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A wager, a win and a wedding

Michigan finished the 1902 season with a win over Minnesota, but the biggest victory of the day belonged to two opposing fans in the crowd. Courtesy on Bentley Historical Library

TOLEDO, Ohio -- It had been nearly 65 years since Edwin Backus Thomas Jr. had even given a thought to that story.

Through his childhood and 71 years of life, his grandparents' story -- one of forbidden love and football, of feuding families and fate, of a bet waged over a simple game -- had never really seemed to come up for one reason or another. He had heard bits and pieces, but no one ever really discussed it.

For 65 years he hadn't thought about why his first name was Edwin (his grandfather's name) or why his middle name was Backus (his grandmother's maiden name), and he never once considered the consequences of what would've happened if Michigan hadn't beaten Minnesota on that cloudy November day in 1902.

Perhaps the young couple would have waited until June.

Perhaps they would've broken up upon their return to Toledo.

Perhaps he wouldn't be here today.


Nettie Backus and Edwin Robbins Thomas met in Toledo, near the turn of the 20th century. Their courtship began as a secret and they kept it away from their feuding families.

He was six years older. Her family was wealthier. His family was in real estate, hers in the steam shovel business, and at some point down the line, a business deal had gone wrong.

Because of their families' hatred, Edwin, nicknamed "Archie," and Nettie would exchange letters, choosing public places to meet so that if anyone ever saw them out together, they could blame it on serendipity. If half of Toledo was at the Lucas County fair, of course they could've run into each other.

For years this lasted, until that fateful Thanksgiving weekend in 1902 when Nettie and Archie -- along with friends -- took the trip 55 miles north to enjoy the Michigan-Minnesota game.

They hadn't attended Michigan, but everyone in the Midwest, and the country, wanted to see the mighty Wolverines play.

They were coached by Fielding H. Yost and were coming off a national title season. They were a sight to be seen by anyone who appreciated athletics. And this game, of all games, was key. With a win over Minnesota, Michigan would finish 11-0 and repeat as national champion.

The Wolverines had outscored opponents that season 621-6 coming into their matchup with Minnesota; Yost's team, known as the Point-a-Minute men, was averaging nearly 59 points per game.

Archie was a Michigan fan, and just to spite him, Nettie chose to cheer for Minnesota that day. Or rather, she decided to take pity on the Gophers that afternoon.

"Miss Backus' sympathies went out to the Minnesota eleven aimed for defeat and with comparatively few 'rooters' to encourage their mighty effort," the Logansport (Ind.) Journal wrote.

"If you're so sure Minnesota will win, let's make a bet," Archie proposed. "If you win, then we'll get married next spring, as we planned, but if I win then we'll hunt up a minister right here."

Nettie agreed. It was hardly a risky bet. She had to know the inevitable outcome of the game.

Agreeing to that bet meant agreeing to be Mrs. Edwin Thomas the next time she returned home.

It was one of Michigan's closest games of the season. Archie must have been sweating a bit in the stands, but when the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines had won 23-6.

Archie and his bride-to-be marched to the Washtenaw County courthouse, applied for and were granted a license for marriage that same night.

"Just a little wager on a football game; now there's been a wedding and she changed her name," the Logansport Journal wrote.

The name -- though she did change it -- would still be passed on.

Twelve years later when they had their first child, Nettie and Edwin named her Nettie Bell Thomas. Four years after that, they had a son and named him Edwin "Ted" Backus Thomas.

Ted would go on to have two children as well, Edwin Jr. and Sally. With his children, he would pass along bits and pieces of his parents' wedding story. Ted, like his father, had an unexpected side. He and his wife -- like his parents -- had eloped.

"My own dad had a crazy sense of humor," Sally said of her grandparents' marriage. "That would be something he would do. To know that his own father did that, that makes sense to me. That makes a lot of sense to me."

The story wasn't passed on to Nettie Bell's side of the family. Her three sons never heard the story, never knew -- even after they moved to Birmingham, Mich. -- that they should be a little more grateful every time the Wolverines win.

Now the family is scattered across the country, from South Carolina to Florida to Michigan. Nettie and Edwin were laid to rest in Toledo long ago, but their beginning -- as unique as it was -- brought about this family.

At the same time, Yost was starting to build a powerhouse in Ann Arbor, meant to dominate college football for decades. Without that victory over Minnesota in 1902, Michigan lore might also be different today.

All seems unlikely now. Maybe it wouldn't have been voted national champion that year. Maybe players would've left. Maybe Yost wouldn't have written his 15-point "Why Michigan is Great" essay in the Michigan yearbook after that season.

More than a century later, it's still obvious the foundation he laid in Ann Arbor.

But without that win, truly, no one can say what would've happened to Nettie and Edwin's love story.

Maybe it was fate and they would have ended up together no matter what, two star-crossed lovers meant to be.

Or maybe they would've returned to Ohio to find their lives pulled apart. Young love is unpredictable, and who knows where life would've taken them.

Perhaps for them, leaving Ann Arbor unwed would actually have been the riskiest of bets. But luckily for Nettie and Edwin -- and because of a Michigan victory -- it was one they never had to make.