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Notre Dame Football: Let’s Also Dedicate This Season to the First Irish Football Team in 1887

Those crazy bastards accepted a ridiculously unfair challenge and set the stage for the greatest college football program in American history

First Notre Dame Football Team

Folks, for the second week in a row, I’m digging into the buried archive of half-written articles begun by the Pats of COVID past in order to put out some fresh, unique content as we hit the home stretch of the slow period of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football off-season (I believe the team reconvenes with actual practices this week, but I might have made that up and/or hallucinated it). So, I figured if I was going to go back to the past to get another bolt of inspiration, I might as well go ALL THE WAY BACK into the Fighting Irish past — that is to say, to the very first ND football team in 1887.

On March 30, 2020, the world had only been shut down for 2-3 weeks. And yet I was so desperate for sports content — to both write about and consume in general — that I went to Twitter (uhh, I mean...X?) and good ole The Facebook in order to ask my adoring fans (i.e. those too lazy to unfollow/unfriend me) for questions they wanted me to answer for a special Q&A article during those unprecedented times.

Luckily, my good friend Jonah provided me with a very, very specific question that provided an excellent jumping-off point for a nice little history lesson: “What was your favorite part of the game vs. Michigan that took place on November 23, 1887?”

I know sometimes this would seem crazy given my old, cranky, and dare I say cantankerous attitude and demeanor in my writing and tweeting X-ing, but I actually wasn’t alive in 1887, having just missed that year by 104 trips around the sun.

So, in order to provide a well-informed answer to my buddy Jonha (not a typo — that’s what we call him sometimes because of other people’s typos at work), I scoured the world wide web for information about this 1887 game vs. Michigan that I just learned about from my pal’s comment on my Facebook status (now I sound really old). Of course, the internet refused to let me down, providing me a solid Wikipedia article about the 1887 Notre Dame football team and also an webpage with great information that now appears to not have anything on it? I found a few other useful sources and also several books I never got around to finding/reading/using for this, and so I felt as dangerously half-informed as I always am in what I write, which was more than enough to get me going.

I never actually wrote out the piece back in 2020, let alone published it, and so I feel now is the perfect time to revisit it. We all could use a little more near-education in our lives, and if it also has a connection to the Irish? Well, that’s why we’re all here at One Foot Down, I’d imagine — to learn just a tiny bit while we make fun of an old-timey sports team.

So, let’s do this — let’s explore the 1887 Michigan @ Notre Dame football game, identify my favorite part, and maybe be inspired by some brave souls along the way, eh?


The 1887-1888 Notre Dame Football Team — Quick-Hitting Facts

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame Photography
  • Head Coach: None
  • Record: 0-3
  • Captain: Henry Luhn, “Right Halfback”
  • Number of Players on the Team: 11
  • Number of Players on the Team Who’d Played Football Prior to November 23, 1887: 0
  • Awesome Mustaches in the Team Photo: 2

The 1887-1888 Notre Dame Football Team — The History

At the time of the founding of Notre Dame’s football team in 1887, the University of Michigan had already been playing the sport of football for ~8 years.

They were considered the “champions of the West,” which of course they were. I mean, just look at the who’s who of western powerhouses they played from 1879 to 1887:

  • Racine College
  • University of Toronto
  • Harvard
  • Yale
  • Princeton
  • “Detroit Independents”
  • Wesleyan University
  • Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Albion College
  • Chicago University Club (not to be confused with the University of Chicag, the Chicago University Club represented the University Club of Chicago, which was an organization of college graduates living in the Chicago area)
  • Windsor (representing the Ontario Rugby Football Union)
  • Peninsular Cricket Club (began as a cricket club in 1858, but by 1885 it had evolved into Detroit’s leading all-purpose athletic club, featuring baseball, tennis, and bicycling)
  • Chicago Harvard School
  • Notre Dame

The Wolverines went 15-6-1 from 1879 through the spring of 1888, beating up on Albion 4 times (Albion started playing football in 1884) and the Irish 3 times (within the first 4 months of ND knowing what football even was). I guess the wins over the cricket team, the Canadian schools, an honest-to-God high school, and the team of Chicago Sport & Social rec league young professionals were pretty impressive too.

Nobody pay attention to the Ivy League schools and Wesleyan going 6-0 against the “champions of the West,” please and thank you!

Anyway, the 1887 meeting between Michigan and Notre Dame was the result of a couple Wolverines having formerly been Notre Dame students. George Winthrop DeHaven Jr. and William Warren Harless — two guys who wouldn’t be able to fool anyone as time travelers if anyone asked their names and thought for a second about what era they could be from — had previously attended ND, and so in October of 1887, DeHaven wrote to Brother Paul, the man who ran Notre Dame’s intramural athletics program.

