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The seven-yard rule:

In the last blog I discussed some major rule changes in the early days of “modern” football.  I say “modern” but as I said in the blog it would be a while before the game would reflect the game of today. The game was evolving slowly from a rugby scrum to a more polished offensive attack.

An April 2, 1898 article in the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper told of an Appleton convention of over 100 teachers and administrators that gathered in a semi-annual event of the Northeastern Teachers Association.  Among the topics there were discussions on manual training, something about semi-annual promotion (I’m not sure what this was about), and there was a talk on the phases of kindergarten work.  One person, Oshkosh high schools Prof. White talked about safety in foot ball and he campaigned for the new seven-yard rule.  As a result, the principals voted unanimously in favor of the new rule that had been semi-adopted in the state in 1897. There was so much enthusiasm by the attendees that they decided that they would do all in their power to influence the clubs of what was called in the story the state league.  Evidently this rule was not, at the time, enforced by the fairly new WIAA. 

So, what was the seven-yard rule?

Up to this time, the rules of the game had a team on offense required to gain five yards in three plays. By making it seven yards it was hoped to open the game up more and to help do away with so much roughness. Instead of, as today, four downs to get a first down, the teams of the era had only three downs. Hence, if you weren’t close to picking up the first down in two plays, you punted. Games were often a matter of a punting match unless a runner was able to break away from the scrum. The game was often a series of line plunges going for a few yards.

Maybe Menasha High School wasn’t at the meeting, or the football team reneged on the adopted rule change. Several weeks before Menasha was to meet Oshkosh, a list of demands was presented to them to clarify the rules of the game. Oshkosh had heard that Menasha was using the five-yard rule. While Menasha was able to generally agree to the format outline presented to them by Oshkosh, they would not agree to the seven-yard rule. Messages were exchanged but no agreement could be reached and so the game was called off. Harsh words in the Oshkosh Northwestern were written:

“The Oshkosh High school, wishing to please the more refined patrons of the game, decided at the beginning of the season to adopt the seven-yard gain, although this was left entirely optional to the rules”.

“From the stand taken by Menasha it is evident that the team is not in favor of a clean, open game, but desires the former “slugging matches” which have so materially injured the sport by reducing science to pugilistic brutality. The Oshkosh team regrets that Menasha has no desire to elevate foot ball that point where a consensus of opinion in its favor is obtained, thereby regaining the patronage it has lost because of its roughness”.

Back in September Oshkosh High school released a season schedule, unusual for the era by most schools. Often teams set up their first two-three games then scrambled each week to add more opponents. What is also unusual is that, for the most part, the schedule was played as reported.

*The game against Ripon College’s 2nd team could have been considered a loss anyplace but Oshkosh. In a moment you will learn why.

**A note later about the Normal 2nds from November 5 concerning Menaha.

First, a note about the schedule.

At this time Appleton High was more commonly known as Ryan High of Appleton. The seven-yard rule controversy occurred in October with Oshkosh’s attempt to make sure Menasha “played by the rules”. As you look at the original schedule Oshkosh wasn’t scheduled to play Menasha until mid-November. The war of words occurred about five weeks in advance of the game which was cancelled by Oshkosh. The second game against Neenah was moved to November and a game with Ripon College’s varsity was added as was a November 5th game vs. Oshkosh Normal (UW-Oshkosh today). And yes, some colleges in the 1890’s didn’t have set schedules as well.

The game against the Ripon College 2nds was a controversial event as Ripon left the field in a huff in the middle of the second half (They were playing 35-minute half’s, no 12–15-minute quarters at the time. But the length of the half’s could vary between 25-35 minutes. The problem developed at the location of the game which had a, then, regulation field…110-yards, with goal posts BUT the goal posts had no cross bars. Crazy. For some reason the crossbars had been removed. The officials had to judge, when a field goal or extra point was attempted, to determine if the proper height was obtained for a score. As the game progressed each team missed a field goal kick. In the newspapers opinion there was no question that the goals were missed. As the second half opened Ripon was ahead 11-5. Then, Graves of Oshkosh scored a touchdown, and the score was now 11-10. Gilkey of Oshkosh made a try for the extra point, tying the game but Ripon complained to the officials and when their protest was turned down Ripon left the field. A representative for the Northwestern newspaper reported that the section that held the goal cross bars had a small piece of pipe sticking out. The kick appeared to him that the ball hit the piping and if the crossbar had been in place the ball would not have gone over. By Ripon walking off referee Larish of Oshkosh awarded the game to Oshkosh with a score of 11-0.

Next, I found an unusual November story in the Oshkosh newspaper. Not only was the early September school schedule but I located a season recap that was confusing. The story appeared in the November 29 paper. The story offered the scores of the games that the team played but left out the loss to the Normal school and yet they claimed to be undefeated, winning 10 games with two of them being forfeits. The second Berlin game was in fact a forfeit but the recap listed a second Green Bay game that was also declared a forfeit win. Do the math. If you look at the dates of the games played, always on a Saturday, when could they have played Green Bay, or at least receive a forfeit? The team played every Saturday from the last Saturday in September to the third Saturday in November. No open dates. The November 24th game was on Thanksgiving, a Thursday. There was no time to schedule an eleventh game so I conclude that Oshkosh only played, with a forfeit included, 10-games. I also found a season ending recap, again unusual to the era, in the Green Bay Press-Gazette and there was only the mention of the Thanksgiving score.

One additional note. The last game of 1897 was on Thanksgiving and Oshkosh defeated Waupaca 12-4. The story from the November 29, 1898, recap of the season stated that Oshkosh had been undefeated for 11 games. It ignored the loss to Normal. Later, in the 1900-1910’s Oshkosh would claim that they were state champions in 1908-1913 even though they were considered statewide as the 1908, 1910 and 1912 champs. It’s true that they were often undefeated against other high school teams, but they often lost, and sometimes badly to college teams.

How good was the Oshkosh football program? In addition to the nine games the first team won, the seconds were 4-0-0, the thirds were 3-0-0 and the fourth team was 2-0-0. Having four teams (11-14 players on each team to allow for substitutes) was also VERY unusual. Most schools had only pictures of the varsity (First team) and occasionally the second team. They were certainly one of the top teams in the state, but the best was Milwaukee South Side (Later South Division), a team that went undefeated, untied, and unscored upon with an 8-0-0 record. That team would be later rated, when early teams were evaluated by national prep experts in the early 2000’s, ranked as the mythical national champion as well as the state mythical champs.

More on the seven-yard rule:

The seven-yard rule must have been brought up by Oshkosh Normal, even though it wasn’t reported in the paper. The Normal 2nds played Menasha on November 5th and was destroyed, 39-0. What might have happened if Oshkosh and Menasha had met?

A few years ago, a blog from someone in Menasha used the two articles from the Northwestern that I referred to earlier concerning the seven-yard rule. Check it out: MENASHA: That Seven Yard Rule (

Thanks for reading.

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