Our Japanese Friend

Before there were the Vols, there was Kin Takahashi—the immigrant who introduced football to East Tennessee in 1889

The first man to carry a football in East Tennessee may have been a young Japanese student named Kin Takahashi.

Photo by courtesy of Maryville College, courtesy of Maryville College

The first man to carry a football in East Tennessee may have been a young Japanese student named Kin Takahashi.

Today, football seems as Southern as cornbread and buttermilk. We take the game for granted, as if the original Tennessee frontiersmen, perhaps the Volunteers of 1812, made football up to kill time in the wilderness. In fact, football was relatively slow to catch on in the South. East Tennessee had football programs before several other Southern states, and for its early popularity, we can thank, at least in part, a foreign student who didn’t speak English well. The first man to carry a football in East Tennessee may have been a young Japanese student named Kin Takahashi.

In the 1880s, American football was mainly a Northeastern phenomenon, played especially among the old colonial colleges—Yale, Princeton, Harvard—later known as the Ivy League. In the 1880s, football had spawned fervor on the West Coast, among colleges, prep schools, and athletic clubs, and a little in the Midwest. But for decades in the South, sports had generally involved animals—racing them or killing them. The phrase “The Sport” in a Knoxville newspaper’s headline dependably referred to horse racing; there was more than one track in the city. After the Civil War, baseball was popular in some Southern cities, including Knoxville. Billiards, “lawn tennis,” and competitive bicycling could also draw a crowd. But Knoxville’s great fall “Tournament” of the late 1880s, was a sort of annual medieval festival, in which society “knights” would ride horses around on a track, doing tricks with lances and jousting.

There’s record of one rugby-like football game between the University of Kentucky and Centre College up in Lexington ca. 1880; sometimes cited as the first football game in the South, it was apparently a one-time curiosity that didn’t take. Most sources point to 1887, when Virginia Military Institute played William & Mary, as the origin of Southern football. Soon Nashville’s Vanderbilt began throwing the ovoid around. In the fall of 1888, though, no one in East Tennessee had a football team. Few Knoxvillians would have recognized a football if they’d seen one.

Almost as rare were people of Asian backgrounds. In the 1880s, Knoxville had more millionaires than Asians. But just 20 miles to the south was Maryville College, which had a remarkable reputation for racial diversity. The liberal Presbyterian college had been founded 60 years earlier with the expressed mission to teach all the races, even Indians, when most were being systematically removed, and Southern blacks, when most were still enslaved.

By the 1880s, MC had an international reputation; among the students were several Mexicans, at least one Arab, and a couple of Japanese. The first Japanese known to attend Maryville College was a man named Sen Katayama, a serious and critical man whose life would fill an implausible novel. A devout and sternly uncompromising Christian, Katayama, who was about a decade older than most of his fellow students, found much to fault in post-Reconstruction Tennessee, then slouching toward the Jim Crow era. He would eventually leave in bitter disgust about the area’s racism; he eventually became a leader in the international Communist Party. However, before Maryville had lost its charm to him altogether, he talked a countryman into joining him there.

Both Katayama and his friend Kin Takahashi had immigrated to California in 1886 to attend a Congregationalist school in Oakland known as Hopkins Academy. After a year, Katayama left to attend MC. Takahashi stayed another year at Hopkins, and during that time converted to Christianity; the news of it upset his conservative Buddhist-Shintoist family, who cut him off.

With few options, he arrived in Maryville in September, 1888, as a financial-aid student, apparently in MC’s college-preparatory course. He was granted $8 per semester—which paid both tuition and boarding fees. Takahashi was, by all accounts, an astonishing young man. His two years in California apparently didn’t teach him English; he later confessed, during his first weeks in Maryville, the frustration of shopping at a local grocery when he couldn’t remember an important word. He clucked like a hen, crowed like a rooster, baffling the Maryville grocer until he quit his pantomime and drew a picture of an egg.

