CORY SMITH: How Black Field ‘revived’ football in Greenville

By Cory Smith • Last Updated 11:49 pm on Thursday, December 08, 2011

THE FIRST TO PLAY AT BLACK FIELD: The 1916 Greenville High School football team.

Cory Smith

Black Field has been home to football in Greenville for as long as anyone can remember.

Countless games have been played on its surface in nearly all kinds of weather conditions. Yet it has stood an incredible test of time, offering a field on which to play the game of football since the first quarter of the 20th century.

Many people don’t know Black Field actually revived playing football in Greenville when Dr. Duncan K. Black gifted it to the school in 1915. The game of football was actually forbidden at Greenville High School before then.

Nowadays, nearly every public high school in Michigan sends players out on the gridiron every fall. But for an 11-year period from 1904 to 1916, Greenville frowned upon football as being too violent.

On Saturday, Nov. 5, 1904, Greenville and Alma played a game of football at Harvard, a now defunct town in Oakfield Township west of Greenville.

Today, Harvard is just a small area west of Greenville with a bar. In those days it was also home to a small schoolhouse and a field on which to play football.

Henry Loding, a Greenville student and football player, was involved in a collision during the game and received a severe concussion. According to an article published Wednesday Nov. 9, 1904, in the Greenville Independent newspaper, “His fellow players urged him to retire from the play in favor of a substitute, but he declined and began to play again within the two-minute limit, and his play was excellent for half an hour.”

But after that half an hour, things took a turn for the worse.

“Just before the goal was to be kicked, he lay down behind the goal, vomiting and complaining of pain in his head. He was taken to the hotel and cared for, it being hoped that he would soon recover so as to return to Greenville. But he became unconscious and died within three hours,” the Independent continued.

Greenville won the game 17-6, but at a cost too great to continue playing the game of football from then on.

According to that same issue of the Greenville Independent, “The Greenville high school football team promptly disbanded after the casualty at the Harvard game.”

For years after Loding’s death, football was an afterthought. This was not unique to Greenville, as states such as Wisconsin banned football altogether, claiming the sport was just too violent with too little protection available to the players.

That began to change in Greeville around 1915. Black made a unique donation to the school: A playing field on which to play football for a school that had outlawed the game.

I can’t speculate as to what Dr. Black’s thinking was at the time. The Greenville Independent reported the field would have” a baseball diamond, a football field, a seven lap track, a basket ball field and two tennis courts.”

Donating a football field to a school where football was not played and not allowed to be played seems odd in the least.

Rumors quickly circulated that the game of football was coming back to Greenville and residents took action to write to the paper about their concerns.

In an article published Sept. 29, 1915, one individual writes, “Greenville high school authorities evidently think 10 years is a sufficient length of time in which to mourn the loss of one boy in the football game, and from reports we hear the game is to be revived. The manly art of self defense, commonly known as prize fighting, would give as much exercise and be far less dangerous.”

Within a week, the school board took action to clear up any rumors.

In an article published Oct. 6, 1915, in the Greenville Independent, the school board writes, “In order to clear up what seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the status of regulation football in the local high school, it should be said that there is no foundation for the report circulated last week that football had been formally re-instated. The high school faculty has not acted upon the matter or even had it under consideration. What might have caused the report is the fact that the boys’ physical training class is using both a regulation football and a soccer ball in order to be taught the fundamentals of both games in their regular class work. Soccer will probably be played until the basketball season opens.”

But just one month later, an editorial in the Greenville Independent, published Nov. 3, 1915, stated otherwise.

“We came across a young man a few evenings ago that we recognized as one of our high school boys, and, noticing how warm he appeared to be and how dirty and mussed up his clothes were, and feeling he had narrowly escaped some terrible accident, we asked him the cause of his heated and untidy condition and he replied he had been ‘playing football.’ You may imagine our amazement at hearing his frank confession.

“‘What?’ we said, ‘playing football. Why, we thought that had been forbidden.’

“‘Well,’ he replied. ‘we were just practicing’ …

“It is fair to presume we are getting ready to fight someone if we get the chance, and from what we hear, sub rosa, that is just what is going on at Black Athletic Field. The boys are getting ready for a scrap next year. In fact, we have been told that the coach did not think it advisable to play any games this year because of the untrained condition of our boys, but that next year there is going to be something doing in the football game.”

The paper was spot on.

According to the 1917 “Hi-Life,” Greenville’s yearbook, the first ever yearbook published at the high school, “Football was taken up last fall (1916) for the first time in several years.”

According to the yearbook, four games were played that inaugural season, two against Belding, one against Lowell and one against Sparta. Greenville finished 1-3, defeating Belding in their lone win.

No record is given as to the location of the games, but with a field sitting in the school’s backyard, it’s safe to assume at least one home game, more than likely the win against Belding, was played on Black Field.

One has to wonder, had Black Field never been donated to the school, when would football had returned to Greenville? Without a field on which to play and following the death of a student, there was no motivation to bring the game back. But just one year after the addition of Black Field, varsity football returned to Greenville and has stayed to this day.

Black Field has done a lot for football in this community over the years, but bringing football back to the city and school has to have been its largest contribution by far — regardless of whether it was meant for that purpose.

Black died in the spring of 1916, never living to see a game of football played at the field named after him. But his gift to the school lived on, offering more than 75 seasons of home football games for Greenville to enjoy.

Since 1916, but with a small gap from 1927 to 1933 when the field was renovated, varsity football at Greenville High School has been played at Black Field. Without it, there’s no telling when it would have been played.

Not as early as 1916, that much is certain.

Cory Smith is a staff writer for The Daily News.

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