By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist
Originally published in Greene Speak, June 2006.
In the fall of 1894, a 20-year-old transfer student arrived on the Waynesburg College campus bringing with him a passion for a young and still developing pastime.
Thomas Davies Whittles, the man who brought football to Waynesburg College, was born in Bardsley, Lancashire, England, on December 27, 1873, to Robert and Emma (Davies) Whittles. When he was ten years old, he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, landing in New York on May 21, 1884, after a voyage aboard the ship Helvetia.
Thomas was privileged to receive a preparatory school education at an institution where football was already being played. Outside of the ivy-league schools that had developed the game, football was only being introduced into a wider selection of colleges and universities in the 1890s, and Waynesburg, for its part, had neither received nor encouraged any such introduction, until Thomas came to town.
Football was being denounced by many as an amoral and violent game. Few had actually seen the game played and even fewer understood its rules, so most of the anti-football sentiment came from rumors and ignorance about what really was involved. On the other hand, there was some reason for concern, at least regarding physical health. The sport was still being refined with few official regulations yet adopted and little or no protective equipment available. Death and injury were a reality of the game.
So when Thomas Whittles arrived at Waynesburg College determined to play this notorious sport, he had more than one challenge to overcome. He first raised the $5.25 to buy a football. Then Whittles began to recruit his classmates and teach the basics of the game. The real challenge came when it was time to convince Alfred Brashear Miller, much respected President of Waynesburg College, to permit an official team to form. In The Waynesburg College Story 1849-1974, author William H. Duesenberry recaptures this task, “Whittles and Miller had many private talks, with Miller stressing moral philosophy, and Whittles instructing him about the game.”
In the end, both men were apparently persuasive. Miller allowed for a football team to form and Whittles in a few years time would graduate into an esteemed Presbyterian minister.
In the fall of 1895, the first Waynesburg College football team took to the field. Duesenberry points out, “Whittles felt that Miller wanted to give football a chance, because five members of the squad were ministerial students.” With a minister-to-be as coach (and player) and five more minister-to-be men as teammates it became harder to make a moral argument against the game.
At the side of Thomas Whittles, was another Thomas playing a major role in the team’s development and continued existence. Thomas Spencer Crago, an 1892 Waynesburg College graduate, stepped up to serve as team manager. His presence undoubtedly added another degree of endorsement to the controversial sport. Crago was to become a celebrated military leader and United States Congressman.
On December 4, 1895, the Waynesburg Republican gave one of its earliest football recaps, “A game of foot ball was had on the Fair Grounds here on Thanksgiving Day, between the Washington boys and the home team. The game was an interesting one, and at times very exciting. Those who understand the rules of foot ball, say the game was a good one, well contested. The majority of the onlookers, however, ourself included, knew nothing whatever about the rules of the game, and were reminded more of a pig-fight in a hog-wallow than anything else, though it was interesting in the extreme. The recent rains had softened the ground, and after twenty-two young men had rolled and tumbled and dragged each other through four or five inches of very soft mud for an hour or two, the result was announced four to nothing in favor of Waynesburg….”
So began football in Waynesburg.
Thomas Whittles had only a short football career at Waynesburg College, graduating in 1896. Capped and gowned with him, was teammate Jesse Hunnell Hazlett, the man to score the first-ever touchdown for the College team.
Thomas attended Princeton Theological Seminary from which he received his degree in 1899 and was ordained in October of that year. He married Sarah Canning, of Minnesota, on July 16, 1902 and with her raised two children. After Sarah’s death, Thomas was united in marriage with a Greene County native and former Waynesburg College classmate, Anna Neonette Iams (Class of 1897). Thomas and Nettie were a fitting match, as Nettie, while still known as “Miss Iams,” served as the very first basketball coach for the newly developed women’s team at Waynesburg College at the turn of the century.
In April 1943, when Waynesburg College was trying to raise money selling war bonds via a football analogy that pitted students vs. alumni, Thomas’s name and status as the “father of football at Waynesburg College” and “our first coach” were used to help in the fundraising.
Dusenberry, William Howard. Waynesburg College Story, 1849-1974. 1975: Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.
“Introduction: A Brief History of College Football.” Article. College Football Encyclopedia. footballencyclopedia.com/cfeintro.htm : 2012.
Minnesota. Department of Health, Section of Vital Statisics Registration. Death Certificates. Minnesota Historical Society Library, St. Paul.
“New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.” Digital images. Ancestry.com : 2012.
Pennsylvania. Greene County. Marriage License Dockets. County Clerk’s Office, Courthouse, Waynesburg.
Sitherwood, Frances Grimes. Throckmorton Family History: Being the Record of the Throckmortons in the United States of America with Cognate Branches. Bloomington, Illinois: Pantagraph Printing & Stationary Co., 1929.
Waynesburg College Alumni Office, compiler. Waynesburg College Alumni Directory 1966. Waynesburg, Pennsylvania: Sutton Printing Co., 1966.
Waynesburg College football team, 1895, item no. GCHS-AN028-0006, Greene County Historical Society Collection, Greene Connections Archives Project (www.GreeneConnections.com).
Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 4 December 1895.