Cross-border football rivalry — Shamrocks played University of North Dakota in 1903

by Bruce Cherney

Every evening at 5 o’clock with the chill of autumn in the air, the Winnipeg Shamrocks would head to the practice field to prepare for the first cross-border football match between a Manitoba team and the University of North Dakota.

Because they would be using American football rules in Grand Forks, practice was essential for the Manitoba Rugby Union champions.

“Although the date is bad — near the end of the month and many players are bankers — they will turn out and practice hard at the United States game ...,” the Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram reported on October 27, 1903.

At the time, the American and Canadian versions of football possessed many similarities as well as some significant differences. What the two games did have in common was their roots in the English game of Rugby, although the New World versions had become hybrids of the original Old World game.

The origin of the Canadian and American versions can be traced to a friendly two-game match of “football” between McGill University and Harvard University on May 14 and 15, 1874, in Cambridge, Massachussets. At the time, football was  played in the U.S. using a round soccer ball, while McGill for years had been playing with an oval rugby ball. The first game played on the 14th employing Harvard rules resulted in the home team winning 3-0. For the next day game, employing Canadian rules, a rugby ball could not be found. The teams were forced to use a soccer ball for the Canadian rules match that ended in a scoreless draw. 

Despite the outcome, the Americans were sold on McGill’s style of play. The editor of the Harvard Magenta described the Canadian version as more lively “than the sleepy game our men now play!”

Within a year, Harvard had convinced other Ivy League school teams to join in playing the McGill version of rugby-football.

From the game played between McGill and Harvard, the Americans adapted their own style of play which in turn influenced Canadian football. Still, Canadians were slow to adapt some of the better U.S. innovations such as the forward pass and the snap-back.

Strictly speaking, Canada was still playing a version of rugby in 1903 when the Shamrocks challenged the University of North Dakota to a football match. But 1903 was to be a watershed year for Canadian football with the adoption of new rules that dramatically differed from rugby.

In 1903, teams on both sides of the border were playing three-down football (the Americans didn’t adopt four downs until 1912). Yet across Canada, there was little conformity in the rules. The Montreal Herald in November 1904 wrote it would be a good idea that a “standard set of football rules” be used across the country. At the time, there were four different styles of play. In the “extreme East and West,” English rugby, or a game modeled after it, was played. In Quebec, rugby was played with two major modifications — 14 instead of 15 players per side and the team with the ball required to gain five yards in three downs to maintain possession.

In Ontario, a style similar to American football was played, but with some exceptions, including a prohibition on off-side, interference and mass plays. The Ontario rules were not accepted by the Canadian Rugby Union, so the Ontario Rugby Union dropped out of the national association.

Intercollegiate play in Eastern Canada basically used the Quebec game, but the team with the ball was required to make 10 yards rather than five yards in three downs to maintain control.

The Morning Telegram promoted a uniform set of rules. An editorial said on November 8, 1904, that the Canadian Rugby Union should combine the best aspects of the game found in the four different sets of rules. “If they could reach such agreement Canada would have a standard style of game, and a trophy like the Stanley Cup, would probably cause the teams to travel in quest of championships much the same as hockey teams do.”

It wasn’t until 1909 that a national trophy was specifically commissioned by Earl Grey (Lord Grey), Canada’s then governor general (1904-11), for the amateur rugby-football championship — the Grey Cup. And it wasn’t until 1921 and the formation of the Western Canada Rugby Football Union that Western teams also vied for the cup, making it a true Canadian championship. In 1935, the Winnipeg Football Club, with nine American players on its roster, became the first Western-based team to win the Grey Cup, defeating the Hamilton Tigers 18-12.

The 1904 Telegram editorial said no one was satisfied by any of the versions of football played in Canada. “The Ontario rules make the play monotonous, and fail to interest spectators. The Quebec and intercollegiate rules permit too much close play, though they have been so amended as to make the game more open during the past two seasons. The English game isn’t exciting enough to draw crowds though it has many commendable features.”

