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High school football has been played in Decatur for 130 years

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We know that several of the 1920 Decatur Staleys football players had prepped at Decatur High School in the nineteen teens, but when exactly did the school start a football program?

H&R 1904 Decatur football

There was no school yearbook before 1914, so the local newspapers are about the only source of high school sports information. In November 1904, new Decatur High football coach R.G. Stevenson guided an inexperienced squad which averaged 144 pounds per boy to a winning season over Macon, Sullivan, Moweaqua and Brown’s Business College and a loss to Mattoon.

Before that, the school arranged for a few games each year, often traveling away by train and hoping to get a portion of the gate receipts to help with expenses. In 1898, a Decatur High boy broke his leg and several others were injured in a game against Monticello. The school’s season pretty much came to an end as 5 or 6 boys quit the team and parents thought the sport much too dangerous.

In 1884, Decatur papers reprinted a story that a committee at Harvard had reported that year against football “as being brutal and ungentlemanly.” In lieu of high school football in November 1898, a Decatur team representing “College Hill” went on to defeat Springfield high graduates in front of 600 fans at the Decatur Race Track that Thanksgiving Day.

American sports lore states that the first official school football game in the United States took place in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. The sport slowly worked its way west as former Yale athlete Walter Camp in the 1880s modified the English version of rugby to create a new Americanized sport. The first mention I could find of football in Decatur was contained in a July 3, 1874 story in the Decatur Daily Republican about the local St. Patrick’s Temperance Society’s Fourth of July picnic plans in the grove at John’s Hill:

“The amusements of the day will be inaugurated by a grand game of foot-ball, as played in the old country, in which we are assured that Rev. Father Hickey will take an active part, and be among the liveliest to chase the bounding sphere.”

During the summer of 1885, the Daily Republican carried small announcements that E. C. Reese’s Gun Store in Decatur had now in stock “new bicycles and footballs.”

According to the local gazettes, in July 1889 the “football craze” had arrived at Lovington High School, and in November the craze had reached Cerro Gordo. On November 29, 1890 there were hints that Decatur High School was going to create a “Rugby Club.”

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In 1891, a rugby football club was created at the 1869-built Decatur High School building on the northwest corner of East North Street and the now Martin Luther King Boulevard. Senior Floyd Agassiz Gastman, youngest son of school superintendent Enoch A. Gastman, was selected as captain. On November 1, 1891, the Decatur Herald reported that young Gastman had to be hauled away home from practice in a cart after a fellow player mistook his head for the "foot ball."

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The December 31, 1891 Decatur Herald reported that the team would travel by train to the Springfield fair grounds and play the next day. It was hoped that fans — then known as "cranks" — would attend and recite the cheer "Hi-ro-kee, Hi-ro-kee, Boom-a-ling, Boom-a-ling, Decatur!"

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The January 2, 1892 Decatur Herald reported that the New Year’s Day game was played in miserable rainy, sleety conditions and that the Decatur boys lost 6-0. Future Decatur physician John T. Miller was injured enough to require a substitute, while “Ag” Gastman was again kicked in the face but played on with a swollen eye and cut cheek.

Thus, January 1, 1892 marks the first football game played by a Decatur high school, and the only game played that season. For the next several years the high school football club had a hard time gaining traction and staying active. When no school team was fielded, such as in 1894, locals formed at least one community team, which that Thanksgiving lost at home to the Paxton “Longhairs.”

As for the much abused footballer Floyd A. Gastman, he graduated from Decatur High in 1892 and enrolled at the University of Michigan. He became ill during the year and died of tuberculosis at home on August 8, 1893 at the age of 18. His 24-year-old brother Winthrop died of the same disease just two weeks earlier. Both brothers and their educator parents are buried in Decatur’s historic Greenwood Cemetery.

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