Early on, he worked out a deal where fellow students could use a garden plot to help raise food for themselves. He worked for the campus newspaper. And he was extremely athletic. He enjoyed track and field events with a brio unusual even for undergraduates, and founded the Maryville College Athletic Association, which sponsored its first field day of general athletic competition in 1890. But Takahashi loved, passionately, the American sport of football, as played by perennial champions Yale and Princeton. He was determined to introduce it to his new home. Within a year or so of his arrival, he had apparently succeeded; sandlot football became a familiar sight at MC by 1889.

Five-two, 123 pounds, Takahashi was less than half the size of many on the 2008 Vols roster. What he lacked in size he made up in speed. One writer remembered “his lightning-like dashes around the ends, puzzling the opposing teams with his catlike agility.” Perhaps inevitably, Kin Takahashi became known in Tennessee as “Kentucky Hossie.”

Takahashi was coach and captain, swapping between several positions: center, halfback, fullback, quarterback. Former sports broadcaster and author Ken Kribbs says he swapped positions to let other players learn each position by playing it. “He was a genius of football, and the college wasn’t,” says Kribbs. Now almost 82 and living in Georgia, Kribbs is working on several athletic histories. He’s convinced that Takahashi is the man who introduced football to East Tennessee.

Where Takahashi developed his fervor for football has been a question historians have asked but never answered with any certainty, but it happens that the San Francisco Bay area was a hotbed of early interest in football; the local Amateur Academic Athletic Association organized games between prep schools. Hopkins Academy, long since absorbed into other school systems, seems to have had a particularly vigorous football program in the 1880s, and won the AAAA’s first pennant.

Whether his two years at the 1880s equivalent of a prep powerhouse bred his unusual interest in football or not, Takahashi brought his mania to Maryville and flabbergasted the locals. A passage from an 1889 Maryville newspaper (cited in histories without a more precise date) is intriguing: “The game of football has revived and promises to take the place of all other games” on campus, it went. “Several lively games were played last week. It is a fine game and furnishes some good exercise. Our Japanese friend, Kin Takahashi, seems to be the champion player.” It may be the first reference to local football in Knoxville-area journalism. (The perhaps careless word “revived” has suggested to some that there might have been some earlier abortive football interest at MC, but it may just refer to the older game of English game of rugby, which football was known to resemble.)

Without regard for racial sensitivity, a later Maryville College football player named Sam Crawford would later say, “I cannot recall any previous mention of football before the little Jap arrived.” He recalled that Takahashi would diagram plays using 22 kernels of dried corn, half of them red, half white. As a coach, he was said to be incorruptibly optimistic: When a play failed, he’d respond, “Well, boys, we’ll try again.”

TWENTY MILES TO THE NORTH WAS A BIGGER COLLEGE where students were just beginning to talk about that northern sport. Whether Takahashi’s example helped inspire UT football is probably unprovable, but there’s some intriguing circumstantial evidence.

The university reportedly had some stirring of interest in a “football club” that ordered a “rugby ball” in late 1889 or early 1890. It’s unclear whether they knew right away what to do with it. The fact that obtaining a football was an issue for UT athletes demonstrates that they weren’t available in local stores. Takahashi seems to have had his hands on a football at least a few months before UT’s students did. He may have brought one with him.

What he didn’t have were opponents. Like the mystery of who Cain married when he went to the land of Nod, Takahashi’s MC squad had no counterpart, and kept their scrimmages on campus. Somehow they codified a school spirit, anyway; it was in 1890 that Maryville picked its school colors, orange and garnet, and came up with a cheer, with the oddity that seems to be a requisite of cheers of the era: “How-ee-how! Chil-how-ee! Maryville, Maryville, Tennessee!” It goes on. Chilhowee, the nearest mountain range to Maryville, was a handy symbol. Considering Maryville wasn’t playing football with other colleges in those days, the cheer probably had more utility at baseball games.

