Football, once called the Boston Game, was played on many historic New England football fields since the 19th century. And New England has made many contributions to the development of the sport.
As early as 1827, New England college students played an organized football game. New England jocks formed the first organized football club (there’s a plaque on Boston Common about it). The National Football League also played its first night game in New England.
But even more significant, a New England college was the birthplace of modern football and the modern football stadium.
New England even had an NFL championship before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick joined the New England Patriots – in fact, before they were born.
Here, then, are six historic football fields or their exact locations, one in each New England state.
Had it not been for an architect named Charles Ferry, the Superbowl might be called something else. Ferry designed the Yale Bowl Stadium as – well, the first bowl-shaped football field.
Fill was used from the field to form an elliptical berm around the stadium. Ferry designed the exterior in a neo-Gothic style, and acid was poured on it to make it look old.
For some reason Ferry failed to include locker rooms in the stadium; Yale football players must walk 200 yards from the Smilow Field Center. They enjoy the walk, but the New York Giants who played there in 1973 and 1974 did not.
The Yale Bowl was finished in 1914 with 70,896-seats and renovated in 2006 with 61,446. No stadium in the United States is older and larger than the Yale Bowl. It inspired the shape of the Rose Bowl, the name of post-season college football games and the name of the premier football contest in the world.
It isn’t just the modern stadium that began at Yale. So did modern football. A former Yale football star named Walter Camp set the rules for today’s game over the course of 15 years in the late 19th century.
But almost from the beginning, Bates has had a football rivalry with the Bowdoin Polar Bears, one of the oldest college rivalries in the country. It started when a Bates player wrapped the college’s garnet-and-white scarf around Bowdoin’s statue of a polar bear. Bowdoin players wrapped their black-and-white scarf around Bowdoin’s statue of a bobcat. But Bates students have soaked the scarf in gasoline and set it on fire after a football win.
Bates fans call their opponent “Blowdoin,” “Harvard rejects” and “plantation boys.” Bowdoin students taunt “dirty Lews,” referring to Lewiston’s poverty. Both sides call the other “safety school.”
In the 18th century, football started out in the United States as something like the medieval European sport of mob football. The game had unlimited players, and one of its few rules disallowed manslaughter and murder as ways to move the ball.
By the 19th century, mob football moved to college campuses as an intramural sport. Each college played by its own rules. A Harvard tradition known as Bloody Monday started in 1827, with the freshmen playing the sophomores. Winslow Homer illustrated the game in an engraving called Class Day at Harvard University in 1858. The game often ended with injuries, so college administrators finally banned it.
By then, another version called the Boston Game grew popular at East Coast prep schools. It used a round, inflatable ball introduced in 1855. Graduates of Boston’s elite prep schools formed what some consider the first organized football club. They called it the Oneida Football Club.
The Oneidas played pickup teams from 1862-65 on Boston Common. In 1925, surviving members of the club dedicated a small stone monument on the Common that claims it never allowed a point. The inscription reads, “On this field the Oneida Football Club of Boston, the first organized football club in the United States, played against all comers from 1862 to 1865. The Oneida goal was never crossed.”
Dartmouth College Green
In 1867, Dartmouth had its own version of football, called Whole Division. Seniors and sophomores played juniors and freshman in chasing after a ball. Every ambulatory student played the game.
Nine years later, three Dartmouth students put up rugby-style goal posts on the campus green for football games. The Dartmouth administration didn’t sanction the game and tore down the goal posts by commencement. One of the three students, Lewis Parkhurst, later donated the money for Dartmouth’s main administration building, Parkhurst Hall. The football team would later be called Big Green.
Dartmouth played its first intercollegiate football game against Amherst College in 1881, by a touchdown. The score: 1-0. That auspicious start for Big Green came before a crushing 53-0 loss to Harvard in 1882 and an even worse loss to Yale in 1884 by a score of 113–0.
Providence Steam Roller was the first New England team to won the NFL championship — in 1928. The Steam Roller – not the Steamrollers – was so named as an unstoppable force of athletic prowess. It played in a stadium built for bicycle races called the Cycledrome.
The team was founded in 1916 by Providence Journal staffers, a judge and a real estate developer. It soon became a regional powerhouse and was considered the best independent team in the country. The Steam Roller began playing NFL teams in 1924. It did so well against them the owners decided to join the NFL in 1925. In 1928 the Steam Roller won the NFL championship with the best winning percentage in the league. Each player got a gold watch.
A peek into the Steam Roller’s finances in 1927 showed one of the team’s major expenses was 15 percent of the gate receipts to the Cycledrome. The NFL took 1 percent of gate receipts, visiting teams took $2,475 and the players – all of them — earned $1,972 in salary. That left the team almost $6,000 in the black that year. Financial difficulties eventually doomed the team at the end of the 1931 season.
The Steam Roller made history in 1929 in a November game scheduled against the Chicago Cardinals. A storm made the field unplayable. They decided to play a night game three days later on Nov. 6 at nearby Kinsley Park, which had just gotten lights. The ball was painted white and 6,000 people came to watch.
The two football fields are now parking lots. The Cycledrome is a parking lot and a Peter Pan bus station between I-95 and Rte. 1. Kinsley Park is a parking lot at the corner of Kinsley and Acorn streets.
At the intersection of Intervale and Riverside roads in Burlington, Vt., is a highway plaque marking the site of Athletic Park. It was located on the streetcar line between Burlington and Winooski. The University of Vermont’s football team played there from 1887 until 1906.
Vermont’s football history is otherwise limited. Only two players in the NFL even attended college in Vermont: Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon played just one season at Norwich University before transferring, and Seattle Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka graduated from Middlebury College.
Vermont high schools have produced only three NFL players: Joe Shield, Jason Foster and Bob Yates, according to the Burlington Free Press. Shield didn’t produce a single statistic in just three games for the Green Bay Packers in 1986, and Yates never started a game in five seasons as an offensive lineman for the Boston Patriots from 1961-65.
The third, Jason Foster, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, was known for receiving a 5 on the Wonderlic test, the second lowest score in NFL history. Wonderlic is an intelligence test in which a score of 10 suggests literacy.
Photos: Yale Bowl BBy Parkerjh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=103979446. This story last updated in 2022.