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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The First Badger - Gopher Game in Madison

When the Badgers meet the Gophers at Camp Randall on Saturday, it will be just the latest incarnation of a rivalry dating back more than a century. There are few things universities value more than tradition, and this traditional contest is a time-honored one. The first Madison game, though, was a long time coming, and long-remembered.

J.E. O'Brien, the manager of the Gophers in 1894, had repeatedly refused to play here, stating that Minnesota would not travel to Madison until there was something to be gained by doing so, suggesting that the Badgers weren't worth the expense and trouble of the trip. Up to 1894 the two teams had played four times, always in Minnesota, and the Badgers were always defeated. So Wisconsin manager L.W. Myers offered O'Brien an incentive to get his team to cross the Mississippi -- $500, twice what a game normally cost. UW students raised the money themselves with the help of local businesses. O'Brien accepted reluctantly, and the Minnesota Gophers prepared to arrive on November 16, 1894.

The UW students painted the town red and white for the occasion. They decorated shop windows and employees at local businesses even wore red coats to work to show their spirit. Along with decorations, bleachers had to be built, for until then spectators simply stood next to the football field (where Library Mall is now located). Enough seating for 500 people was constructed but was far from sufficient. The Gophers got off the bus to be met by about five hundred red-and-white-clad students who escorted them to the Park Hotel for the night.

Game day was later recalled as a clash of epic proportions. The Minnesota fans arrived with their marching band in tow, parading from the hotel to the field. Upon reaching the field outside of the Red Gym, they were greeted by thousands of screaming Badgers. There was hardly enough room for everyone to stand, and only a thin rope separated the spectators from the field itself. The state's best-known dignitaries attended, including Governor G.W. Peck, former Governor Lucius Fairchild, and senator William F. Vilas. In the end, the crowd was estimated at nearly 8,000 people, a number unheard of until then.

The game began at three o'clock and was brutal. The Badgers' left tackle quickly dislocated his shoulder, and quarterback T.U. Lyman was knocked in the head early on and seemed a bit off balance for most of the game. The teams repeatedly traded possessions and stopped each other's offense, and at half-time the score was still zero to zero. The stalemate continued until the Badgers left halfback, Ikey Karel, ran forty yards for a touchdown. A local paper reported that he sat down and wept afterwards.

Then as now, students responded with a party. A bonfire was started on Langdon Street which burned all night. When students ran out of wood they ripped up the wooden sidewalk (which they later had to pay for) and tossed it on the flames. University president Charles K. Adams found himself sung to sleep by dozens of fans, and the college paper put out a special edition printed on red paper. The players were heroes, cheered wherever they went and treated to an honorary meal of fried gopher (one would like to think it was just chicken under a false name, but we'll never know). O'Brien and his Minnesota players presumably dined on fried crow.

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 12, 2006

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