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Two football players leaping to tackle a third
Illustration by David Sparshott
Our History

America’s Game Might Have Kicked Off at U of T

Almost a century-and-a-half ago, a group of students played a sport that looked a lot like gridiron football

On a crisp fall day in 1861 in Queen’s Park, passersby who noticed a group of young men playing a vigorous, if slightly unorganized, ball game were in fact witnesses to a historic event. The November 9 pickup match is recognized as the first documented North American–style football game ever played at U of T, and perhaps in the world.

“Although the rules used in 1861 were somewhat eclectic, the key is that the ball was carried,” says Paul Carson, former sports information director at U of T and co-author of 150 Years of Football at the University of Toronto. “This game was truly the forerunner of modern Canadian/American football – distinct from British association football, or soccer, in which the ball is always kicked.” Yet some aspects of soccer – and rugby – went into the creation of today’s gridiron football.

The game took place on the site of what is now the Ontario Legislative Building, but was then part of campus. One of the players was James Loudon, who later served as U of T president.

“In those days, we had no particular number of players and no particular rules,” wrote Dr. William Tytler, also in the lineup that day, in a letter to the Toronto Daily Mail in 1891. He emphasized that, though the game was informal, it was not violent, as British football was historically known to be: “It was certainly not that sort of football where ‘everything is kicked except the ball.’”

In 1877 U of T formed an official football team, eventually winning the first Ontario intercollegiate Yates Cup – North America’s oldest football trophy – in 1898.

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