Davidson History: Gobblers and Pigskins
As we anticipate Thanksgiving, many of us think of football in addition to turkey and all the trimmings. In earlier times, however, Davidson fans could watch football in a much more up-close and personal way…an actual Davidson football game.
In 1876, Princeton and Yale played the first Thanksgiving Day college football game. Yale won 2-0 in front of a crowd of less than a thousand. In those days, only seven years after the first intercollegiate football game, football still strongly resembled rugby. Within five years, football was more popular; the Princeton-Yale rivalry was a highlight of the New York City social scene; and thousands attended the games.
In 1891 Harper’s Weekly noted that “A great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of Thanksgiving Day Dinner, the Thanksgiving Day game. And now everyone goes out to see Princeton and Yale decide the football championship…instead of boring each other around the dinner table.” The idea of playing football on Thanksgiving soon extended from colleges to high schools and club teams. By the middle of the 1890s, there were approximately 5000 Thanksgiving games across the country. According to an 1893 article in the New York Herald, “In these times Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. It is a holiday granted by the State and the nation to see a game of football.”
Davidson didn’t start to play intercollegiate football until 1898, but there were Thanksgiving Day games at the college as early as 1890. At that time, teams were chosen from among the entire student body. According to the Davidson Monthly, “The greatest thing in the world was the football game at Davidson College on last Thanksgiving…We cannot play Yale at New York or even Trinity (now Duke) at Charlotte, but gentle friends, we can play Davidson College, and so we did…We had a good game…The field was hard fought…None of the players were killed or maimed for life, but honorable blood was shed…We had ladies to witness our struggles, and though they did not wear pink or blue stockings (Davidson’s colors then were pink and blue, in honor of the literary societies) or lead around lap dogs bedecked with college colors, their hearts were in the right place, and they took a kindly interest in the players.”
During this period, apparently, students did not leave the campus for the holiday. According to Raleigh’s State Chronicle, the Thanksgiving celebration at the college in 1890 included an address by Henry Louis Smith on Wednesday afternoon, a tennis tournament on Thursday morning, and a football game in the afternoon. That night students and guests enjoyed a “literary and musical entertainment.” Games were not always played on the Davidson campus. The Chapel Hill Tar Heel reported in 1896 that players from Davidson’s medical school traveled to Greensboro to engage players at UNC’s medical school. In 1898, the first season Davidson played intercollegiate football, the Charlotte Observer noted that Davidson would play the Greensboro football team in Charlotte on Thanksgiving. In his reminiscences of the college, however, Walter Lingle reported that Davidson played the University of South Carolina in Charlotte that year and won 6-0.
The Thanksgiving football tradition at Davidson continued into the 20th century, extending until at least 1939. In 1901 the Raleigh News and Observer reported that Davidson would meet North Carolina A and M (now N.C. State) in Raleigh and predicted that “a large and enthusiastic crowd will witness the struggle between these two teams.” In 1902 the game, scheduled against the University of South Carolina, was cancelled because of a dispute over where it would be played. In 1904, the game against Guilford, was played in Southside Park in Winston-Salem. According to the Charlotte News, Guilford had been practicing hard, and “a hard fight is expected.” The railroad was offering $1.50 round-trip fares, and “a large crowd of enthusiastic ‘rooters’ are expected to accompany the train.”
In 1906, the college’s second team played the Charlotte YMCA team at Latta Park, but by 1907 they, again, had a college opponent, playing the UNC Tarheels before what was expected to be a large and enthusiastic crowd. In 1909, Davidson played V.M.I. in a game that resulted in a V.M.I. cadet being seriously injured, and 1910 saw the first game in a longtime rivalry when Davidson met Wake Forest in Charlotte. In 1912, an unidentified person from Wake Forest suggested to the Charlotte News that this Thanksgiving rivalry become a permanent feature of the holiday. Although he questioned whether the City of Charlotte would support this idea, he envisioned it as something that “the people could look forward to, similar to the Virginia-Carolina games.” The game took place again in 1913, but by 1918, Davidson was playing Clemson. Davidson and Wake Forest, however, continued to play at other times, and even resumed their Thanksgiving Day Rivalry during the 1930s.
In 1920 Davidson lost to Furman 7-0, in a game viewed by 4,000 spectators and described by the Charlotte News as “one of the most bitterly contended ever played by the Furman team,” featuring “repeated brilliant performances.” Furman defeated Davidson the next year 28-0 in what was now being called the “Turkey Day Classic.” In her 1923 history of Davidson College, Cornelia Shaw wrote that “The Thanksgiving game of football, followed by the Senior Orations and the influx of fluttering femininity, has been for some years the culminating point of interest in the fall term.”
Usually attended by whole student body, the game was “a period of nerve-racking strain, culminating (usually in later years) in a riotous exuberance of victory…If the team can reach home the evening of the game, and victory has been theirs, there is always a torch-light parade…This parade, with its motley costumes and flaring torches, includes a visit to the home of each professor who is called out of his study or his bed to make a short speech.”
In 1923, Davidson played Trinity University (now Duke University) in Charlotte, a game in which, according to the 1925 Davidsonian, “a wabbling (sic) Davidson eleven fell before the powerful Trinity line on a muddy field.” Davidson continued to play Duke for several years…In 1924 they were victorious in Durham, and in 1925, Davidson won at home 26-0 in front of 3000 spectators…According to the Davidsonian, the Wildcat team displayed its “greatest form” and had “one brilliant and sensational play after another.”
They won again in 1926, but in 1927 the Blue Devils were victorious 48-7. The Davidson-Duke matches continued until 1929, when the Wildcats again beat the Blue Devils, 13-12.
By 1931, Davidson and the Demon Deacons were once again Thanksgiving Day rivals, playing at Central High School stadium in Charlotte. In 1933, they defeated the Deacons 20-13. They played again in 1934, and presumably for several more years, but by 1939 Memorial Stadium in Charlotte had signed a contract with Wake Forest, who would be meeting the University of South Carolina on Thanksgiving. There is no information available on later Davidson Thanksgiving games, if they, indeed, occurred.
Starting in the 1940s, interest in college Thanksgiving Day games began to wane, and the NFL began to take over. While there have been some legendary college games played during the weekend, including Army-Navy, Alabama-Auburn, Georgia-Georgia Tech, and Clemson-University of South Carolina, few are played on Thursday. There are, however, several college rivalries that have continued to be settled on Thanksgiving Day. Alabama State and Tuskegee played from 1924-2012, and resumed their holiday game in 2016. It is the oldest black college football classic in the country. Ole Miss and Mississippi State have played on Thanksgiving off and on, and by 2019 had met 26 times. Their rivalry, dubbed the “Egg Bowl,” will continue this year. Longtime rivals Fresno State and San Jose State will also meet on Thanksgiving evening.
While many of us enjoy sitting in front of the TV watching football on Thanksgiving, wouldn’t it be thrilling actually to see our own team’s game as spectators did in the past? Not to mention that it would be a fun and convivial activity to replace Thanksgiving Day bargain shopping.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history. She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.