As it happens, the first football games in Knoxville didn’t involve UT. An independent Knoxville football club finally organized in December, 1890, with an unusual advantage. Lee McClung was among the most famous football players in the nation. If he was better known in Connecticut than in Tennessee, it was because Tennesseans didn’t know what football was. Child of the prominent Knoxville merchant family, he’d attended Phillips Exeter prep school up North and then Yale, where he’d distinguished himself as a standout halfback in the new game, scoring 494 points in four seasons; he would be captain of the championship, unscored-upon, 13-0 Yale team of 1891. Home for the holidays in 1890, McClung helped the locals kick off the project. A short Sentinel item—wedged in a column about dog racing, cockfighting, and “the Scotch game of curling”—mentions a Knoxville team’s first meetings and that “Mr. Lee McClung, the famous half-back of the Yale team, is home to visit and will assist the local organization in every possible way.” (McClung occasionally hinted he might join the locals for a game, but there’s no record he ever played in Knoxville.)

What that Knoxville team did in late 1890 or early 1891 isn’t clear, but they seem to have played Takahashi’s Maryville team at least once. A mention in a Maryville College history written by Samuel Tyndale Wilson, an MC professor and president who knew Takahashi, as well as an oblique reference in an 1891 paper, suggest that the first local organized football game between different teams, with spectators, was a game in 1890 or early ’91 between that Knoxville team and Maryville. “Last year, the Knoxville team was organized,” reported the Knoxville Journal in November, 1891. “They purchased suits, had their pictures taken, practiced a little, and played one game with the Maryville boys at the drummers’ picnic, which they won.” Local historian Walter Pulliam says Maryville played Knoxville at a grocer’s convention on New Year’s Eve, 1890. They scheduled a re-match, but, Pulliam says, “Knoxville kept putting it off, and they never did play it.”

Takahashi was charismatic and quick, but he had no experience with state-of-the-art collegiate football. Both Knoxville and eventually UT gained further expert advantage in the person of Henry K. Denlinger. A football hero of the 1890 Princeton squad, Denlinger moved to Knoxville to teach at the Knoxville Classical School on Main Street. UT recruited him to teach, and direct the campus YMCA. Denlinger’s enthusiasm for football, like Takahashi’s, was infectious. He played in both the Knoxville team (whether he was in the squad that beat Maryville in 1890 is unclear) and a new UT team. (At the time, faculty members on college football clubs was not unheard of.) The experienced Denlinger gave UT a discipline that Takahashi’s do-it-yourself approach may have lacked.

By 1891, the Knoxville Journal was boosting local football. “Football is a game comparatively unknown in these sections, though it stands in most popular favor in the northern states during the cold winter months,” went the Journal in November, 1891.... The game of football is beginning to obtain a foothold here.” The season of McClung’s greatest triumphs at Yale, the Journal kept flogging Knoxvillians in the direction of football mania, noting a few days later, “Football is one of the most exciting games of the time. Knoxville people are not well acquainted with it, but it is high time they were swinging into line and giving it the same place in the winter that baseball holds with them in the summertime.”

By fall, 1891, the city hosted both that independent Knoxville team and an incipient UT football team not yet known as the Volunteers. In the 1890s, they were sometimes called “The Universities.” On November 21, 1891, they played their first game ever, an away game in Chattanooga against Sewanee, which had organized a team in 1890. Denlinger, the closest thing UT had to a coach, played halfback. The approximate father of UT football, Denlinger seems little remembered today. One expensive illustrated history of UT football refers to him as “Henlinger.” The UT boys lost, 24-0. It got little attention in the Knoxville papers. But the day after the game, in anticipation of a seemingly bigger local game, the Journal offered an article by Yale hero (and McClung teammate) Amos Alonzo Stagg, a primer to THE GAME OF FOOTBALL.

Newspapers gave much more attention to the Knoxville team, which in 1891 overshadowed both the MC and UT teams, at least in audience attendance and press coverage. UT and Knoxville shared four members, including Denlinger; a match between them would have been problematic. Maryville was an obvious opponent, and a game was scheduled between Maryville and UT on Thanksgiving Day in 1891. Thanksgiving, the Journal explained, was a traditional day for football up north, the day of the big Yale-Princeton game, which was tantamount to the national championship. The Maryville paper even printed a lineup for the game, noting that Takahashi would be quarterback.

