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The first soccer game at Grant Field (Part 2)

Soccer has been played there before Atlanta United takes the field in March

Georgia Tech History Digital Portal

(Thanks to Patrick Sullivan for this guest article, read part one if you missed it. Contact him at psullivan3070@gmail.com)

While construction crews race to complete work on the new Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta United F.C. has announced the team will kick-off its inaugural 2017 season at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s (Georgia Tech) Bobby Dodd Stadium (officially known today as Bobby Dodd Stadium at historic Grant Field). With the imminent return of professional soccer to Atlanta, eager fans may be interested in taking a look back at the first time Grant Field hosted a soccer game, when the local Atlanta Soccer Football Club (ASFC) faced off against their longtime rivals, the Lithonia “Stonecutters” of DeKalb County. This is the second of two articles examining the history of match, which took place on the cool, rain-soaked afternoon of February 4th, 1922.


The long talked of soccer game between the Atlanta and Lithonia teams will take place this afternoon on Grant Field…The Lithonia eleven is in town and anxiously awaiting the opening of the game. Both teams are confident of taking the other team’s measure…

- Atlanta Journal, February 4, 1922

The scheduled start of the 2:30 P.M. kickoff between Atlanta and Lithonia was greeted with cold showers, but Harry Stearns, Jr., the sportswriter with the Atlanta Journal, noted the elements did not dampen the spirits of those in attendance to witness the soccer match:

Despite the bad weather there was a surprisingly large number of spectators out to see the game and while of course most of them were ignorant of the finer points involved, they rapidly caught on to the general idea… [Source 1]

Scotsman John Carnegie Kear, an Atlanta-based construction worker, was the referee for the match. An individual by the name of Stone from Atlanta and Thomas Cruickshank of Lithonia served as linesmen. The two clubs took the field in their traditional colors - Atlanta wearing long-sleeve maroon jerseys and Lithonia outfitted in blue. Both teams employed the basic 2-3-5 “Pyramid” formation that remained in common use on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1910s and 1920s.

Atlanta Soccer Football Club (maroon) vs. Lithonia (blue)

Although the enthusiastic crowd of Tech students and local fans embraced the wet weather, the downpour quickly transformed the field into what was described as a slick “sea of mud,” making play difficult for those on the pitch:

Rain stopped most of the scoring in a peculiar way. When the field got muddy and slippery every time a man took a hard kick at the ball he promptly sat down in the mud. The ball got so heavy that it could not be kicked far… [Source 2]

The Atlanta side “proved the better mud-horses” as the first half of the game progressed. Bolstered by the stout defensive work of Póvoa and Pearson on their back line (described as “a tower of strength” by one writer), the locals were able to overcome the poor playing conditions and jump ahead to a 3-0 lead by half time. [Source 3]

Lithonia captain Thomas Thornton initiated the scoring after the game resumed with a single strike to pull the Stonecutters within two and teammate Axel Larson followed shortly afterwards with a “well placed kick from the toe” to further trim ASFC’s lead down to one. Lithonia’s second goal appeared to have shocked life into the Atlanta side, which mounted a resurgent attack that blistered the visitors for four additional goals over the course of the second half. When the referee blew the final whistle at the end of the weather-shortened, 60-minute match, the home side exited the field to enjoy a decisive 7-2 victory over their local rivals. [Source 4]

Newspaper reports of the game that appeared the following day in the sports pages of the Constitution and Journal credited forwards Billy Jones and Richard Rollain with scoring four of the ASFC’s seven goals. Harland, Richard Jones, and McElkerney supplied the difference with one goal each. The Constitution singled out fullback Gennaro M. Póvoa in particular as one of the “stars for the Atlanta team,” and marveled at the young Brazilian’s fluid athleticism, which must have stood out against the more physical style of play exhibited by the American and British players:

Povoa startled the natives of Atlanta by the handy way he can put a ball on the run. It is something new for the usual football crowd to see a man jump three feet in the air, whirl and send the ball scooting down the field forty or fifty yards while still in the air. [Source 5]

