W&M Football’s Origin Story

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With all the uncertainty surrounding college sports, we at the W&M Sports Blog decided to continue our deep-dive into the annals of William & Mary Football history.

There exists a treasure trove of W&M gridiron stories we couldn’t possibly cover in their entirety — even if we published nothing but W&M Football stories every day for the next year.

But what we can do is call out specific stories, as described by author and W&M alum Wilford Kale in Goal to Goal: 100 Seasons of Football at William & Mary.

If you’ve never read the de-facto history book of football at W&M, you can order it on Amazon here. Trust us, it’s worth it.

Let’s start with William & Mary Football’s origin, which dates all the way back to 1893.

W&M Football Origin Story by Wilford Kale

Charles L. Hepburn should be considered the founder of William and Mary football.

In the fall of 1893, this student from an extraordinary family brought together the College’s first organized athletic team and helped establish the fledgling Athletic Association, the student-run organization that governed athletics in the days before the creation of the athletic department.

As the manager of the Athletic Association and an editor of one of the College’s literary magazines, The Phoenix, he also was instrumental in lobbying for the first baseball team and for the development of later athletic policy.

Eldest son of the Rev. Sewell Hepburn and Selina Lloyd Powell Hepburn, Charles had already been teaching school for several years when he entered William and Mary in 1893.

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Charles L. Hepburn

Having graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria in 1889, he possessed the credentials to become an instructor in the budding public school system there.

However, with his family’s support and blessing, he enrolled at the College, along with his younger brother Lloyd, to further his education.

The Powell family was prominent in Virginia educational and political circles.

Hepburn’s maternal grandfather, Charles Level Powell, and his aunt, Rebecca Powell, taught school in Northern Virginia.

Hepburn’s letters to them provide a fascinating source of material on the life of the College in the 1890s.

Unlike most of the other students at W&M, Hepburn had prior experience in playing football, a new and developing game.

He was one of the featured players at Episcopal High School.

“I have been playing football several times last week,” he wrote to his “Aunt Beck” in November 1888. “I have been promoted [to] 3rd [team] from the 4th eleven. The boys say I play very well. I am going to get a football jacket…if I can bring it within my means.”

Other evidence of Hepburn’s athletic and competitive nature is a story from his years at Episcopal.

After his younger brother Sewell had been bullied by an older boy, Charles challenged the older foe to a bare knuckles boxing match, which went on for some fifteen to eighteen rounds before the bully lost.

By the time Hepburn arrived on campus, students had been pressing the College administration since 1891 for the establishment of a football team.

The groundwork had been laid, and, under his leadership, progress was rapid.

In October 1893, the Virginia Gazette reported, “The Athletic Club has been reorganized, the football teams have begun to play and a baseball nine will be organized shortly.”

As manager of the Athletic Association, Hepburn not only recruited the students to play and trained those unfamiliar with the game of football, but also performed the duties of coach, business manager, trainer, equipment manager, and groundskeeper.

Initially, the team needed a place to practice and play. Informal games had been held on Court House Green for years, but Hepburn had other ideas.

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As early as 1875, W&M students played informal football games on the Courthouse Green — which still exists in Colonial Williamsburg today. (Photo: 1906 Colonial Echo)

The College Monthly noted, “The grounds…are in very bad condition. The cost [to repair them]…should be nominal and not above what the association is able to pay.”

Hepburn petitioned the Executive Committee of the Board of Visitors to defray expenses incurred in creating the College’s first athletic grounds.

The site along the Richmond Road side of campus where Monroe Hall now stands, was used until another field was constructed in 1907-08.

He was reimbursed $17.60 for “improvement of the College campus.”

William and Mary played three games during its first football season. After losing its first game, the team played Old Dominion (a club from Norfolk) in the second game, which the Richmond Times-Dispatch called “the first game ever played on the [William and Mary] campus.”

Hepburn was at quarterback with his brother Lloyd playing end. The College won, 14-4.

A crowd of 250 students and townspeople attended the contest and reportedly “yelled themselves hoarse.”

The last game on Thanksgiving Day saw Hepburn providing the winning score in William and Mary’s 8-6 victory over Capitol City.

“Hepburn took it through the center, got loose from the crowd, and scored again after a 50-yard run.”

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A rare photo of the College’s first ever football team, circa 1893. Hepburn can be seen top-right. (Photo: University Archives)

It was his first and last touchdown for William and Mary.

After the season, Hepburn turned his considerable talents to shaping public opinion about athletics.

The Phoenix, one of the literary society publications [along with The Philomathean], published the editorials.

Although unsigned, his touch was evident in the March 1894 edition when The Phoenix promoted the establishment of a baseball team:

“What is the matter with baseball? Here we have in college several men who would do well on the diamond, and yet we have no team.

It is not that there is a lack of funds to start one. Through the kindness of the Board we have money ready for our athletic needs.”

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Artwork from the Colonial Echo in 1901.

The College, in fact, organized its first regular baseball team that same spring. The writer ended with a visionary plea to those student-athletes who would follow:

“But a great deal may yet be done. Organize the Association on a permanent basis; make its offices posts of honor; make it an influential institution.

Let it work for a gymnasium; let it fix up the athletic field on the College grounds. We might ask for a field day after a while.

The Faculty has given us encouragement, and we think they will do so in the future.”

Hepburn did not see those wishes come true. Because of financial hardship, he and his brother left the College after the 1893-94 term.

-Wilford Kale, Goal to Goal: 100 Seasons of Football at William & Mary (full book on Amazon)

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