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  • Mason Williams, Staff Writer

The sports archives: A brief look at the Bearcats' past

Updated: Feb 20

Nancy Merki. Photo from sports archive.

In the Hatfield Archives, past scans of The Collegian offer an opportunity to look back on our sports history through the perspective of our campus newspaper. Filled with the goings-on of the university, The Collegian began to steadily incorporate sports into their issues as they grew in popularity. Eventually, sports stories were making the headlines, big or small. Many moments in Willamette’s history can be found, including conference championship wins, athlete spotlights and times when international events affected our own teams.

The Willamette University Football team played its first game on Dec. 8, 1894. Their first-ever opponent was Pacific College, whom they beat 16-0 in Newberg. The Collegian, lacking an official sports section at the time, covered the game under their “Miscellaneous” section. One of the university’s professors making tackles for the team’s defense stands out as the most amusing detail about the game that marked the beginning of Willamette athletics and The Collegian’s coverage of them. 

Since then, the athletics program has grown to host over a dozen sports, with 24% of Willamette’s student body now comprised of student-athletes. Since that first football game, the student-athlete culture at Willamette has grown to be one of the most notable characteristics of our school.

Football team in Pearl Harbor. Photo from the sports archives

In the ‘40s, the football team again took part in a historic moment, not just in Willamette’s history, but the entire world at large. In December 1941, the football team took a trip to Hawaii to play the University of Hawaii and San Jose State University in what was called the Shrine Bowl. They lost to Hawaii on Dec. 6, and before they could play against their second opponent, their trip was interrupted by a drastic moment in history. The team found themselves in the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack that occurred on Dec. 7 and led to the United States’ participation in World War II. In the aftermath, the team served guard duty for ten days before finding a ship home. Dubbed the “Pearl Harbor” football team, their story remains a unique moment in our college’s history where circumstances caused students to experience a historical conflict firsthand.

Suzanne Zimmerman, Photo from the sports archive

This issue covered the victories of Willamette alumni and swimmers Suzanne (Zimmerman) Edwards (‘47) and Nancy (Merki) Lees (‘47) in a swim meet in Portland. Though the swimmers were no longer at Willamette, The Collegian covered their entries into national meets and declared hopes for their participation in the Olympics. The prediction was correct, as Edwards and Lees both participated in the 1948 London Olympic Games. They became the first Willamette athletes to compete at an Olympic meet, marking another pivotal point in the program’s history.

Not all of the Bearcat’s biggest achievements happened in the past. Our most recent Olympian alum was Nick Symmonds (‘06), who ran the 800 meters for Track and Field in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Additionally, the athletics program continues to break new ground with the creation of the Women’s Triathlon team in 2021. 

Looking back at the history of sports at Willamette University reveals to us the interesting beginnings of our sports culture, but also shows us where we can go. New teams are being created just as they were back in 1894, and new records can always be set by student-athletes on campus today. Our legacy is never concrete, and it’s always good to remember that we can still make history today. There’s a slim chance we’ll ever see a professor playing on a football field again, though.

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