I am often asked questions like, “What was the first…”  or “Who was the first…” I am sorry to say that too often the answer is that I really don’t know. True firsts are pretty tough to nail down. This posting is about one of those true firsts, the first QB for a Wabash football team – William K. “Billy” Martin [W1887]. A local boy, Billy entered Wabash in 1881 as a prep student. He studied for two years learning his Latin and Greek and in the fall of 1883 entered as a freshman with the class of 1887. A Sigma Chi, Billy loved sports and played the only organized sport at Wabash at that time, baseball, and was the captain of the team.

Wabash in the 1870’s looking west

This lithograph shows us Wabash of that era and in the top left of the image, we can see the baseball diamond. Baseball was very popular, but there was a new sport gaining popularity – foot ball. From Wabash College: the First Hundred Years, “Football was first introduced into Wabash in the Seventies. The Rugby game which is played today had not yet been brought over to this country; Association football, ‘soccer,’ was the game played in all American colleges. As it was first played at Wabash football was simple. All the students in college who wanted to play would come out into the treeless part of the campus that is now the athletic field, divided into halves by ‘choosing sides,’ and they would begin a game. On fair days as many as forty players would be lined up on a side, for numbers made no difference so long as the sides were numerically even. The game consisted of kicking, batting, throwing, or dribbling the ball to advance it toward the goal.”

In 1884 there were selected 11 men to represent Wabash against other teams. This team went to Indianapolis to play Butler and beat them 4-0 in front of a crowd of about 20 supporters. As no other school was playing this sport, Wabash had the championship. The next year no other schools played this sport so we kept the title.

1886 was the year that modern style American football arrived in Indiana. The Indianapolis Athletic Club organized to promote sports, especially football, in Indiana. They created a league with Wabash, Hanover, Indiana University, Butler and Franklin as the first schools. League rules were that all games would be played in Indianapolis. The Athletic Club would cover the expenses and receive the gate receipts. Lose once and the team was out of the running for a championship, the last team standing undefeated won.

Wabash College 1886 State Championship football team

The Wabash team practiced their game, but rumors started that the new style of football – rugby – was being played at other schools in Indiana. The first game was against Franklin and when our Wabash men arrived in the morning, they were told that the game to be played that day would be the new football. A Yale man, friend of Wabash, and future Trustee, Evans Woollen came forward to help our guys learn this new game. The remainder of the morning was spent practicing and in the afternoon the Wabash team took the field against Franklin and played to a 4-4 tie.

Excited by their performance in the face of great odds, the team and their supporters were in high spirits. In preparation for the next game, a yell was created to increase team spirit:

“Wah! Hoo! Wah!            Wah! Hoo! Wah!              Wah! Hoo! Wah!              Wabash!”

A school color was also needed – one suggestion was heliotrope and many of the fans agreed. Heliotrope, I have learned, is a garden flower grown for its lovely, fragrant, purple flowers. The color is a purplish-pink. Again, from the history Wabash College: the First Hundred Years, “Then a speaker arose, with few words but cogent. ‘Heliotrope, Hell!’ orated he: ‘We want blood!’ And scarlet it is.”

With their new yell and wearing their scarlet ribbons, the Wabash football team returned to Indianapolis to “play-off” the tie with Franklin and won, 8 to 4. When the team arrived back in town, a great celebration ensued.   The last game of the 1886 season was with Hanover and we won easily, 23 to 4. Following the rules of the league,.  As we had beaten both Franklin and Hanover – who had beaten Butler – who had beaten Indiana, Wabash won the championship.  So who was this captain and quarterback of this first true football team? Billy Martin!

In later life Martin was a successful business man here in town. His obituary in the Wabash Bulletin of 1949 described him as a “pioneer in the Indiana ice industry.” But to those who love Wabash, Billy Martin’s legacy lives on in each of our uniforms, in the various Wabash scarlet we wear to show our support, and in that spirit that would later be summed up with the slogan “Wabash Always Fights!”

All best,
Beth Swift
Wabash College