A significant difference in the game played by the University of North  Dakota and the Winnipeg Shamrocks was how the ball was put into play. In Canada, teams had by 1882 begun using a quarterback, but the ball was still “heeled back” like in rugby. The “open formation” scrimmage was introduced for the first time in 1880, requiring both teams to line up across from each other (not the scrum employed in rugby). From the open formation, the centre heeled back the ball to the quarterback. On either side of the centre, a “scrim support” (recognizable as offensive linemen today) protected the centre and delayed rushes by the opposition. In the U.S. version of the game, a “snap-back” from the centre to quarterback had already been adopted. It wasn’t until 1921 that the “snap-back” system was used across Canada.

Many Canadian teams recognized the superiority of the “snap-back” system, but old-time officials in charge of the game wanted to retain many rugby traditions. 

The Toronto Telegram wrote on October 18, 1905: “There does not seem to be any great controversy this fall over the respective merits of the scrimmage and the snapback game of rugby ... The snapback has certainly come to stay ... In the old scrimmage weight was the first requisite, and with it came unfortunately roughness amounting to brutality ... Weight in the snapback is a consideration ... but it is secondary to speed. A combination of the two is ideal.”

A benefit of the Ontario system was that it allowed the quarterback a clear view of the field and ease of handing off of the ball to halfbacks.

In Winnipeg, it was argued that the old style of play meant that spectators “shivered as they watched two lines of scrapping beef-trusts, with nary a sight of the ball.”

By 1903, the Ontario Rugby Football Union was using the Burnside Rules, named after John Meldrum “Thrift” Burnside, the captain of the University of Toronto’s football team, which reduced players per side from 15 to 12 men and required a team to gain 10 yards in three downs. 

Under the Burns Rules, the throw-in from the sidelines, an old rugby rule, was abolished and only six men were allowed to play on the line. The snap-back was also used.

In 1907, the Canadian Rugby Union adopted the one-yard rule between opposing lines and the lines could not move until the ball was put into play from scrimmage (modern off-side rule).

At the time, a try (touchdown today) was five points, a goal from a try one point (today’s convert), a goal from the field four points, a free kick three points and a penalty kick two points. In modern Canadian football, throwbacks to the old scoring system are the two-point safety touch and the rouge, or single point, when a kick/punt isn’t returned out of the end zone, including a missed field goal — the “single” is a distinctly Canadian feature not found in American football. 

Although the snap-back was devised in the 1880s for American football, its original implementation would not be recognized as part of today’s football. At first, centres would inch the ball back — called “inch-kicking” — a short distance, pick the ball up and then hand  it to the quarterback who was waiting a few yards behind. In 1889, Yale University centre Bert Hanson leaned over and bounced the ball back between his legs to the quarterback. In 1903, Amos Alonzo Stagg, coach of Chicago University, invented the modern lift-up snap by moving the quarterback to a stand-up position to take a direct transfer of the ball from the centre.

To use this innovation, Walter Camp, who is often referred to as the inventor of American football — Burnside is called the inventor of Canadian football — came up with a formation for Yale of seven men on the line, the quarterback a few yards behind the centre, the halfbacks further back and spread to either side and a fullback set deep behind the quarterback. Using today’s football vernacular, Camp had invented the T-formation.

If the Shamrocks had been playing by Ontario rules in 1903, the team would have more easily adapted to the American style of play. But The Manitoba Rugby Union used Quebec rules, so they were forced to made significant changes to their play on the field.

The use of blocking and set plays after the “snap” to the quarterback, such as the “flying wedge” (players interlocked their arms to form a wedge in front of the ball carrier), resulted in a rough-and-tumble style of football in the U.S. In fact, American football was significantly more dangerous than Canadian rugby-football. The Canadian version  lacked many of the U.S. innovations such as the high degree of coaching needed to devise plays from scrimmage which contributed to a movement towards professionalism in football. 

Canadian teams initially resisted a better coaching system — the intent was to preserve the amateur status of the game while criticizing the “big business” approach  of American football.

“Our coaching, too, must needs remain amateur for the good and sufficient reason that the great gates of the American colleges are not in evidence here,” wrote the Toronto Telegram in 1905. “But, after all, football is better as a sport than a business ... amateur coaching and limited time for practice can and has produced some great football players in this country and will continue to do so.”

