Since 1967, Americans have been gathering around their televisions at this time of year to watch the pugnacity and pageantry that is the National Football League’s Super Bowl game. With all due respect to baseball, the de facto moniker of “America’s national game” has easily belonged to football for the past several decades. This was not always the case though. As many of us prepare to watch Kansas City take on Tampa Bay in this year’s contest, let’s look back at another noteworthy football team recently uncovered in the Library’s local records collection.
In the 19th century, football was not much more than a mass street brawl conducted by a few college underclassmen on quads in the Northeast, and it was often dangerous. In 1905, there were 19 deaths attributed to the game of football, and President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the game if changes were not made. The popularity of football continued to grow despite the dangers, and President Roosevelt’s warning eventually lead to innovations such as the forward pass and the banning of mass formations, thus reducing injury.
Around this time, a local squad of football players wrote to the Richmond City Committee on Grounds and Buildings, asking to use Chimborazo Park in Church Hill for their practice games. The committee noted the request in its minute book on 15 December 1904 (p. 19) and again on 5 October 1905 (p. 82), but took no action. The Olympia Football Squad consisted of amateur players with experience on school teams, who had joined together to form a social and athletic club—alternately referred to as the Olympia Social Club. Such clubs were one of the predecessors of modern NFL teams. As a matter of fact, one current NFL team, the Arizona Cardinals, can trace their team lineage back to the Morgan Athletic Club formed on the south side of Chicago in 1899.
These neighborhood teams would play similar clubs from the area, as well as some college and even high school teams. Based on newspaper reports, the Olympia squad garnered some attention. The Library’s Virginia Chronicle newspaper database contains several references in both the Times-Dispatch and The Planet between 1909 and 1914. The Times-Dispatch is particularly noteworthy since the Olympia was a Black social club. Despite the archaic language of the day, the sports reports convey some enthusiasm for the team’s talents on the gridiron.
Unfortunately, that enthusiasm did not seem to extend to the Richmond Committee on Grounds and Buildings. The all-white committee members ignored the two requests by the Olympia squad to use Chimborazo Park for practices. The second request in 1905 elaborated on the team’s situation, indicating that “at the present time we are practicing in the street,” and pledging “to conduct ourselves as gentlemen” if granted permission to use the park. Again, no action was taken by the committee.
The Olympia team’s requests came just a few years after the ratification of the 1902 Virginia Constitution further solidified racial segregation in public accommodations, so the committee’s response was probably unsurprising. Other requests to use city parks for tennis, baseball, and croquet were allowed. The Tiger Football Squad and the Company A of the 1st Virginia Volunteers football team, both white groups, requested permission to play on the racetrack in William Byrd Park. The minute book ends without indicating the committee’s decision, but newspaper reports of the games indicate that permission was granted. On 17 October 1908, the city passed an ordinance, noted in the committee’s minutes, prohibiting spectators from interfering with football games in city parks—another indication that certain football teams were allowed to play and practice in city parks.
The rebuff did not seem to impact the team’s skills or popularity, as they went on to play in a marquee game at the 1910 “Colored State Fair” spearheaded by Giles B. Jackson. The next year, they and their most common rival, the Virginia Union University (VUU) team, played a Thanksgiving Day game. The rivalry and talent of the two teams made their match-up so popular that it was slated to become an annual event.
While no photograph of the Olympia team could be located, an image of the VUU squad from roughly the same time period did surface for sale on eBay a few years ago. From that you can get some sense of what an early 20th-century football squad looked like.
Are you aware of any similar amateur football clubs in your region of the Commonwealth? We would love for you to share any images or documentation that you might have about these “recreational warriors” of the gridiron.
As you park yourself in front of the tube on Sunday for the hours of sport and spectacle that is the modern Super Bowl, raise a beverage to the men of the Olympia Football Squad and their contemporaries, who fought not only for yardage, but against discrimination and segregation to play a game that they loved, and all without multi-million dollar contracts.