It would have been the first intercollegiate football game for Maryville College and the second, by a few days, for the University of Tennessee. There’s no evidence it ever actually took place. While one historian seems to leave open the possibility that maybe it did, it was, at best, overshadowed by another, bigger game, the same day: the Knoxville-Harriman game.

The Journal laid out the dilemma that East Tennesseans faced: “Yale and Princeton will play in New York Thanksgiving. Knoxville and Harriman here. Which match will you go to?”

Harriman, the new industrial boom town to the west, was then best known for its associations with Northern industrial interests and its devotion to temperance. Anti-liquor activists were known to extol the healthy virtues of dry living, and may have been happy to field a pioneer football team with something to prove. The Harriman club apparently wasn’t just a bunch of Roane County boys looking for a scrap. Harriman’s club happened to boast least two—three, by one account—former Princeton Tigers, veterans who had played the best teams in the nation. One was H.C. Spicer, who had graduated earlier that year. Another was a fullback named Harry Durrell. It could be that, given the choice, Denlinger scuttled the MC-UT match when he decided to play for Knoxville that day against his old Princeton teammates.

The Journal wrote of football in civic-improvement terms similar to those touting symphony orchestras. Football, a complicated game and an acquired taste, was a mark of urban sophistication. A big turnout for the Knoxville-Harriman football game would be proof that “[T]he Knoxville audience can be just as fashionable and just as appreciative as the gay New Yorkers.”

The game, held on the baseball grounds near Dale Avenue and Asylum, on the streetcar line, drew a reported 600 spectators. Harriman beat Knoxville, but the spectacle impressed the audience. “Now that the ball has been started, let’s have more of the sport,” opined the Journal. “The visiting team was composed of just as nice fellows as one wants to meet. Come again, boys.”

TAKAHASHI AND MARYVILLE, TRUE TO HIS OLD MOTTO, KEPT TRYING.

The second football game UT ever played was the season opener the following year—a late one, for a short, seven-game season, on October 15, 1892. Their opponent was Maryville College. Though MC had been playing football for at least three years, longer than UT students, the UT game is Maryville’s first recorded intercollegiate game.

Takahashi played fullback, and was mentioned in the Journal among “the men who did the best work” on the field that day. (Takahashi’s name appears in early Knoxville sports stories without note, or reference to his national origin, as if it had been McGhee.) But the fact remained that MC was still coached by a distracted undergraduate who, despite his enthusiasm, had hardly ever seen an intercollegiate game, and had only recently learned to speak English. Still benefiting from Denlinger’s Eastern expertise—a newspaper reporter remarked that the visitors seemed better practiced—UT won, 25-0. The Knoxville Sentinel barely mentioned the game, in four lines on the last page of the paper two days after the event, as they might have mentioned a tennis match—but the Journal reported it in a bold headline: SHUT THEM OUT.

Still, the fact that the first intercollegiate football game ever played in the Knoxville area was played at Maryville College might have seemed a small victory for Takahashi. He would have to settle for symbolic victories. Maryville lost to UT again the following year, in another short season. It sounds as if MC never played more than five formal matches a year during the Takahashi years, and some of them were against Knoxville’s YMCA, which did field competitive teams in several sports. MC’s first clear victory came in 1894, when they beat the Knoxville Y, 20-0. The newspaper noted that the average weight of the Maryville footballers was 170 pounds.

After that, UT sources and Maryville sources diverge a little. According to Russ Bebb’s book, The Big Orange, the handiest history of those early years, UT fielded no football team in 1894 or 1895; Denlinger seems to have left town about that time, and may have taken UT’s early football fervor with him. But according to a Maryville College history, in both 1894 and 1895, Takahashi’s last two autumns at MC, his team played UT each year and tied them—0-0 and 6-6. The Knoxville opponents may have been less-formal clubs than Denlinger’s early teams. (Maryville College would play UT regularly until 1936, about 27 formal matches in all, well into the Neyland era. Maryville won the contest only once, in 1906, but tied the Vols in 1923.)

