spend a lot of time warming up.  It would be an interesting battle.


Next up, the game and afterwards.

 

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