Yale Engineering and the Finest Game “Ever Played in America”


Sunday’s Super Bowl may be described as “the big game,” but do you know which football game was the “finest ever played in America"? Hint: Yale Engineering played a big part. 

We’re talking about the Yale-Harvard game of 1887, in which William Wurtenburg rushed for 35 yards down the field at New York City’s historic Polo Grounds to score a touchdown and bring an 11-8 victory to Yale. There was some protest from the Harvard side about a referee’s timekeeping skills, but to no avail. Twelve years into the Yale-Harvard gridiron rivalry, the game was an immediate sensation among college football fans and would go down as the “finest ever played.” A couple caveats here: “Finest ever played” is, of course, a very subjective phrase. We should also bear in mind that the first college football rules weren’t even in place until 1876 (Yale was among the four universities with input) - so in 1887, “ever played” is actually referring to a relatively short history. Nonetheless, it’s in the history books, and we’re running with it. 

Wurtenburg, who would enroll at the Sheffield Scientific School, a precursor to the School of Engineering & Applied Science, was singled out for praise. It was "undoubtedly the finest ever played in America," wrote Richard Melancthon Hurd one year later in his book, with the impressively unwieldy title A History Of Yale Athletics, 1840-1888: Giving Every Contest With Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Wesleyan, And Others In Rowing, Foot Ball, Base Ball, Track Athletics, Tennis.

The game took place in Wurtenburg’s second year on the team, where he initially played halfback and then fullback. By his third year, he was also taking on quarterback duties, where he specialized in "long, low, underhand passes." An unconventional approach, certainly, but also very successful. Yale managed to shut out every one of its opponents, and went to become the national champion that season.

In addition to his football exploits, Wurtenburg also played baseball for Yale, averaging about 3 or 4 runs per game, and was co-editor of Yale’s yearbook. After graduation, he went on to serve as a referee for Yale football games and eventually set up a medical practice as an ear, nose, and throat doctor. 

And some historical footnotes: One year after the 1887 game, team captain and quarterback Harry Beecher - grandson of Henry Ward Beecher - became the subject of the first football card in the U.S. As for the writer who praised Wurtenburg’s contributions to the “finest ever played in America," Richard Melancthon Hurd went on to become a pioneering real estate economist. His son, Clement Hurd, was the illustrator of Margaret Wise Brown’s groundbreaking children’s book Goodnight, Moon.