Tech students formed the bulk of the Atlanta team during the 1921-22 season. From left, Donald Cunliff, Gennaro M. Póvoa, Charles Pearson, Jr., Rudolph G. Johnstone, and William H. Martin, Jr.
Blue Print 1922 and 1923, Georgia Tech Student Publications

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the poor conditions, sloppy play, and lopsided score of the Georgia Tech game failed to make any lasting impression on Atlanta sports fans in the days and weeks after the game. The anticipated formation of a Tech soccer team never materialized and no record of the match appeared in the Tech student newspaper, The Technique, or in the 1922 edition of the school’s yearbook. Atlanta and Lithonia would play two more games before closing out the brief 1921-22 season, with ASFC securing a 5-1 away victory on February 11th and the two teams battling to a 2-2 tie in the final game Piedmont Park on February 18th. There was little mention of league activity beyond the brief reports of these games in the sports sections of the major local papers. [Source 6]

The loss of most players on the Lithonia team also proved damaging to sustaining the game for the long term in Atlanta. By May of 1922, at least six paving cutters who played in Lithonia’s starting eleven had obtained their union traveling card and returned north in search of work. Atlanta also struggled to fill out a team roster and a brief article that appeared in the January 27, 1923 edition of the Constitution presented a bleak outlook for the revived league:

So far this season it has not been possible to put a representative Atlanta eleven in the field against their old rivals, Lithonia. Requests for games have also been sent in by Stone Mountain and the local Scottish association. It is hoped several games can be scheduled before the season ends in March. [Source 7]

The local newspapers provide no record of soccer being played in the winter and early spring of 1923. In July of that year, the ASFC Captain, John Harland, left the Foote & Davies Publishing Company to establish his own printing business, the John H. Harland Company. [Source 8] Harland’s longtime participation in Atlanta soccer largely came to an end during this period as he turned his full attention toward the operation of his new company. Lacking a committed organizer and unable to turn out a consistent group of players, the brief revival of the league during the early 1920s came to an end.


The short duration of play over the 1921 and 1922 seasons would represent the second period of organized soccer in Atlanta during the early twentieth century. The Atlanta and Lithonia teams eventually regrouped in 1926 and played the next two years in a loosely structured league that also included amateur sides representing Fort McPherson, the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, the McCallie School in Chattanooga, and a squad composed of inmates from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. The league fell dormant again after the 1928 season – this time for good.

In September 1945, Coach William Alexander tried to reintroduce intercollegiate soccer at Georgia Tech as a way to maintain fitness levels for student athletes over the winter months but once again met with little success. [Source 9] The game finally returned to the school eight years later when a group of European and South American students affiliated with the Pan-American Club scheduled a demonstration match on the Saturday of March 14, 1953. An announcement for the upcoming event on the front page of The Technique made it clear that any memory of the original soccer game at Grant Field more than 30 years earlier had been forgotten over time:

For the first time on the Tech campus, the students and faculty will be treated to an exhibition of football that has never been seen here... [Source 10]


SOURCES

1- Harry Stearns Jr., “Atlanta Downs Lithonia In First Soccer Game,” Atlanta Journal, February 5, 1922, B1.

2- Atlanta Constitution, “Atlanta In Soccer Win,” Atlanta Constitution, February 5, 1922, 3.

3- Stearns, “Atlanta Downs Lithonia In First Soccer Game,” B1.

4- Ibid.

5- Atlanta Constitution, “Atlanta In Soccer Win,” 3.

6- Atlanta Journal, “Lithonia Again Loses To Atlanta,” Atlanta Journal, February 12, 1922, C2; Harry Jr. Stearns, “Atlanta and Lithonia in Thrilling Tie at Soccer,” Atlanta Journal, February 19, 1922, B2.

7- Atlanta Constitution, “Soccer Practice,” Atlanta Constitution, January 27, 1923, 11.

8- Atlanta Constitution, “John H. Harland Company Will Open Doors Monday,” Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1923, B1.

9- The Technique, “Alexander Plans Renewal of Baseball Competition,” The Technique, September 8, 1945, 5.

10- Harvey Hochman, “Pan-American Soccer Scheduled for Saturday,” The Technique, March 13, 1953, 1.