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Woster: Ever heard of how pointless pushball was?

At the whistle, the two team try to push, roll or bounce the ball toward the other team’s goal.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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After high school, I enrolled at Creighton University. I transferred after one year, but I stayed long enough to get my picture in the college yearbook.

To be honest, only my left ear got into the photo. Sometimes it’s a good thing to have ears that stick out like, as the comedians say, a taxi driving down Fifth Avenue with its doors open. Even in a crowd of college freshmen, my ear stuck out enough to get in the photograph.

And what a photograph it was. The freshman male students at Creighton were about to engage in what we were told was a start-of-school tradition, the pushball match against the sophomore men. The tradition included pre-match photographs, first the freshmen, then the sophomores. I crowded into the pack with the other freshmen and smiled (although my face wasn’t visible) for the camera.

We should have known better. Even as college freshmen, we should have sensed the trap. As soon as the camera’s shutter clicked, a barrage of eggs came flying our way from the gaggle of sophomores gathered on the sidelines. I didn’t get hit. I was too hidden. The eggs broke and splashed over the guys in the front row, though. Like silly beanies and being mean to freshmen, the pushball photo was tradition, I guess.

The yearbook says the two teams bombarded each other with water balloon and eggs, but it was pretty much eggs and pretty much one team with the ammunition. It set the tone for a spirited game of pushball.

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If you’ve never heard of pushball, don’t feel bad. Most people these days haven’t. It became a thing in the late 1800s and went out of favor in the mid-1900s. I found a lengthy piece on it in a blog on Slate, an online site. The article says “For decades, starting in the 1890s, everyone from stockbrokers to college students had thrown themselves at a pushball, struggling mightily with their team to push it over the opponent’s goal line.’’ That’s about all you need to know to understand the game.

Well, the size of the pushball. That’s important. If you saw that Indiana Jones movie where he trips a booby trap and a huge round boulder comes rolling after him, that’s about the size of the pushball we used at Creighton. It was leather, not stone, and I’d guess it weighed something like 50 pounds.

According to the Slate blog, an electrical engineer from Boston, Moses Crane, invented the thing. He hated football. He had three sons who played football at Harvard, and he wanted to offer an alternative to that college sport. Slate says the first pushball, one Crane made himself, cost about $175, was six feet in diameter and weight 70 pounds.

The game starts with the ball in the air at midfield, being supported by players from both teams. I can’t remember how many players each side fields, but when we played, it was a big crowd. At the whistle, the two team try to push, roll or bounce the ball toward the other team’s goal. Points are scored for crossing the goal line, but that never happened in the Creighton game.

Game photos in the yearbook show the ball rolling off to the side of the field as the freshmen and sophomores appear to be hitting and shoving each other. Another photo shows reserves from both teams rushing into the melee like a bench-clearing brawl in baseball. I joined the rush, of course. I took a couple of blows to the back, maybe from sophomores, maybe from my own team, before the referee called the game.

The yearbook says, “officials halted hostilities and called it a draw, but not before one referee was trampled and had to be carried unconscious from the field.’’

Sports historian John Thorn is quoted in Slate as writing, “I think the existential pointlessness of the game had to dawn upon its participants. You push this thing around, and then the time for your game is finished.’’

Is it possible that match was the last pushball game in America? I don’t know, but I walked away thinking the whole exercise was pointless.

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More from columnist Terry Woster...
Sometimes when my newspaper and the governor’s office were at odds over our coverage, I’d be unable to get formal interviews.

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