Father Superior Walsh, the 6th President of the University of Notre Dame
Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame

The Wolverines had planned a game against a bunch of high school kids on Thanksgiving Day for some reason, and so DeHaven figured he’d let Brother Paul know about this exciting new game of football and propose UM stopped by on their way to Chicago in order to discuss it in more detail and maybe even toss run the pigskin around a bit. Brother Paul persuaded folks at ND to allow it, and DeHaven and Harless got everyone on-board on the Ann Arbor side, and so the two schools agreed to play a football “match” on the Notre Dame campus on the day before Thanksgiving.

When the big day came, the Michigan players arrived on campus and were greeted by Father Superior Walsh, the president of Notre Dame at the time. They were given 2 hours’ worth of tours of the buildings and departments at ND, and then the Michigan squad met up with the 11 ND guys to teach them how to play football. Side note: I really want to know how they chose 11 dudes to play on the first Notre Dame football team, considering they didn’t know how the sport even worked. I NEED to know what that recruiting/team assembling process would look like. I’m imagining an Ocean’s Eleven or The Replacements montage of Brother Paul putting together a team of misfits to take down the Wolverines.*

*Side note to the side note: that’s the second time in 2 days I’ve thought about the movie The Replacements. I need to re-watch that classic ASAP.

Once the future-Irish lads had learned how the heck this football thing worked from a rules perspective, there was a “tutorial session” of sorts in which players from both teams were divided irrespective of university, and the teams scrimmaged for 30 minutes. The ND student newspaper, Scholastic, reported, “It was not considered a match contest, as the home team had been organized only a few weeks, and the Michigan boys, the champions of the West, came more to instruct them in the points of the Rugby game than to win fresh laurels.”

I’m sure you’re all thinking the same thing as me after reading that — what is a “fresh laurel” and why would they want to win any of those? According to a quick Google search, a laurel is either “any of a number of shrubs and other plants with dark green glossy leaves” or “an aromatic evergreen shrub related to the bay tree, several kinds of which form forests in tropical and warm countries.” OR, if you remember that stupid and weird audio thing from years ago where people could hear either “laurel” or “yanny” depending on the person, that also comes to mind.

Of course, you’re probably sitting there hollering at me that “laurel” can also mean to “bestow an award or praise on (someone) in recognition of an achievement,” but I am sure we can all agree that it’s much funnier if the 1887 Michigan Wolverines team decided to pass on their usual prize/demanded spoils of victory — an aromatic evergreen shrub — in order to instead just teach some Catholic kids a new game.

The practice session must have convinced everyone that the ND players now knew what was happening, because immediately after the scrimmage they played an actual game for a whopping 30 minutes. Considering Notre Dame had never played the sport before, they obviously didn’t have a beautifully-manicured field upon which to play it — especially in late November — so the conditions weren’t so ideal for this first-ever football match in South Bend.

A U of M newspaper called The Chronicle had this to say about the very short and very sloppy game between the team used to beating Albion/high schoolers/cricket players and the guys who’d never played this game 45 minutes ago:

“The grounds were in very poor condition for playing, being covered with snow in a melting condition, and the players could scarcely keep their feet. Some time had been spent in preliminary practice; the game began and after rolling and tumbling in the mud for half an hour time was finally called, the score standing 8 to 0 in favor of U. of M.” Sounds about as exciting and well-executed of a game as one of our absolute favorites of the BK era...

So to summarize, the “Champions of the West” went out there and put their toughness and mastery of the sport on display by winning 8-0 against some dudes who might not have all still totally understood the rules. Wowzers!!!

After the game, Michigan ate at the Notre Dame dining hall (too bad it wasn’t at NDH, the superior dining hall), and ND was very gracious for the Wolverines stopping on their way to kicking the shit out of a bunch of teenagers on Turkey Day in order to educate the Irish on the sport they’d eventually be MUCH better at than Michigan for decades and decades.

The Scholastic said, “After a hearty dinner, Rev. President Walsh thanked the Ann Arbor team for their visit, and assured them of the cordial reception that would always await them at Notre Dame,” and we know that’s definitely true and nothing would ever change in the relationship between these two schools to alter that expected cordial reception every time the Wolverines come to town!

Following the meal — which I guess was lunch — Brother Paul arranged for some carriages (I keep forgetting how long ago this was) in order to take the UM team to Niles in order to catch a 3:00pm train to Chicago. The Notre Dame paper reported: “At 1 o’clock carriages were taken for Niles, and amidst rousing cheers the University of Michigan football team departed, leaving behind them a most favorable impression.”

I’d like to think the newspaper reporter was just a bit dull and didn’t recognize that the rousing cheers were because Michigan was leaving, not despite that fact. But I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Anyway, following that game, ND would go on to play Michigan twice more in the following spring of 1888, losing to Michigan 26-6* at Green Stocking Ball Park** and 10-4 (???) in games on back-to-back days that sandwiched a lovely boat ride on St. Joseph’s Lake.

*Note: the 26-6 game was on 4/20, so I think we all know some goofiness was bound to occur with THESE potheads running around out there.

these guys partied.

