DELAWARE, Ohio — Normally, the return of college football means a return to the Horseshoe for Ohio State fans. Not this year. Thanks, COVID-19.
However, long before they played in Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes’ proud football legacy began about 25 miles north of Columbus in the bucolic community of Delaware. Today, the town is best known as the home of Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU) and the birthplace of President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Turn back the clock 123 years to May 3, 1890. On what today looks to be nothing more than a small public green, the Ohio State football team lined up for the first time ever, tackling the Battling Bishops of Ohio Wesleyan. OWU invited the newly formed Buckeyes football club to participate in the game as part of its May Day Weekend.
Today, it might seem like a lopsided match-up. Ohio State boasts an enrollment of more than 50,000 students and has sent hundreds of its former stars to fill the rosters of NFL clubs. Meanwhile, the Battling Bishops participate in NCAA Division III’s North Coast Athletic Conference.
But, in 1890, the college football landscape was dramatically different, looking more like modern-day rugby than football. The Buckeyes, coached by Alexander Lilley, left Columbus in horse-drawn carriages on the morning of May 3 and were back on their campus by nightfall.
An estimated 700 people turned out for that first Ohio State game, sitting on a hillside to watch the action; OWU granted “special permission” for co-eds to attend the game, according to a marker that today denotes the location. According to some accounts of the game, the ball ended up in the nearby Delaware Run creek a few times.
While many of the game’s details are lost to history, the Buckeyes edged out the Bishops by a 20-14 score, and Quarterback Joseph H. Large is credited with scoring the first-ever Buckeyes touchdown, which counted for only four points back then. The two teams haven’t squared off since 1932, and Ohio State leads the series with a 26-2-1 record.
As it turns out, the game was the high point of the Buckeyes’ season. The team finished the year 1-3, including a 64-0 defeat to the College of Wooster in the Buckeyes’ first-ever home game on Nov. 1, 1890; for its part, OWU finished 0-3 in 1890.
Interestingly, the precise location of that first match-up was lost to history until it was rediscovered in 2007. The rediscovery is in large part due to an account of the game written by Rollins Jones, a member of OWU’s class of 1892 and a participant in that 1890 match-up.
Today, the field sits yards away from Selby Field, the Battling Bishop’s current football home, and just a few paces from an old sulfur spring that brought tourists to the area long before football grew into the sport it is today. The historical marker at the field was unveiled on May 3, 2008, 118 years after the first Ohio State game.