Before the modern era of Manhattan College athletics, with basketball at its center, Jasper Nation was founded on the gridiron.
Football first gained varsity status in 1892 and played regularly scheduled games against such teams as Villanova, Seton Hall and Wesleyan University. The team’s first head coach was Dr. Frank C. Armstrong, a local physician who coached in his spare time.
“The team is smartly costumed in brilliant green jerseys, the plays come out of a snappy military huddle and there is dash and sportsmanship in every move the players make” William C. Treanor wrote for the New York Sun.
A squad was fielded every fall until 1904, when the death of a member on another Metropolitan team and injuries that kept students away from schoolwork caused the program to be suspended.
Shortly after the sport was discontinued, a group of students unofficially revived the team by secretly scheduling a game with Syracuse University where the Jaspers fell 133-0.
Jasper Nation, however, wouldn’t let the time old tradition die out just yet.
In 1924, a year after MC moved from its old site at 132nd Street and Broadway to our present campus, the college saw the return of a varsity football team.
“Excitement, fame, and enthusiasm ignited the Manhattan College campus with the first varsity gridiron squad in 20 years,” wrote Nick James in an essay titled “A History of Football at Manhattan.”
At this time the college had a registration of about 300 and, as expected, the size of the student body was reflected in the quality of the schedules, records and athletic teams themselves.
The program also received new coach John Law, an extraordinary football player and in his day the captain of the famous Notre Dame Eleven. Law led the Jaspers to a winning season in 1930 despite the depression and financial collapse of the economy in the U.S.
Home games were played at either the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan or Ebbets Field, which was also home to the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957. Contests could see upwards of 16,000 fans.
It wasn’t until 1932 that Manhattan really made a name for itself in the world of collegiate football.
Under Coach John F. “Chick” Meehan, the Jaspers traveled south to play the famous Miami University in the inaugural Festival of Palms, later renamed the Orange Bowl.
“To the accompaniment of nine long “Rahs” and a merry Christmas to all, the Manhattan College football team sailed away this evening on the most exciting gridiron adventure of the Green,” the New York Herald reported on Dec. 24, 1932.
Twenty-two players, Coach Meehan and several faculty members boarded the S.S. Shawnee at 110th Street in Manhattan for a three-day journey to Miami, Florida. Practices were regularly scheduled every morning on deck for the team to shake out their sea legs.
Unaccustomed to the southern heat, the Jaspers lost 7-0 in front of 2,000 fans at Moore Park.
In 1942 the Jasper Eleven opened its last intercollegiate football season against Muhlenberg University at the Polo Grounds. The season record was two wins, six losses and one tie.
World War II proved to be the final blow to varsity football at Manhattan.
The college lost a majority of its student body to the armed services, enrollment dropped and funds decreased. Only the bare necessities were left to be handled, and football just was not one of them.
Jasper Nation then went 23 years without seeing another football game. For two sophomores, Tom Twomey and Paul Frazier, that was 23 years too long.
In 1965 a committee of about 100 students, lead by Twomey and Frazier, collected the funds from their fellow students and faculty to support the revitalization of football as a club sport.
The only problem was that the amount of money necessary to jumpstart the program was staggering. In less than a month the committee needed to collect $9,000.
“A sense of unity prevailed, school spirit. It soon became evident that the results of the drive would bring more than football to Manhattan,” was how Tom Twomey assessed the energy and enthusiasm that was generated from the project.
For Manhattan College football, the third time was certainly the charm.
A year after its reestablishment, the team won the City Club Championship and ranked tenth in national club standings. Twelve out of 22 club squads posted winning records.
1987 saw the last club football season for the college, with the last game played at Gaelic Park on a Sunday afternoon in November. The Jaspers fell 51 to 33 in a hard-fought battle against the University of Massachusetts.
Connie Marchionni reported for The Quadrangle the following week, “It was a game of ups and downs and the Jaspers showed us a good game regardless of the outcome.”
While football at Manhattan may not have been the most successful varsity program, the Jasper Eleven always gave its fans a reason to watch.
Will football ever make a fourth and final comeback?
Athletic Director Noah LeFevre explained that while in the past it wasn’t unheard of to have a football program nowadays it is a little different.
“Football does many good things at an institution, but it is almost an athletic department in itself. It is a large endeavor and an expensive endeavor,” LeFevre said.
Today, the standard NCAA football program has over 100 players, 10 or more coaches and extra support staff in areas like sports medicine and academic advising.
The size of the school, location of the campus and the lack of facilities make it extremely difficult to maintain a modern varsity squad.
“I don’t think we are necessarily missing anything by not having one,” LeFevre added. “Football serves as a way to gather the community and I think our men’s and women’s varsity teams accomplish that already.”