Takahashi’s last year playing for MC was the college’s first that looked almost like an organized football schedule. MC played at least five games; Takahashi’s Maryville 11 beat Sweetwater’s Tennessee Military College, before bringing them to a scoreless tie a few weeks later. They beat the Knoxville Y again, and the Bingham School in Asheville. That season, Takahashi took his team to the Cotton States Expo in Atlanta and challenged the University of Georgia to a game, a challenge U. Ga. apparently declined.

M.H. Gamble, later a Maryville judge, would recall the 1895 season, when he, as center, would work plays out with Takahashi over corn-kernel men, almost like a chess match. “He and I would work on plays hour after hour when we should have been studying,” he recalled. They were the days of the dangerous flying wedge, when Takahashi would whisper in the huddle, “V-formation, I carry the ball!” then hook one hand into the belt of the center, as the whole team surged forward, slicing through a wall of muscle and bone.

The suits were of cheap brown cloth, and homemade. “We didn’t have any such things as helmets, but we let our hair grow long on the supposition that it would protect our heads,” recalled Gamble. “You’d know a football man in those days by his shoulder-length hair. Hairpulling? I should say so. We had numerous unofficial scraps in the process of a game that would have to be settled before the regular game could go on. Oh, we were funny kids in those days.”

Takahashi was a particularly funny kid. By 1894, when he was still an undergraduate, he became preoccupied with improving Maryville’s campus; in particular, with establishing a YMCA building there. The administration watched in helpless wonder as this undergraduate embarked on fund-raising trips to erect a major campus building. One of his successful quarries was the widow of Cyrus McCormick, who, apparently awed by Takahashi’s personality, donated $1,500 to the school, the equivalent, adjusted for inflation, of close to $50,000. He organized student groups to fire bricks and dig the foundation. He explained that he was grateful to the college, and to the Christian faith, and wanted to give something back.

When Maryville finally built what became known as Bartlett Hall, they credited Takahashi as “the suggestor and organizer of the enterprize.”

Takahashi’s story doesn’t end as you’d like it to. He returned to Japan in 1897, having spent most of the previous nine years devoted in one way or another to Maryville College. He became the secretary of the YMCA in Tokyo, but soon grew ill. During periods of activity, he tried to teach Japanese students “how to speak and debate after the dear old Maryville style.”

He died in 1902; authorities differ about his age, but he appears to have been in his early to mid-30s. His parents gave him a proper Buddhist funeral.

MC’s Samuel Tyndale Wilson assessed Takahashi, quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost: “...in a small room, large heart enclosed...”

Meanwhile, his old classmate—it’s unclear whether they stayed in touch—Sen Katayama, the uncompromising radical Christian who’d left Maryville in 1889, became a socialist, involved in violent strikes in Japan, he eventually founded the Japanese Communist Party. Unwelcome at home, he moved to Moscow, where he died in 1933. The man who talked Kin Takahashi into coming to Maryville College is buried in the Kremlin. Among his pallbearers was Joseph Stalin.

Today, multifaceted old Bartlett Hall the three-story brick building near the center of campus, is no longer the campus YMCA. Kin Takahashi never got to see his life’s most ambitious project in full use, but every day in the 21st century, hundreds of students do. It’s one of MC’s most popular buildings, serving as a sort of student union; it houses a work-out room, commuter lounge, and various student-services offices. The campus bookstore is in the basement. The old-fashioned gym is the location Isaac’s Cafe, a comfortably airy spot named for MC founder Isaac Anderson; adjacent is a cosier coffee house called Highland Grounds, designed and developed by students, in homage to Takahashi’s dynamic example of student taking the lead in developing campus institutions. One of the building’s meeting rooms is known as the Kin Takahashi room, and features a large portrait of MC’s most unusual student.

Every June, MC hosts what it calls Kin Takahashi Week, an appropriately unusual homage to the guy who couldn’t stop trying. On that week, alumni appear to volunteer their time to help with campus maintenance and raise funds for the college. And, of course, after about 120 years, MC still plays football. This weekend they’re playing Centre College, of Danville, Ky.—which somehow fielded a team for that spectral first game in Kentucky in 1880—at home.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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