Archivist's Angle: New York University’s Football Legacy
By Erin Shaw (GSAS ’14)
NYU players in the 1920s.
For many in the United States, autumn is as closely linked with football as it is the changing color of leaves. Universities all over the country have fervently started their seasons, but this experience is largely lost in New York City today. With a campus as quintessentially urban as New York University’s Washington Square Park, it’s difficult to imagine a time when NYU could have been a football powerhouse. But in its heyday, NYU led one of the best teams in the country. Though the football program is now defunct, it had a rich and lasting influence on college football in the first half of the twentieth century.
NYU’s football team was formed in 1873, but it wasn’t until the leadership of Coach John “Chick” Meehan in the 1920s that the team established itself as a force to be reckoned with. During this time, an intense rivalry with neighboring Fordham University developed. The annual meeting of the teams was dubbed by one reporter as the “Battle of the Bronx.” The two schools would meet every year on Thanksgiving in Yankee Stadium, and crowds as large as 80,000 gathered to watch the teams duke it out. The face-off was considered one of the largest athletic events of the year in the city.
A 1929 souvenir program from the annual "Battle of the Bronx.
NYU also helped to establish lasting measures that ensured the safety and wellbeing of football players. At the beginning of the twentieth century, players failed to use protective headgear or equipment. In 1905, the death of an NYU football player from a cerebral hemorrhage spurred famed Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken into action. MacCracken called together nineteen universities to discuss the state of football as it was then played; that year alone nineteen other students had died from play-related injuries. From this initial meeting, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States helped to establish safety regulations to protect the lives of players. Five years later, it would be renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the association that organizes collegiate athletic programs in the United States to this day.
In the 1930s, NYU’s football legacy was further immortalized when their own star player was chosen to model for the Heisman Trophy. The trophy’s commissioned sculptor Frank Eliscu asked his childhood friend Ed Smith, a star player for the 1934 team, to come by his Greenwich Village studio and pose in his NYU uniform. However, Eliscu failed to inform Smith what the sculpture was to be used for. It wasn't until 1982 that Smith learned that the most prestigious award in college football bore his resemblance, and in 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club presented Smith with his own Heisman Trophy.
An aerial shot of NYU's former Bronx campus in the 1930s. The football field is located on the right.
World War II marked the end of NYU football’s “Golden Era.” Faced with a lack of resources and beset by wartime restrictions, the University temporarily discontinued the sport. Though it resumed in 1944, NYU struggled to reestablish its supremacy in the field, and after an unsuccessful decade, NYU threw in the towel. In 1953, the football program was discontinued. [Ed: NYU football had a brief resurgence in 1964 with the founding of the New York University Football Club Team, which was started and run by students and funded by the university. After funds were discontinued in 1967 due to lack of interest, the Club Team was disbanded.] Though the university has been without a team for almost sixty years, its legacy still resonates in football today. The continued influence of the NCAA and the Heisman Trophy ensures that NYU football will not soon be forgotten.