Winning at all costs to attract spectators and increase gate receipts meant it was common for American players to be seriously injured during a football game.

In 1905 alone, 18 players lost their lives and over 1,000 were injured. Of those killed, 10 were high school players, four were college players, one a girl, and two were simply classified as “other players.” 

“Two players killed and a score or more seriously injured is the ghastly record of the American football gridiron on Saturday,” reported the Morning Telegram on November 17, 1905, “and furnishes gory testimony to the correctness of the stand taken by (U.S.) President (Theodore “Teddy”) Roosevelt in seeking a revision of the playing rules.”

In October 1905, Roosevelt summoned representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities — the “Big Three” of American college sports — to discuss reforming the game. The U.S. president was an avid football fan but believed the violence in the sport provided critics with the ammunition needed to put an end to college football programs. When Roosevelt called the meeting, Columbia University had already ended its football program and other colleges were contemplating a similar move.

“From the president of the United States to the humblest member of a school and college faculty there arises a general protest against this boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport,” said Prof. Shailer Matthews of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Rule changes were eventually hammered out, including gaining 10 yards instead of five in three downs. Other major rule changes occurred in 1910, such as no pushing or pulling, no interlocking interference, and the re-introduction of the forward pass, although stringent rules made its use rare. 

The forward pass wasn’t adopted in Canada for intercollegiate football until 1928 and only by the Canadian Rugby Union in 1931.

While the Shamrocks practiced the American football rules, team executives had been able to arrange with the Great Northern Railway to have the team travel to Grand Forks in a special car for a special rate. “The Shamrocks would like all supporters who can to avail themselves of the cheap rate ...,” reported the Morning Telegram on October 31, 1903.

The spectators heading south would be travelling with starters: centre Benson, left guard McPherson, right guard Howden, right tackle Straitbairn, left tackle Prouse, left end Persse, right end Thompson, right half Blythe, left back Walker, fullback Kent and quarterback Paulding, a list of 11 players in compliance with American rules.

The day prior, the Grand Forks Herald wrote that the game with the “University eleven ... promises to be one of the best played here this year ... Every effort will be made to have a large score against the Canadians.”

The latter was a prophetic statement. By a lop-sided margin of 57-0, the University of North Dakota, now nicknamed the “Fighting Sioux,” beat the Shamrocks, although Winnipeg newspapers claimed the score did not reflect the play on the field.

The Morning Telegram reporter complained that the Shamrocks were handicapped right from the beginning by having to play by American rules. An earlier proposal to play one half using American football rules and one half using Canadian rules had been quashed by the home team who refused to take to the field “unless the game was played under their rules.”

During the first half of the game, the University of North Dakota scored seven touchdowns but missed two goals. On the other hand, the Canadian side didn’t get any nearer to the American end zone than the five-yard line.

“However, it was a noticeable fact that the visiting team gained the sympathy of the crowd more and more as the game progressed,” said a Telegram special dispatch from Grand Forks on November 2, “as the nerve, speed and grit they displayed was a surprise to the people here. To begin with the university team was padded up from head to foot, while the Shamrocks were attired in plain duck suits without even a head pad.

“Another thing that showed the stuff of which the Canadian team was made, was the fact that despite all the disadvantages under which they were playing, but one man, McPherson, was taken out during the game, till the last five minutes when Howden was injured slightly. Law took McPherson’s place as left guard in the last half. On the other hand, the University had three men laid out in the first half. And so many others were injured to such an extent, that five new men were called in to take their places in the second half.”

At the start of the second half, the Shamrocks managed to get down to their opponent’s one-yard line, but lost the ball on downs.

“The most brilliant plays during the entire game, however, including the members of both teams, were made by Kent, the full back of the Shamrocks, and Persse, their left end, who made some of the most clever and sensational tackles that were ever witnessed on a Grand Forks gridiron.

“The visitors had the crowd with them during the latter part of the game, and had another half been played it is very doubtful if the University would have been able to have scored. The pluck and gameness of the visitors when playing an uphill game was what won the plaudits of the crowd.”

