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Holliston Past to Present- Over a Century of Panthers Football

By Joanne Hulbert, Local Columnist Holliston Tab, Town Historian

 Posted January 14, 2011 in The Holliston Tab

Congratulations to the Holliston High School football team and their Division 3A championship on Dec. 5, 2010. All of Holliston was behind the team and the number of signs encouraging them on and celebrating as the team piled up their run of victories was an inspiration for the whole town.

Football has had a long history in Holliston, and its beginnings may surprise a few people. The high school football tradition did not start in the late 1950s as many might presume, for there was a long hiatus when the game had disappeared from the town’s sports history. 

But the history of football at Holliston High School began a long time before the 1950s. Interest in the game was inspired by the college teams at Harvard, Brown and Yale, where a few Holliston graduates attended and brought back stories, game rules and coaching.

A report of a pick-up game on Nov. 1, 1878, was mentioned as attracting boys “big and small,” and in April 1885, a group of high school boys organized the first football club in town with James Kelliher, captain, George Battles, secretary, and Harry Bragg, treasurer. During a practice session on the high school grounds, Harry collided with another player (protective gear being a thing of the faraway future), was carried unconscious to High School Principal Baker’s house and later taken to his home in Braggville. He was at school the next day.

Track and field, bicycle racing, polo (hockey on roller skates) and horse racing were all popular in the 1890s, as were independent sports clubs that drew their players from the high school ranks as well as young adults. In 1896, football arrived at the high school.

Fred C. Tenney, Holliston’s school superintendent for eight years during the 1890s, had been a pitcher in just five games in 1884 with the short-lived professional Union Association (you can look him up in the Baseball Encyclopedia), and he valued athletics as contributing to a well-rounded education. We can thank him for initiating a strong athletic program in Holliston, as well as expanding the high school curriculum from three years to four.

Organizing a high school football squad was a challenge because the number of male students was always low, as many left school early to enter the workforce. Ashland, Hopkinton, Milford, Framingham and Medway were the opponents along with several local independent teams – the Garricks, Grattans, Crescents and Olympias – provided extra playing time for some of the high school students.

The “Garrick” was a local emporium that, one might say, dispensed liquid substances of an illegal nature and in 1900 was raided by the local Officers of the Law (Harriman, Hart and Moody) who placed the contraband in the “large cell at the town house for safe keeping.” The Garrick was apparently Holliston’s first sports bar, as the establishment supported the Garrick football team.

All was not victory and trophies for the Holliston schoolboys. Scores were sometimes lopsided, the team was accused several times of unnecessary rumbling and sustained predictable injuries to heads, collarbones, arms and legs. A score of 10 to 0 was considered a huge rout, and scores of 2 to 0 were common. The team disbanded in 1905 due to illness and disability of several players, and in 1909 the football team again disbanded when home work obligations interfered. Basketball subsequently became the favored sport in Holliston.

Despite setbacks, the Holliston Athletic Association resurrected football in 1912 and provided an opportunity for high school students to excel at the game. Cyprian Toolan, a student at Williams College was a popular football and baseball player. His exploits were followed with great interest by local sports fans, and “Cy” crossed paths with a few of his former mates from Holliston, such Leo Supple, a manager of the Harvard football team, and Stephen Nichols, who attended Syracuse, where he faced his old high school pal on the gridiron. The New York Giants expressed interest in Toolan for his baseball playing and several college football programs wanted him to coach. Instead, he chose a business career with Sears-Roebuck in Chicago.

Holliston’s most celebrated athlete of the time, Allan Pond, played left halfback for the Massachusetts Agricultural College – later known as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Popular not only in football circles but also with baseball and basketball, Pond interrupted his college years to enlist during World War I and returned to M.A.C. after the war. He died tragically in 1920 of pneumonia.

Reasons for no football team at the high school between 1930 and 1950 are clouded by presumptions, myth and confusion. Some people thought that an injury or death had occurred that caused the team to be discontinued. Research has not revealed this was so. The high school team faded away at the time of the Great Depression and interest did not rise again until the 1950s.

After interviewing several high school athletes of that era, none recall hearing of an incident and they presume the reason was a lack of players. When they approached Principal Fred Miller, they were told if they could organize a team, he’d support the return of football. That effort took a few years, but they were ultimately successful.

When the new high school on Woodland Street was finished in 1957, a football field was included. Football reappeared in 1958 with a partial season and returned full force in 1959. A popular sport in Holliston ever since, the 2010 team has added more laurels and glory to a long local tradition. Thanks guys!



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