**Another Note: Green Stocking Ball Park was the home of the South Bend Green Stockings, everyone’s favorite local baseball team that got heckled by people in Valparaiso for having “S.B.” on their jerseys, which the Valpo locals used to call them “silly boys.” The Green Stockings would go on to change their jerseys to say “South Bend” because of that devastating roast.

Something fun I’d like to mention about the events of those two days in the spring of ‘88 is that before the first game on 4/20, there was apparently a 100-yard dash run by players from both teams. Michigan brought out left halfback James E. Duffy to go against ND’s left halfback Harry Jewett, who was apparently the American sprint champion at the time? Duffy won, but again, it was 4/20 so I assume Harry J. was elsewhere and not super focused.

If you want to learn more about Harry Jewett, I recommend this 2013 piece I stumbled upon that has plenty of interesting detail about his life, including his speedy athletic exploits, his retail coal operation, the automobile corporation he grew to employ 2,300 people, and the work he did to introduce industrial-scale pheasant breeding and to stock the headwaters of the Rifle River with trout.

Common Pheasant display. Photo by: Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Anyway, despite taking losses in both games, the Irish began their honorable tradition of hurting Michigan fans via their football performance, as the Wolverine faithful were unhappy that their team had allowed an opponent to score points for the first time since 1883 — a span of 4+ years. ND lost the two games by a combined score of 36-10, which was enough for the Michigan fans to boo their players when they returned to Ann Arbor. DeHaven recalled, “It was a badly battered team that landed in the crowded Ann Arbor depot, and we received a proper razzing for breaking a four-year record.”

After that embarrassing performance by the Wolverines, they made it their new brand to refuse to travel anywhere to play against good teams that might beat them — something they really acquired a taste for in 1882, when they “played no outside games” according to Wikipedia. Michigan football would not return to South Bend to play the Fighting Irish until 1942, and after losing to the Irish in the 1943 game in Ann Arbor, they ducked out on the series altogether until 1978.

This was, of course, after finally losing to ND in 1909 forced Fielding Yost to blackball the Irish from not just playing the Wolverines, but all of the Western/Big Ten Conference. So Michigan went from 1910-1941 and from 1944-1977 without playing ND, for fear of suffering the dominance the Irish had begun putting on display from coast to coast against elite opponents who weren’t too much of cowards or anti-Catholic bigots to accept the challenge of facing Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, etc.


Alright, so with all the above said, what was my favorite part of that very first game ND and Michigan played in 1887? And also how is all this relevant to now, in 2023, in an era where any current Irish or Wolverine player would be able to snap those 1887 guys over their thighs like a brittle twig?

The answer to both questions is pretty simple. My favorite part, and what I’d like us all to connect to in the present day, is that these 11 brave souls on the 1887 Notre Dame football team had the courage and toughness and love for their University to sacrifice themselves for the good of the future.

Henry Luhn, Harry Jewett, Frank Fehr, Patrick Nelson, Edward Sawkins, George Houck, Frank Springer, Tom O’Regan, James Maloney, George Cartier, and Joe Cusack (plus 1888 additions Gene Melady, Joe Hepburn, and Edward Prudhomme). Those are the names of young fellas who’d never played the sport of football before who volunteered to represent Notre Dame against one of the “best” teams of the time in an unwinnable first battle on the gridiron. Michigan was 11-6-1 entering that November 23rd event that took place in front of 400-500 students, and they not only had 11 guys who actually knew how to play football, but an additional 4 substitute players, meaning they didn’t need their entire team to play both ways the entire game like the future-Irish did.

Those brave 11 ND students, knowingly or not, put their health and safety and dignity on the line in order to begin what would become the single most important program in terms of taking the University of Notre Dame from being a good midwestern Catholic university into being a world-renowned, prestigious Catholic university known for excellence in all aspects. What the football program would end up doing for Notre Dame is, as we all know, invaluable, and it all started when Luhn and his Loonies willingly agreed to be taught a sport by the same team they intended to compete against in that sport 30 minutes later.

So, last week I asked us all to consider dedicating the 2023 Notre Dame football season to Club Fever, because I felt we all needed some chaotic, magical, drunken energy to make it a year to remember. To add to that, I think we need to dedicate the 2023 season to those crazy hombres in 1887 and 1888 who were outscored 44-10 in 3 games because they knew it would lead to something great — the greatest and most storied college football program in all of America, with 11 national titles, 7 Heismans, and countless legendary players and coaches who graced the Notre Dame campus with their presence.

Let’s go out there this season and just absolutely pummel the competition, because the 1887/1888 kids didn’t know how to — let’s dominate all the 2023 opponents in honor of the decades of 20th century dominance that only happened because of the bravery and determination of those crazy fellas in that old photo, who took a chance and suffered multiple losses for the greater good.

#LetsDoItForFeve, and now, #LetsDoItFor1887