Football time in East Tennessee could be considered a secondary Christmas season. In the fall, hundreds of thousands of devoted fans make pilgrimages to stadiums across the South to pay respects to the sport. Famous players are basically divine: Peyton Manning, Johnny Majors, Reggie White.
There is one name, however, that is usually forgotten, despite its importance: that of Kin Takahashi. Without him, the popular pastime might not have made it here at all.
Takahashi was born in a small town called Hirao in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, sometime between 1866 and 1872. In 1886, he left Japan and spent two years at the Hopkins Academy in Oakland, California. There, he met and befriended Sen Katayama, who would later become an important figure in the American and Japanese Communist movements. During this time, he also converted to Christianity, leading to his disownment by his Buddhist-Shintoist family. In 1888, Takahashi transferred to Maryville College, bringing along with him an unfamiliar sport: football.
Prior to Takahashi’s arrival, nobody had ever heard of football in East Tennessee. It was most popular on the West Coast and in the Northeast, where the sport’s rules were first established. In the South, especially East Tennessee, horse racing and baseball reigned supreme. Nashville’s Vanderbilt University had only fielded its first team the year before Takahashi’s arrival in Maryville.
The odds were against the young man; despite two years in the States, he had a poor grasp on English. He was almost laughably small for an athlete, clocking in at 5-foot, 2 inches and 123 pounds. Even so, Takahashi’s passion was enough to spawn football fever at Maryville. In 1889, Maryville College would field East Tennessee’s first football team, captained by the plucky Takahashi, who also played quarterback in addition to serving as the team’s head coach.
“I doubt anyone in the stands of a UT football game has heard of Kin Takahashi, yet they all owe their love of the game to an energetic … Japanese student from Maryville College.”
In those early days, matches were largely intramural. The only other collegiate team in Tennessee at the time was at Vanderbilt, and Maryville’s biggest rival then was an independent Knoxville team. It was not until 1892 that the University of Tennessee fielded a football team, headed by Princeton football darling Henry Denlinger.
Takahashi’s team would face UT several times during his career at Maryville. In fact, the first ever intercollegiate football game in Knoxville was the 1892 season opener between UT and Maryville. Maryville lost the game, as Takahashi’s enthusiasm and hard work was no match for Denlinger’s expertise.
Takahashi played football with Maryville until his graduation in 1895. He returned to Japan the following year and established a YMCA chapter in Tokyo. He died in 1902 in his mid-thirties of tuberculosis.
Although he introduced such an important aspect of East Tennessee culture to the region, Takahashi’s name is all but unknown in these parts.
“Unless they are Maryville College alumni, I doubt anyone in the stands of a UT football game has heard of Kin Takahashi,” said Amy Lundell, a Maryville alumna and the college’s archivist. “Yet they all owe their love of the game to an energetic … Japanese student from Maryville College who brought football to East Tennessee as a way to build up school spirit and bring together the MC student body using athletics.”
Today, Takahashi’s legacy liveson at his alma mater, where he is celebrated as an icon of dedication, determination, and service. Every June, alumni from across the country gather together to beautify the campus and perform other works of service in his honor. The event is known as “KT Days.” This year, due to the pandemic, the event was expanded into “KT Global,” where current students do service projects on campus while alumni take on projects in their own communities. Bartlett Hall, which Takahashi conceptualized as the campus’s YMCA headquarters and laid the first bricks for, still stands and now serves as the lounge for commuter students.
Additionally, there is the Kin Takahashi Award for Young Alumni, which is given out every Homecoming weekend. According to the website, it is awarded to “any alumnus/a who has, within 20 years of his/her graduation of Maryville College, lived a life characteristic of College legend, Kin Takahashi, Class of 1895, who in his 36 years of living, worked tirelessly for the betterment of his alma mater, his church and his society.” The 2020 award went to Dr. Valerie Jansen, a cancer researcher who worked on the breast cancer treatment Verzenio.
“Here at Maryville College, we want the story of Kin Takahashi to be known and not forgotten,” said Lundell. “In a world so consumed with the present and the future, I think it is easy to forget about those who came before us and how they impact the world in which we live.”
“If the stories don’t get passed down to the next generation, how will they know?”