Offsides was called “lurking” and, according to James D’Wolf Lovett’s book, “Old Boston Boys and the Games they Played,” “was considered by fair-minded boys an offense not to be countenanced for a moment, even if the boy guilty of it was on one’s own side.”
It wasn’t rugby, but it certainly incorporated elements of that sport. It wasn’t soccer, although, again, aspects of soccer were present. And it definitely wasn’t baseball, although Miller, an accomplished baseball player, used the terms “infielders” and “outfielders” to describe positions in Oneida formations.
A goal was scored by crossing a line at the end of the field. There were no goalposts or nets, no timeouts or time limits. To start the game, the ball was dropped into the middle of the field, and play was continuous until one side crossed the enemy’s goal line. The ball itself was more round than a modern football, but a visit to Historic New England shows that the actual one used in 1863 is not the classic soccer shape, either. It looks more like a square with the corners rounded off.
As different as the rules were, the players’ style may sound familiar, even if the wording is unlike anything in your morning newspaper. Take the description of Peabody in Lovett’s book. In a Wes Welker-like reference, he talks of players “steering clear of the ravenous wolves who were pursuing and rapidly hemming them in. Such players might be likened to the torpedo boats of a fleet, darting rapidly about and causing confusion to the enemy.”
There was also what could be the first reference ever to concussions in a football game. Lovett’s description of a play from the Nov. 7, 1863 game:
“Like a flash, [Edward Lincoln] Arnold shot one heel into the turf, came to a dead stop, ducked, and crouching low, covered his head just as the fellow came on, struck something, catapulted and landed 6 feet further on. Whether, if submitted to modern tests, he could then have given his correct name or age, is open to doubt.”
The game has changed, but maybe not as much as we think. The high school players gathering on fields across the state Thursday won’t have history on their minds, but they will certainly be a part of it.
For me, it all started with a Bob Walsh drawing. Nothing fancy, just a pencil-on-paper first noticed in the summer of 1996. The artist was a historian and retired army captain who had made the history of Massachusetts high school football his passion.
In the drawing, there were five men standing to the left, a milk-carton shaped tablet on the right. And on the tablet were the words, “Oneida Monument.”
Bob Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the Oneida team, go to Boston.com/schools.