"During a blistery Sunday afternoon, 22 men took the field, gladiators preparing to do battle in front of a roaring crowd of spectators, all for a fleeting chance at glory." Football fans have heard similar, grandiose descriptions of the game for decades, comparing the players of yesterday and today to the warriors of antiquity. Any fan reading that line may have instantly switched into the steely baritone of an NFL Films announcer, perhaps adding the crackling of tackles and the boom of timpani drums as part of a subconscious soundtrack.
Gladiators and football players: it's a common comparison. And, when looking at the dawn of the sport, a somewhat apt one. When the first concrete football stadium in the country was being constructed for Harvard University in 1903, sportswriters of the day considered it sacred ground, and believed the U-shaped structure in Boston would "rival those buildings in the ancient world solely given up to athletic games."
Constantly compared to the old stadium in Athens—the school's drama department would even stage Greek plays inside its grand confines—the stadium helped reinforce Harvard football as one of the era's preeminent programs. From the early days of the sport, when football resembled what one writer called "a cross between rugby, soccer, and a bar fight," this massive edifice and forward-thinking structure helped elevate the competition, making a comparison to classical competitions all the more relevant. It also literally altered how we play the game.
Built in 1903, Harvard Stadium was the first freestanding concrete stadium in the country, and one of the first specifically designed to accommodate the uniquely American sport (Franklin Field, a wooden stadium used by the University of Pennsylvania beginning in 1895, added more permanent grandstands between 1903 and 1905).
The Crimson, the proud nickname of Harvard athletics, had been associated with many football firsts: the first intercollegiate football conference (1875, with Yale, Columbia, and Princeton), the first interregional game (versus Michigan in 1881), and arguably the first ever college game versus Montreal's McGill university in 1874, a 3-0 Harvard victory.
But the construction of Harvard Stadium, which, according to a New York Times article announcing the plans, would be even more noteworthy, a structure with "football gridirons," the likes of which "is to be found only in a few of the ancient cities of Greece and Italy."
As crowds for games continued to grow, especially for matchups against Yale, wooden chairs and grandstands became increasingly insufficient to support the fanbase (and dangerous; the Harvard Athletic Association had firemen and a fire engine on hand for every game in case of a fire).
Critics complained a proposed new stadium would be "a forest of columns supporting a rambling and irregular structure." After all, football was a passing fad, and concrete was a poor material that wouldn't survive New England winters. But the pro-stadium faction won out, helped by a 25th anniversary gift from the class of 1879, who footed nearly a third of the eventual $310,000 price tag.
The concept for the structure was initially proposed by Professor L. J. Johnson. Final plans and construction were overseen by Professor Ira N. Hollis, the dean of the school of engineering, and drawn up by New York architect Charles McKim, a Beaux Arts proponent and member of the firm McKim, Mead, and White, one of the city's leading firms, which designed Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.
Built on Soldiers Field, a 90-acre area named after students who had died in the Civil War, on a space that had hosted a Yale-Harvard baseball game the previous May, the Harvard stadium was the largest ferro-concrete structure in the world. Steel girders were mounted on heavy cement tiers and covered in cement seats, which gave the building the look of a "solid wall of masonry."
More than 250,000 cubic feet of concrete was used during construction. Originally built to a height of 72 feet, the structure contained 37 rows of seats that wrapped around the entire playing field, as well as a series of columns that topped the structure with a sense of grandeur.
The official seating capacity was 34,475, but the crowd would swell to upwards of 40,000 during the first season, as temporary stands and seating were assembled to handle excited fans (when temporary seating is added around the open end, capacity can top 60,000).
Finished in four-and-a-half months, with a significant amount of design work provided by Harvard students, the stadium was a sensation, despite the result of the first game on November 14, 1903, a 11-0 loss to Dartmouth. During the first home game against arch-rival Yale, the " '79 Boys'" received a standing ovation from the home crowd, thanking them for their generosity.
Franklin Roosevelt was in the stands during that contest, and would propose to Eleanor the next day. A young Buckminster Fuller, the dome-focused architect and designer and a future Harvard grad, was an eight-year-old in the stands later that season, marveling at the sights and what he later said was the "smell of fresh concrete."
While the stadium became the premier place to watch the game, it also significantly changed football. The Crimson's first season at their new home ended in a series of injuries, part of a wave of violence that plagued the sport during its early years (a common tactic would be for a group of players to band together and use their helmetless heads as battering rams to help advance the ball).
Eighteen players died in 1905, leading to calls from Harvard President Charles W. Eliot to reform the game or abolish the team, and inspiring then-President Teddy Roosevelt to call a conference to reform the game. A series of innovations and new rules were floated to make the game less injury-prone, including widening the field 40 yards.
Since Harvard's field was hemmed in by a concrete horseshoe, the team proposed instituting the forward pass instead. Other teams of the day, fearful of losing the Harvard program to the rule change and anti-violence crusaders, hastily adopted the pass and other changes, in the name of making the game safer.
In the following decades, the stadium would witness the Crimson's golden era under coach Percy Haughton, a former All-American and premier punter, who would have an incredible nine-year run as head coach from 1908 to 1916, winning three national championships. A Haughton memorial now stands in front of the roadway leading to the field, the coach captured in a signature pose, crouching on the sidelines.
It's one of four stadiums that's been recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Harvard, which would maintain its spirited and famous rivalry with fellow Ivy League players at Yale, may not be a the national football powerhouse it once was. But in many ways, the incredible growth of the college game can trace its path back to the more than century-old stadium that encircles the hallowed field.
A version of this story was originally published on February 1, 2016.