Tommy Wilson (Class of 1879), secretary of the Princeton Football

Besides Bill Clinton (second row, Oxford, sustained a concussion) and George W. Bush (fullback, Yale, delivered a famous sucker punch), we can add Woodrow 'Tommy' Wilson to the plaque of U.S. presidents who have dallied with rugby.

We asked Stuart Rickerson, founding chair of the Princeton University Rugby Endowment, if anyone could verify a tidbit we discovered while working on an illustrated history of American rugby for USA Rugby, that Wilson managed the rugby team while a student at Princeton. Princetonians don’t mess around: Rickerson went to historian A. Scott Berg (Princeton ’71), who won a Pulitzer for his biography “Lindbergh” in 1998; as it happens, Berg is at work on a book about Wilson. “I’d say one could argue that Wilson was, arguably, the man behind rugby on the Princeton campus,” Berg argues in an email to Rugby, “though the game was then called ‘football.’ It’s a fair argument, but it does warrant at least an asterisk and some explanation.” “Football” at the time was a rough and tumble game of various codes, incorporating soccer and rugby with elements that later coalesced into gridiron football.

While Wilson, known as Tommy Wilson (Class of 1879), “was no athlete, he was a great sports enthusiast and a rabid fan of all Princeton teams. And so, as an undergraduate, along with getting elected speaker of the American Whig Society and managing editor of the ‘Princetonian,’ he was also president of the Baseball Association and secretary of the Football Association.” Princeton played a more rugby-like game while Wilson was on campus as a student (1875-1879) “and it was pretty much the same game he saw as a professor (1890-1902) and in his earliest days as president of the University (1902-1910),” says Berg. "As secretary of Princeton's Football Association, Wilson and the captain really were the moving forces on campus behind the sport; and it really was Wilson himself who organized the team, raised money for the team, and performed as a kind of coach, devising plays and insisting on their being followed.”

Speaking of presidents and rugby, disregard any references to Clinton playing with the Little Rock RFC. He did not. As for Bush, we never did find out who he punched in the photo we ran in our last issue, despite our hunt for the victim appearing in the Washington Post.

Contact: Buzz McClain
Email: rugbybuzzatgmail [dot] com