October is a time for football and, with Halloween, for mysteries. This week we have both.
The Oct. 31, 1924 Jackson County Journal carried a front-page story on what it said was the first football game played in Jackson County, held on Oct. 27 when Waynesville traveled here to play the Cullowhee squad.
It’s safe to assume the first football game was also the first instance of football reporting in the Journal, and there were some pretty big gaps in the story. To complicate matters further, the digital scan of that paper cut off parts of the story, making the event more incomplete still.
The first mystery might be why the first game was so late coming here.
Part of that might involve just how dangerous football was in its early years.
How dangerous? So dangerous Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Rough Rider himself, thought its death toll might bring the sport to an end.
“I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports,” Roosevelt said in 1903. “I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”
Problem was, it often was fatal. The year after Roosevelt’s comments, 1904, there were 18 recorded deaths and more than 150 serious injuries. In 1905 the tally ran to 19 dead. Much of the destruction was due to the grinding nature of the game, with players linking arms and pushing forward. (Not to mention kicking players in the head when they were down seemed to be quite common).
Some schools, including Duke, dropped football. Roosevelt helped spearhead reforms such as the forward pass that started the evolution toward the game we love today.
The first football championship game in North Carolina was held in 1913. There was no championship in 1918 due to the flu pandemic.
And then 1924 rolled around, and Jackson County got its taste of football.
The Journal story didn’t go into details as to exactly who Waynesville and Cullowhee were. However, further research indicates it was probably Cullowhee State Normal School, forerunner of Western Carolina University.
The story also didn’t say exactly where the game was played, and the score was cut off in the digital version of the story. Only a handful of players were mentioned, and in none of those instances was a first name used.
So. What we could divine is that the local team had traveled to Waynesville earlier and got thumped by a 72-3 count. The rematch showed a vastly improved squad that allowed only two TDs.
The Journal described the “first game ever played at Cullowhee or in Jackson County” thusly:
“Though handicapped by the lack of experience they played like veterans and with a little training to give them a better knowledge of the game threaten to become one of the strongest teams in this section. The game was full of thrills throughout.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Waynesville scored in the second. Following a scoreless third, Waynesville again scored “in the last few minutes of the final quarter.”
Credit was given to Coach Johnson for the team’s improvement. “Nolan most effective for Waynesville but the most spectacular playing was furnished by Hooper, left end, for Cullowhee. Time after time he ripped through the opposing line as if it were paper and seldom failed to down his man. He was by far the fastest man on the field.”
No fatalities were reported.