When the Shamrocks returned to Winnipeg a day later, they admitted to being outclassed right from the start in terms of weight, signals and knowledge of the game. North Dakota employed a “professional” coach named Rex B. Kennedy, while Winnipeg only had a  team “manager” — more of an administrative position than coach — named Charles St. John. 

In terms of weight, the university’s forward line averaged 185 pounds, while the Shamrock’s back line only weighed in at an average of 165 pounds. Although the North Dakota player weights were considered exceptional in 1903, modern-day linemen are often well over 300 pounds.

The Shamrocks were beaten by a vastly superior team that compiled a 7-0 winning record in 1903. In fact, North Dakota humbled every opponent by scoring 274 points and only allowing 11. 

Over the next couple of years, Winnipeg would try to arrange another game to avenge the “blow-out” of 1903.

In 1904, the University of North Dakota football club challenged the Winnipeg Rugby Club, the Pegs, to a home-and-away series using American rules.

“Pud” Kent, who had played against North Dakota in 1903 and had not played all year, was willing to don a Peg uniform for the rematch.

Despite the enthusiasm shown by the Peg coach for the game, there would be no rematch. The reason given was the inability of the Pegs to finance a trip to Grand Forks.

In 1905, newspapers reported that the University of North Dakota had agreed to accept the challenge of the Shamrock club to come to Winnipeg for a game using American rules and then journey to Grand Forks and use Canadian rules. No dates had been set when the challenge was accepted, but the Shamrocks believed they had strengthened their line-up and were better prepared than in 1903.

The line-up of players included fullback Cecil St. John, centre Cecil Sanderson, left guard Dick Finklestein, right guard Billy Jones, captain and quarterback Tommy Straitbairn. Other players mentioned were St. Mar, Haig, Ruff, Bosenberry, Boxer, Law, Storey, Simpson, W. Robinson, L. Robinson, Billy Millan, Dallzel, Stewart Laidlaw, the McCaw brothers, McAllister and Manning. 

It was further announced that the Shamrock roster would be supplemented by players from other Winnipeg teams. As it turned out, an all-star team was absolutely necessary. When Grand Forks announced it was coming to Winnipeg, the Shamrocks were languishing at the bottom of the city’s rugby-football standings.  

The game was not to be. Although it had been scheduled for November 4 at River Park, the game was called off at the last minute by local rugby-football executive Charles St. John, who wired Grand Forks that the local club was unable to secure funding to make good on the heavy guarantee required.

“The Shamrocks found no lack of players among the local knights of the gridiron and could have gotten together a strong team but they found themselves unable to finance the scheme themselves and none of the other local clubs were willing to share the responsibility with them,” said the Telegram. 

“The game was intended to be the commencement of an annual series between Grand Forks and Winnipeg ... The Grand Forks team was eager to make the jaunt and would have welcomed the return visit from the Pegs, but it is now off this year.”

Actually, there would never be an annual series between Winnipeg and North Dakota, although Manitoba football clubs did later play exhibition games against the Americans.

In 1927, the University of Manitoba, which had its own varsity team by 1920 and in that year helped form the Western Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union, challenged the University of North Dakota. The North Dakotans handily beat the Canadian team 33-0. A year later, the Bisons suffered a humiliating 64-4 loss, but the next year lost by a more respectable 27-1 score to the Fighting Sioux.

In 1933 and 1934, the Winnipeg Football Club, nicknamed the Winnipegs or Pegs, lost to North Dakota by scores of 20-12 and 13-3, respectively.

The first Manitoba team to beat the University of North Dakota was the Winnipegs, formed in 1930 as a community-owned club. By the time of its third game against North Dakota, the Winnipeg club was given a new nickname by legendary local sportswriter Vince Leah — the Blue Bombers. The Bombers won 10-8 in 1937, but lost to the American university side 21-7 in 1938. 

In 1945, the Blue Bombers won its last-ever game played against the University of North Dakota by a 21-16 score.

In the last game of the first half of the 20th century against a Manitoba-based opponent (1947), the University of North Dakota handily beat the University of Manitoba 47-0.