Football's oldest stadiums: Witnesses to the game's evolution

Photo gallery: Oldest stadiums – Monuments to the past

Editor's note: This is an updated reprise of a previously published article. We figure that on the heels of Penn's milestone 800th game at Franklin Field, this is a good time to bring it back.

The essence of college football is found in three stadiums that stand as timepieces in a roughly 300-mile labyrinth of Interstate 95 between Philadelphia and Boston.

They no longer draw the nation's largest crowds and rarely do their participants go on to play on NFL Sundays, but Penn's Franklin Field, Harvard Stadium and the Yale Bowl stand as monuments to the past.

Yellowed photographs hint at their history, but they tell only part of the story. What those photos don't reveal is how visionaries turned a bloody mess of a game into the nation's most popular sport.

The NCAA deems Franklin Field (33rd Street at South Street, Philadelphia, Web site), which has staged University of Pennsylvania sports since 1895, as its oldest football stadium. The facility is believed to have hosted the most football games by any one collegiate team – No. 800 for Penn is slated Saturday versus Dartmouth – although the NCAA does not keep official records in this category.

Harvard Stadium (95 N. Harvard St., Allston, Mass., Web site), opened in 1903, is the oldest permanent concrete structure in the country.

The Yale Bowl (276 Derby Ave., West Haven, Conn., Web site) hosted its first tilt, against Harvard, on Nov. 21, 1914.

Together they represent three of the four oldest Division I stadiums in the country; Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech opened in 1913.

The basic elements of the game started at those three schools and three stadiums, essentially shaping college football and college athletics as we know them.

Almost every aspect of the modern game had its roots in those stadiums – from the set of downs and the game being broadcast on radio and TV to sideline mascots, halftime entertainment and screaming from the upper deck.

To be sure, Franklin Field, Harvard Stadium and the Yale Bowl have undergone renovations – the latter two in just the past few years. But the essentials remain unchanged, mostly through carefully planned projects.

The first night game in Harvard Stadium's history, for example, was played last September before 18,898 fans as Harvard beat Brown 24-17. Harvard's renovation also yielded a domed bubble for year-round use. The Yale Bowl playing field was named the Class of 1954 Field last year after a generous donation. Fortunately, throughout the upgrades all the stadiums' excellent sight lines have been unimpeded.

In its beginnings, football on these epic fields was more like going into a mosh pit – a mass of shoving and pushing, sometimes with 40 players on the field at the same time.

Walter Camp, an 1880 Yale graduate who lettered in every sport the school offered, helped revolutionize football and move it away from this rugby scrum. Among his many contributions were the line of scrimmage; downs and yards-to-go; 11 players per side; the quarterback position; and the standard formation of seven linemen and four players in the backfield.

He is credited with starting All-America teams and wrote more than 30 books on football and amateur athletics. He also coached Yale to a 67-2 record from 1888 through 1892.

American football in the early 1900s was a popular but brutal game in which severe injuries, broken bones and even deaths were not uncommon. In 1904, 21 players died and more than 200 suffered serious injuries, followed the next year with 18 players killed and 149 seriously injured, according to reports of the day. Football was so rugged that even the original Rough Rider, President Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate himself, considered banning it nationwide.

In late 1905, Harvard coach Bill Reid – chosen by football antagonist and Harvard president Charles Eliot – was part of group of representatives that later became the NCAA.

Reid, Roosevelt and others worked with the newly formed committee to establish standardized rules for football, with an eye toward eliminating roughhousing. Reid informed his constituents that unless these new rules were adopted Harvard would not be playing football in the future. The rules were adopted, making the game more cohesive and putting to rest its rudimentary start.

Sometimes, as in the case of Harvard Stadium, the game was changed literally by design.

When colleges were discussing how to make football less bloody, Camp proposed the field be widened by 40 feet to spread out play and lessen the danger.

One problem: Harvard Stadium's permanent concrete structure ensured that the field could not be widened. Instead, the forward pass was legalized, although its use was sparse partly because an incompletion resulted in a 15-yard penalty. Eventually the rules were softened and the forward pass ushered in the safer aspect many schools had sought.

In addition to hosting one of the nation's storied rivalries – Harvard vs. Yale – the stadiums have staged myriad athletic and civic events, everything from soccer and ice hockey to presidential speeches.

Indeed, Franklin Field debuted the Penn Relays in 1895 and has hosted the competition ever since (drawing a record 113,000 spectators for the three days in 2006). Franklin Field also produced one of the greatest mile races in history, when Marty Liquori beat Jim Ryun by a few steps in the Dream Mile on May 16, 1971.

Gail Zachary, who has served in many capacities with Penn athletics, said she remembers when the Cornell-Penn Thanksgiving game was the event of the year.

All three stadiums have been home to pro football teams – the Eagles at Franklin Field from 1958 to 1970, the Patriots at Harvard Stadium in 1970 and the New York Giants at the Yale Bowl in 1973-74. The likes of Jim Thorpe, Red Grange and Chuck Bednarik have famously left their footprints on the turf – in Grange's case, through the ankle-deep mud of Franklin Field in 1925 to the tune of 363 total yards.