Football Comes To Oshkosh High

Michael Goc

When twenty-three year old Walter P. White signed the contract to teach mathematics and science at Oshkosh High School in 1891, he was more than qualified for the job. He had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College and was completing work on the master’s degree Harvard University would award him in 1892.  The young scholar brought his love of learning to the sawdust city on the Fox and he also brought his love for football. 

Walter P. White in 1906. (Carnegie Institute for Science)

With its roots in English rugby and rough-and-tumble American playground games, football became a more or less organized sport on Ivy League campuses like Amherst, Yale and Harvard in the 1870s. It was the ideal sport for energetic young men from the middle and upper classes who liked to run, chase balls and knock shoulders, elbows and heads. Working class fellows were less interested since they got more than their fair share of running, chasing and head knocking at their jobs in mill, mine or factory.

           Few, if any, of the boys attending Oshkosh high when White arrived were working stiffs. Quite the contrary, their parents presumed their boys were in school to prepare themselves to take their rightful places as leaders in business and the professions. Some of the boys felt that school should be about more than book learning. When White showed them his yearbook pictures of “husky padded-suit gridders” he “flamed their athletic imaginations.”  

 The number of males enrolled at Oshkosh high was small and not all of them were football-flammable. Baseball was the “American pastime” and football fans were hard to find. As one of White’s first players, Earl A. Clemans, reminisced “the average adults were convinced that football was on the level of a bullfight and ought to be outlawed.” Of greater import to the boys was the fact that high school girls hated the game and no young lady would willingly appear on the sidelines.

 Parental opposition was also strong. Some fathers might be supportive but rare was the mother willing to allow her boy to jam his unhelmeted head into a scrimmage. White was not able to field a team of twelve “men” until 1893. The school board showed grudging support by approving the purchase of one—and only one—football.  Fearing for worse if they did not step in, mothers sewed cotton padding into the heavy canvas pants and jerseys they bought for uniforms and insisted the boys wear strap-on nose guards. No helmets.

 Motherly caution was justified. The rules gave the offense three downs to move the ball five yards for a first down. With no forward passing allowed, plays consisted of variations on the tactic of giving the ball to the burliest player and aligning blockers in front so one and all could bully their way down field. Play did not stop until the ball carrier was down flat, usually with half the opposing team on top.

Finding other teams to play was also difficult and Oshkosh’s first opponents were second team college squads from Lawrence and Ripon. Oshkosh met Fond du Lac and Ripon high schools in 1894 and, in 1895, White’s squad was playing high school teams from Milwaukee.

 As grudging acceptance morphed into popularity, coaches and principals realized that high school football had to be organized.  Rules of play, of substitution, even the size of the field were not standardized. The quality of referees varied and spectators could be unruly and intimidating to visiting teams. The most serious problem, especially in the eyes of educator/coaches like W.P. White, was the practice of allowing and paying non-students– “ringers”– to play for high schools.

 After the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on “a scandal….involving ringers on high school teams,” White invited his colleagues from Fond du Lac and Ripon to meet in Oshkosh. In late 1895, they organized the “Eastern Wisconsin High School Association,”   to set standards and regulate high school sports in their region. About the same time, Milwaukee’s three high schools also agreed to play by the same set of rules.

 With strong encouragement from coaches at the University of Wisconsin, other high school coaches and administrators began to see the need for a statewide athletic association.  They came together at the Wisconsin Teachers Association annual meeting during Christmas break in 1896. After a day of discussion they agreed to create what became the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. It was the first statewide high school athletic association in the United States.

 “We want fair play, we want sport, not professionalism,” said Janesville superintendent D.D. Mayne. He was appointed to the Association’s rules committee, along with S.A. Hooper of Milwaukee South and W.P. White of Oshkosh. They drew up rules requiring signed parental permission slips and stipulated that an athlete had to be “an amateur and a student” for no more than four years. To qualify as a student and play sports, an athlete had be enrolled full time and “passing” three courses, including no more than two free-hand drawing classes. White later said that his goal was to “keep out athletic bums, fellows who attend school only for the purpose of participating in baseball and football games.” While it may not have achieved that high-minded goal, the association rules did set statewide standards for high school sports. By 1899, Oshkosh was playing and defeating teams from Milwaukee, Racine, Green Bay and Marinette. After vanquishing a total of six teams that year, Oshkosh claimed the “state championship.”

 White stayed in Oshkosh about a decade. In 1901, he began work on a doctorate in physics at Cornell University. Awarded his Ph’d. in 1904, White took a position at the newly-founded Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.  He spent the next thirty years at Carnegie, focusing his research on the physics of extreme high temperatures. He died in 1946, leaving a legacy to science and high school sports.

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