Harmon’s Histories: The ever-so-humble beginnings of Montana football

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“Chick” White was in the thick of it, as the players scuffled for the pigskin in a scrimmage at the southside athletic grounds in Missoula. The newly assembled university football team showed promise that October afternoon in 1897, even though many of them had never actually seen a football game and were still learning the rules.

The weather was raw, so “Chick” had opted to keep his coat on over his football uniform. As he and others dove for the ball, he felt “a sharp pain in his left groin,” but figured he’d just landed on a small stone in the field.

As he got up, though, he noticed his shoe was filling up with blood. He quickly pulled off the uniform and his clothes. He’d been seriously cut. Other players helped apply a tourniquet, then rushed him over to Doc Fitzgerald’s place to have the wound dressed.

White wasn’t a member of the team; he was the university’s janitor.

He and others in town had either volunteered or were lured into putting on uniforms to make up a practice team since the university squad didn’t have enough players to scrimmage.

White, as it turned out, had been assisting Professor Elrod earlier in the day with some taxidermy work and had forgotten to remove the leather case in his jacket containing knives.

One of the blades – a particularly sharp one – had popped out of the case, carving a two-inch-long and one-inch-deep gash in his groin. Another knife sliced his chest.

Neither wound was life-threatening. But should “Chick” ever return to the practice field, he’d likely remember not to carry any cutlery.

Meantime coach Fred Smith (a former football player at Cornell and UM’s new chemistry professor/chair) continued to prepare the squad for its pioneering season on the gridiron.

There had been a number of attempts at organizing a football program since the University opened. An athletic association had been formed in the fall of 1895 and a quickly assembled team had scheduled its first game for the afternoon of October 19, 1895.

The opposing team, the Missoula Giants, was made up of well-known locals with names like Higgins, McCormick and Worden. The Missoulian newspaper proclaimed the game to be held at the city baseball park would “open the football sport in Missoula and will undoubtedly draw a large crowd.”

But there was no follow-up account in the press of the game actually taking place. Later in the year, there were similar reports of more games scheduled, then canceled, so perhaps that’s what happened with the first game.

The next year, 1896, the university put another squad together and scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game with the Garden City Commercial College team, followed by a New Year’s Day game in Deer Lodge.

This time there was press coverage (at least of the second game), but it was not especially charitable to the visiting squad. Of the January 1, 1897 meeting, the Deer Lodge newspaper the New North-West wrote:

“If the young men composing the Missoula team came here with the notion concealed in their bosoms of pulverizing the earth at the expense of the anatomy of some of our most vigorous young men, disappointment must have set in in the early stages of the game, for it soon became apparent to the spectators that the Missoula team was no match for ‘our kids.’ ”

Deer Lodge shut out UM, 18-0, in sloppy conditions on a muddy field.

The New North-West did praise the University eleven as a “clever team (that) tried hard,” and sympathized with them over their poor treatment at the hands of the “hard-hearted newspaper men of the Garden City.”

They quoted the Missoulian as saying the loss “was a genuine surprise to those who have watched the Missoula boys practice. They were surprised because the score wasn’t about 144 to less than half of nothing.”

The Missoula correspondent for the Anaconda Standard described the returning UM team as “weary, wet and draggled (with) not much to say about the game with the boys of the Athens of Montana.”

By the time the fall season arrived, the University team, under Head Coach Smith, was somewhat more rehearsed and had lined up a six-game schedule.

The first three games, all against the Missoula Athletic Club “Tigers,” ended in scoreless ties and two of the final three games included were losses to the Butte Business College.

The single win of the 1897 seasons was the November 25th game against the Agricultural College team from Bozeman. This very first Brawl of the Wild was played on a snow-covered field in Missoula, with fans stamping their feet at the sidelines as much to keep warm as to cheer the team.

It was a rough contest. A Bozeman player named Patterson injured his jaw, “but it was put in place” so he could continue playing. 

Others from both sides “received wrenches and contusions, but not serious enough to cause them to leave the field. Reno Sayles had a broken finger.” And all that was just early on in the first half!

Extensive local press coverage was lacking as, “the Missoulian’s regular football reporter was unable to be present,” and the paper figured since just “about everyone in the town who enjoys the game saw it,” there was no need for any more detail.

As the 2019 Grizzlies begin their fall practice this week, we should all remember those valiant volunteers of the past, particularly “Chick” White, the brave janitor, for helping our very first UM football players prepare for their 1897 season and their first ever win against their cross-state rival.

To learn more about UM football history, click on this link to access the “Red Book” of handwritten notes by legendary coach George P. “Jiggs” Dahlberg, which have been digitized by the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library Archives and Special Collections. 

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.