In the fall of 1908, the Michigan football team practiced in Ferry Field before playing the Buckeyes. A hard block on a punt return led to the ball squirting out and players scrambled to get their hands on what the Michigan Daily called the “elusive pigskin.”

The centennial of that season is upon us, but the game is different and the language used to talk about it is different too. Michigan Daily sportswriters got through 2007 using pigskin just once in discussing a current game, and it doesn’t seem very likely that today’s loose ball would be described as elusive. One certainty is that no twenty-first century fan would use Buckeye to name the team fielded by Case Institute of Technology. Other opponents would seem unfamiliar today too. The Michigan Aggies would not now be readily recognizable as the Spartans of East Lansing, and Pennsy is no longer on the Michigan schedule.

Terms now familiar to modern fans didn’t exist in 1908 or didn’t have meanings associated with football: blitz, hail mary, nickel back, pocket. sack, redshirt. Most of these terms did not come into football use until long afterward.

Players looked different, too. Not until the eve of the second world war did Michigan introduce the famous winged helmet. Nowadays, there are even taxis painted to resemble these football helmets.

This is now; that was then.

The 1908 repertoire contained strategies now largely forgotten:  broken fields, double forward pass, the line smashing stunt, the tackle about play.

Ways of talking about opponents have changed too: haughty Quakers and Quaker aggregation for the University of Pennsylvania nowadays would be ruled out as politically incorrect. (Until the 1980s, the teams from Earlham College were known as the fighting Quakers—an ironic take on the traditional modesty and pacifism of the Society of Friends. Irony is an endangered rhetorical strategy, and in the 1990s they became the Hustlin’ Quakers. But even that was too much, and they are now merely Quakers.) Haughty Quakers for Pennsy may have been at least marginally polite in 1908, though less so, perhaps after the Haughty Quakers decisively shut out the Michigan team.

In 1905, the Chicago Tribune reported that the progress of the “Ann Arbor struggle” between the University of Chicago and Michigan would be treated play-by-play on a scoreboard—the first use of play-by-play in the modern sense.  For the Buckeye game in 1908, the Michigan Telephone Company provided an open line from Ferry Field to the Daily offices, and the reporter on the scene wrote sequentially of the important plays. Consequently, the Daily had a souvenir paper ready for sale on State Street almost as soon as the game was finished. The extra, with its play-by-play account, scooped other papers by at least half an hour.

Pep rally didn’t come along until 1915, but fans in Ann Arbor prepared for the game with a mass meeting including, among other stimulants, the latest in cheers. Thomas Trueblood, the professor of elocution and oratory (and subsequently the golf coach), taught fans the locomotive, and a student yell master coached them in one of the latest: “G-r-r-r-rah! Michigan! Rah!” Nowadays that rich tradition has reduced itself to “Go! Blue!” echoing back-and-forth across the stadium.

“Jubilant is fandom” was the lead of a Daily story celebrating a Michigan victory in 1908, but no twenty-first century sportswriter would begin with such a sentence. Pigskin gave way to cowhide, and cowhide to synthetics. Along with much else in the game, our way of talking football has changed too.

Leave a comment: