MANSFIELD, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University hosted the first-ever night football game in 1892, a contest that ended at halftime when the ref declared it “inconvenient to continue.”
Why? Because the lighting was so poor.
This weekend, the spotlight will shine far more brightly on Mansfield as it plays a home game under the lights for the first time since that shortened contest more than a century ago. Saturday night’s opponent, Princeton, took part in the first-ever college football game in 1869.
Mansfield is heavily promoting its long-delayed return to night football — and poking a little fun at itself in the process.
“We got a little bit burned by technology, and we weren’t ready to jump back on again until we were sure that all the bugs had gotten worked out,” joked Steve McCloskey, the school’s director of athletic operations. “After 121 years, we’re pretty sure this night football thing is going to catch on, and we want to be right there at the forefront.”
The first night game, against visiting Wyoming Seminary, drew thousands of spectators to the Great Mansfield Fair on Sept. 28, 1892. Part of a barnstorming effort by General Electric to sell rural America on newfangled electric lighting, the game was illuminated — barely — by strings of lights powered by a dynamo. It was so hard to see that confused players tackled their own teammates and even the referee. Ball-carriers had trouble avoiding the makeshift lamppost in the middle of the field.
The game, such as it was, ended in a scoreless tie. And that was that.
The town of Mansfield wouldn’t be electrified for another five years, while Mansfield University never saw a need for lights at its athletic stadium because the football team traditionally played on Saturday afternoons.
But the 20th century finally won out. In went the lights, along with an artificial playing surface that’ll be shared by the football, field hockey and soccer teams.
“Every kid at every school in this county knows that Mansfield was the birthplace of night football,” McCloskey said. “So when we got lights this summer, it was a no-brainer for us to celebrate that history.”
Throwing the ceremonial switch on Saturday’s season opener will be 101-year-old Chester Bailey, a Mansfield historian and longtime newspaper owner who helped gain recognition of Mansfield’s role. Bailey stumbled on a newspaper account of the 1892 game when he was a 15-year-old printer’s apprentice, and, decades later, pursued it with the pro and college football halls of fame.
“It was history that I knew, and a lot of people didn’t know about,” he recalled.
The Mountaineers play in the eight-team Collegiate Sprint Football League, in which players can weigh no more than 172 pounds. Mansfield joined the league after its traditional, and far more expensive, football program fell victim to budget cuts in 2006.
After practice this week, players at the 3,400-student, state-owned university in northern Pennsylvania spoke in well-rehearsed tones about ignoring the hoopla and staying focused on Princeton. But, with thousands of fans expected in the seats, they know it’s a special game.
“It’s a very long time since the lights have gone on here, and it’s going to be a pretty historic night for us,” said Jeremy Estremera, a slotback from Allentown.