Valentine's Day has a way of bringing people together. But on Feb. 14, 1891, Nebraska fans came together around perhaps one of the most improbable finishes in program history. On that day, the NU faithful were abuzz because of a season finale unlike any before and any since — a college football showdown in the middle of February.
127 years ago, before Hallmark printed its first greeting card and before most Nebraskans knew a lick about the game of "foot ball" — at the time spelled as two words or hyphenated, nobody really seemed sure — in the Nebraska football program's infancy, it was this new game on the gridiron that led to a delicate pairing of two young programs taking a leap of faith.
Nearly two-and-a-half months after NU made its program debut in a 10-0 win at the Omaha YMCA, the Old Gold Knights — Nebraska wouldn't adopt the Huskers moniker for nearly another decade after shuffling through a number of other nicknames — took its inaugural campaign on the road for the second and final game of the season, this time traveling 30 miles southwest to Crete, Nebraska. It was in this town of about 2,300 people, the home of Doane College, that Nebraska looked to complete its first season with a flawless 2-0 record.
But just getting to this rare moment was a journey in itself. It very nearly didn't happen.
A 1967 report from the Crete News provides some background on the game's origins: In December 1890, Nebraska challenged Doane — which had yet to play an official match — to a game of football. The Hercules, as Doane was then nicknamed, apparently felt they couldn’t accept due to a lack of preparation.
However, Doane's student newspaper, the Owl, questioned its athletes' seriousness about the sport. "Instead of doing good faithful practice, the boys assembled each afternoon east of Merrill Hall and spent an hour kicking the ball around. Apparently the highest ambition of the boys was to kick the ball on the roof of Merrill Hall."
The hesitation on Doane's part is somewhat understandable. As Dirk Chatelain wrote in Nov. 2015, the game of football in this era was so new that in one article The World-Herald devoted more than 2,000 words to detailing the game's finer points, explaining the rules to an Omaha audience that clearly needed an introduction.
After the challenge was offered, not much is published about what happened in the interim. Presumably, Doane players got more serious about the proposal because in February, Owl editor Charles E. Chadsey traveled to Lincoln and hashed out the details for a showdown with the University.
The game — advertised as the first intercollegiate football game in the state's history — was set.
On game day, Dr. Langdon Frothingham — Nebraska's first-year coach and an agriculture professor who came to Lincoln from Harvard — boarded a train bound for Crete with his team and a group of somewhere between 50 to 75 Old Gold fans. Though various reports over the years seem to differ on whether Frothingham was even in attendance, the NU student newspaper was unwavering in its recount: "We are indebted to Dr. Frothingham for watching the ball and the individual plays during the game." It's said by some that Frothingham, who broke his leg participating in a practice scrimmage leading up to the game, may have even coached from the sideline on crutches.
At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 14, the opponents met on the muddy, slushy grounds "west of the reservoir" before a large crowd energized by a chance to witness the sport for the first time. Each attendee paid 25 cents, or about $6.50 in current dollars, to view the spectacle.
The Owl provides further details of the game:
>> The play-by-play wasn't pretty, as can be expected when one team is making its debut and another is playing its second game nearly three months removed from the season opener. Early in the first half, Doane kicked off from the wrong yard line. Both teams did plenty of rolling around in the mud, failing to gain yards with any regularity. Nebraska painstakingly built a 14-0 first-half lead — that's three four-point touchdowns and a two-point kick, as the game was then scored — then tacked on four more points in the second half after a Husker fell on a bungled Doane kick in the end zone to lock up an 18-0 victory. "The Doane team has no occasion to be discouraged over its defeat, for considering that no one in the school had ever seen a foot-ball game, and that it was thus almost purely theoretical, the game was a well contested one."
>> The officials — which at the time, according to the Crete News, typically wore top hats — were an umpire by the name of Mr. Marsland and Captain Cornell as referee.
>> Nebraska halfback Ebenezer Mockett and Chadsey, the Owl editor, served as team captains. No penalties were called on either unit.
>> There were no injuries reported in the game. "The University team are gentlemen and perfect good nature characterized the entire game," wrote the Owl.
The Nebraska student newspaper, a bi-weekly called the Hesperian, wrote a lengthy summary of the game. It didn't hold back in its recollection of the event.
"Two weeks ago our invincible foot ball team scored another victory," reads the first line of the report. It details each touchdown; An NU halfback with the last name Oliver (first name unknown) scored on runs of 25 and 15 yards, while Mockett found the end zone twice. It also tells of the Nebraska faction's victory tour, arriving back to campus by train two and a half hours late, and yet still welcomed by loyal students and the university band. A few of the revelers even went to the chancellor's residence — at 1 o'clock in the morning — to wake him with news of the game, though he had already heard the final result.
The Doane student newspaper lamented its team's lack of development at the halfback position, as well as its need of an athlete capable of exceeding at quarterback. The Hercules also sorely desired an experienced coach, Owl editors noted. "Oh that such a person would locate in Crete!"
The shutout victory locked up an undefeated, unscored upon opening campaign for Nebraska, albeit in a two-game season. The Huskers would accomplish this feat one other time in 1902, going 9-0 and outscoring opponents 159-0. Nebraska would go on to face Doane 17 more times from 1891 to 1912, including three more games in 1891. Nebraska compiled a 16-2 mark in the series.
After that first meeting, the cheerful mood was furthered when the Nebraska contingent was invited to a postgame reception at Doane's Gaylord Hall. Speeches were given about the game of football, and both teams spoke about a possible rematch. Other entertainment was provided as well. "Miss Chase favored the audience with a solo, and the Adelphian trio-quartette as usual took the house by storm," wrote the Owl.
From NU's Hesperian: "It may truthfully be said that Doane was far more successful at entertaining than she was at foot ball. This perhaps may be accounted for largely from the fact that in the former her co-eds took a prominent part."
In keeping with the Valentine's Day spirit, the Owl reported that guests from both schools spent the remainder of the evening "getting mutually acquainted."