The 1881 Michigan Wolverines football team represented the University of Michigan in the 1881 college football season. While the University of Michigan had fielded "football" teams in 1879 and 1880, those teams played a game that was more in line with traditional rugby, and many consider the 1881 team to be the first at Michigan to play American football. The team finished with a record of 0–3 after playing the top teams in the country – Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
The 1881 season was only the third during which Michigan fielded a football team. Prior to 1881, Michigan had played only three games, two against the University of Toronto and one against Racine College in Chicago. Moreover, the game played by Michigan was more in the nature of British rugby rather than American football. One author has observed: "When the Michigan rugby team went East in November of 1881 they were playing a more traditional rugby game than their eastern counterparts."
The players on the Michigan team came from throughout the western states, including Illinois (Frank Wormwood and team captain and quarterback Walter Horton), Iowa (Richard Dott), North Dakota (the DePuy brothers), the Upper Peninsula (fullback William Olcott), and even Florida (Purl Woodruff).
In 1881, Michigan scheduled games against the top American football teams—the Eastern powerhouses of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Either Yale, Princeton or Harvard has been credited with every college football national championship from 1869–1894, and retrospective historical power ratings have ranked them as the top three college football teams of 1881. The Michigan-Harvard game, which was played on Halloween 1881, was the first time any of the elite Eastern teams had played a team from the West. In his history of college football, David M. Nelson cites Michigan's 1881 Eastern trip as the origin of intersectional football: "In 1881 football became an intersectional game with the University of Michigan invading the East to play Harvard, Princeton and Yale."
Michigan played all three games in the East over a five-day period between October 31, 1881, and November 4, 1881. While Michigan lost all three games, the games were close, and the Michigan team earned the respect of the Eastern press.
Having lost all of its games and being outscored 28–4, the 1881 Michigan team holds the distinction of having the worst record in the school's history—a record that has not been matched in the more than 125 years of football that followed. After the 1881 season, Michigan did not schedule any intercollegiate games in 1882 and did not return to intercollegiate play until 1883.
The Boston Journal carried a lengthy article about the Michigan-Harvard game, which it summarized as follows:
"Yesterday afternoon, in a drenching rain, for the first time an Eastern foot-ball eleven played with a Western eleven. The Western college boys have long wished a chance to try their powers with Eastern opponents, and, to effect this, the University of Michigan this fall have sent on a representative eleven to play the largest of the Eastern colleges. Their first opponent were the Harvard team. They were beaten but with fair weather the result would have been very uncertain. As it was, Harvard won more by luck than by superiority in strength or skill, for with the exception of the first ten minutes they were forced to play a defensive game. ... At 3:15, in the midst of a drenching rain, the game began. Perhaps a hundred spectators had by this time gathered."
Harvard scored the only points of the game in the first half on a play that was disputed by Michigan's players. The Boston Journal noted:
"Individual players kept losing their temper, and much time was wasted in upclose quarreling over little questions of no account. If the Westerners hadn't talked so much they might have won, or at least tied the game. ... During the second half hour the ball was near the Harvard line constantly. Once it came within three feet of the chalk, but the most desperate fighting on the Harvard forced it back foot by foot until the immediate danger was over. ... The Michigan team excelled in running, and their tackling was very fair. As to passing, they did very little. It was by all odds the best game seen in Boston this fall."
Another Massachusetts paper, The Fitchburg Sentinel, reported: "The Harvard university football team won one touch-down at Cambridge, Monday, and the Michigan university team won nothing."
Michigan's worst defeat on the Eastern trip was an 11–0 defeat against Yale. The next day, the New Haven Evening Register carried the following account of the game:
"The Yale foot ball team easily defeated the players from the University of Michigan at Hamilton Park, yesterday afternoon, in the presence of 500 people. The Yales outplayed their opponents in every particular, and kept the ball near their goal during the greater part of the game. ... The score was: Yale, 2 goals, University of Michigan, no goals, Touchdowns for safety: Yale none, University of Michigan 8. Olcott and DePuy played a good game for the visitors."
The final game of the trip was a 13–4 loss to Princeton. One New Jersey newspaper reported: "The Princeton College team were victorious Thursday in a football match with the team of the University of Michigan after an exciting struggle." New Jersey's Daily State Gazette wrote: "A finely contested game of football at the University grounds Friday, between Princeton and University of Michigan resulted in a victory for the home team, Princeton 1 goal, 2 touchdowns; University of Michigan 0."
The following players were members of the 1881 football team according to the roster published in the 1882 edition of "The Palladium", the University of Michigan yearbook.
RushersJohn Ayres from Springville, Michigan
Harry Bitner, Mt. Carroll, Illinois
Fredric M. Townsend from Coldwater, Michigan
Purl G. Woodruff from Westville, Florida
Frank Forbes Wormwood from Rockford, Illinois
Charles M. Wilson from Ionia, Michigan
QuarterbackWalter S. Horton from Peoria, Illinois (also the team captain)
HalfbacksRichard Millard Dott, halfback, Sioux City, Iowa
Richard G. DePuy from Jamestown, North Dakota
Three-Quarter-backWilliam J. Olcott from Ishpeming, Michigan
GoalkeeperThomas Gilmore from Chicago, Illinois
SubstitutesHenry S. Mahon from Ann Arbor, Michigan
William DePuy from Jamestown, North Dakota