When Tony Jennison was hired as Macalester College's head football coach in 2008, he had no idea that he would someday be dragged into the strange world of a different sport: pushball.
In fact, he had never heard of it -- much like a certain writer had never heard of it until this week.
But Jennison soon learned pushball -- played with a giant ball and with scoring somewhat like football -- has been part of the school's history for nearly 100 years. An article in The Mac Weekly from 1914 displays a picture of the first game at Macalester -- which also boasts that it is the first pushball game in Minnesota history. In conjunction with the school's Founders Day -- celebrating its 138th birthday as a school -- students, faculty and staff are slated to play pushball on the Old Main Lawn of the St. Paul school Friday.
Jennison, who has helped officiate and keep score for the traditional game in recent years (a duty he is passing along to defensive coordinator Marshall Mullenbach on Friday), described the action like this: "It's a little different. It's like a big rugby scrum. There's a huge ball, and everyone is pushing. Both sides just sit there. If they let up, then the ball starts to move. When everyone is fresh, the action is not very fast and furious. When they get tired, it starts moving at a faster pace."
A 1905 article traced pushball's roots back to an 1895 game involving Harvard students. The same publication says the ball used should be six feet in diameter and weigh roughly 50 pounds. There are 11 players per side pushing the ball and each other around, and crossing a goal line in various ways earns points.
The game scheduled for Friday at Macalester will use a ball much lighter than 50 pounds and measuring eight feet in diameter. It also sounds like the new version played at Macalester is much tamer than the one played from 1923-1955 at Emory University in Atlanta. The traditional games were permanently canceled because of "mob violence," according to emory.com. Dr. W. Roy Mason, the school's director of student health, was quoted as saying: "We were lucky to get by this year without a fatality. I'm sure it was only a question of time until someone got killed playing this so-called game."
The Macalester version these days is mostly about history and participation.
"I think it's kind of neat," Jennison said. "I'm not so sure all the students know the history, but they see this wacky thing going on and they jump in."