Ohio State football is synonymous with fall. The Buckeyes playing as the leaves turn colors is a tradition in Ohio.
So it may surprise some people to know Ohio State played its first football game just a little more than 20 miles north of Columbus in early May. A team from Ohio State traveled north to Delaware, Ohio, to face a team from Ohio Wesleyan University 118 years ago on May 3. Representatives from both schools, including pep bands, cheerleaders, mascots and fans were on hand at the OWU campus Saturday for a ceremony dedicating a historical marker that was placed where the Buckeyes and Battling Bishops played.
"To think that it was all sparked right here in 1890, what a great day to remember," OSU head football coach Jim Tressel said during a sometimes soggy afternoon at OWU.
The marker was unveiled at the end of the ceremony just east of Ohio Wesleyan's Phillips Hall. That is where the first OSU game was played on a flat patch of earth right next to a small creek called Delaware Run. Ohio State won the game 20-14. Players from OSU traveled by horse-drawn wagons to Delaware. They left at 6 a.m. and began the game at 9:30 a.m. Quarterback Joseph H. Large scored the first touchdown in OSU history, which only counted as four points at the time.
Football was a very different sport in 1890. There were only 11 to 13 players on a team – each sporting long hair for protection – and no one wore padding, helmets or had numbers on their uniforms. The only way a player could leave the field was if they were injured, and if they left they could not return. The game was played in two 30-minute halves with no timeouts.
Even the ball was different. It was more round than a modern-day football and neither the huddle nor the forward pass was used. Players could punt the ball, but to do so they dropped it to the ground and kicked it on the bounce.
The site of the game was unknown until it was discovered in 2007 in a letter by OWU grad C. Rollins Jones. He played in the game and wrote about the site in a letter written in the 1940s.
OSU historian Jack Park was among several speakers who referenced the ties Ohio State had with its northern neighbor. Park spoke about how Woody Hayes married an OWU grad and how that compounded one of Hayes' most lopsided losses as a head coach. Hayes was in his first year at Denison University in 1946 when he was on the losing side of a blowout vs. the Battling Bishops.
"Ohio Wesleyan won that game 39-0," Park said. "But for him, that was probably not the hardest part of the afternoon. Mrs. Anne Hayes, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan, sat on the Ohio Wesleyan side with all of her college friends and cheered for Ohio Wesleyan."
Park also sparked one of the biggest ovations of the event when he spoke about the 1928 season. Ohio Wesleyan went to Ann Arbor, Mich., and beat the University of Michigan that fall. Ohio State defeated the Wolverines at home two weeks later.
Roughly 700 fans sat on a nearby hill to watch the game. Women were granted special permission by Ohio Wesleyan to watch the game.
"It's always important for all of us to take time and pay tribune to all those great moments in history that contribute to the opportunities we have today in intercollegiate athletics," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. "This marker will always be a point where people can come together and talk ... about football." "If you look back over 118 years, I think it's extremely inspirational," Park said. "Try to visualize the very positive impact that these two college football programs have had, particularly on people and particularly by their fans."
The Buckeyes would go on to face Ohio Wesleyan 29 times, including the 1890 meeting. That is more than any other in-state school OSU has played.
The Buckeyes went 26-2-1 vs. Ohio Wesleyan. The Battling Bishops also opened Ohio Stadium in 1922 and the OWU pep band was asked to come and play during the game because the Ohio State band was not ready.
That historical fact led to one of the funniest lines of the afternoon.
Brent Carson, president of the Delaware Historical Society, noted that OSU's band made the trip north many decades after the OWU band played in Columbus.
Said Carson: "It's about time you came back and repaid your favor."