May 17, 2023 | Last updated May 17, 2023

The man who scored Nebraska’s first-ever touchdown died in the Soviet Gulag

The University of Nebraska’s first football team, 1890. History Nebraska RG2758-103-2


By David L. Bristow, Editor

May 17, 2023


Consider these three people:

  • A young man who scored the University of Nebraska’s first-ever touchdown in a football game
  • A widely-respected agronomist known for developing hearty varieties of citrus
  • An American who moved to the USSR and renounced his US citizenship

How could these three very different people fit into the same story?

In fact, they are the same man at different times of his life.

A native of Illinois, Albert Troyer came to the University of Nebraska in 1886 to study agriculture. He helped organize the university’s first football team, scored its first touchdown, and went on to an influential career as an agronomist. In the 1930s he moved to the Soviet Union, renounced his US citizenship… and then disappeared.

Albert Troyer


The first “foot ball” on the University of Nebraska campus was a round rubber ball purchased by students in the late 1880s. Troyer remembered how they used to gather 15 to 20 young men per side and play “a purely kicking game, the only object being to force a ball across the goal line at about a certain point.” Now and then they had to repair the ball when it was “punctured by a too violent contact with the obnoxious hedge fence” that surrounded the campus and kept grazing cattle out.

By the fall of 1889 some of the young men became interested in the type of football that was becoming popular back East—the game in which a runner carried an oval-shaped ball until he was tackled. Troyer recalled that they received permission to create a proper football field on the northwest corner of campus, “even though there were a dozen or more boxelders and six or eight stumps in the way.” (Others remembered clandestine nighttime raids to cut down trees without permission.) Troyer and few others grubbed out stumps, marked the sidelines, and erected goal posts.

The first games were intramural contests. In 1890 the University of Nebraska organized its first official team and traveled to Omaha to play the Omaha YMCA on Thanksgiving Day.

The team—some sources say they were called the Old Gold Knights, although newspaper reports don’t refer to a team name—wore white canvas uniforms with black stockings and caps. Nebraska scored its first points on two safeties. Troyer then scored the game’s only touchdown, sealing a 10-0 victory.


Troyer graduated in 1891 with a degree in agriculture. He eventually moved to Fairhope, Alabama, where he became a respected citrus grower and agricultural expert. He was best known for developing a cold-hardy variety of orange that became popular among California growers.

A socialist, Troyer was recruited by Soviet officials in 1934. He moved to the Black Sea city of Sukhumi, in the South Caucasus, bringing his rootstock and helping develop a citrus industry there.

In 1937 Troyer, then 71 years old, was arrested and later sentenced to a 10-year prison term on a charge of “counter-revolution.” His wife, Elva, told the US State Department that the Soviet secret police had taken him away and that she hadn’t seen him since.

Albert and Elva Troyer, Omaha World-Herald, April 5, 1938


Probably mindful of public sentiment, Elva tried to play down Albert’s political views. Describing him as a “mild man” with little interest in politics, she acknowledged that he had renounced his US citizenship shortly before his arrest, but explained that he did so only so he could continue his work on citrus trees in the USSR.

Elva had not renounced her US citizenship and was allowed to return to the US. Several years younger than Albert, she was also a University of Nebraska graduate. She moved to Lincoln, where she tried to raise awareness about Albert’s situation in hopes of convincing the US State Department to intervene.

But with Albert a citizen of the USSR, the US had little leverage (and perhaps little interest) in seeking his freedom. He was never seen or heard from again.

Today Sukhumi is a seaside resort in the de-facto autonomous Republic of Abkhazia.* The region is known for its many citrus plantations.


*Recognized by most countries as part of the Republic of Georgia.

Breanna Fanta and Ben Kruse contributed research to this article.



“Foot Ball at Omaha,” The Hesperian (University of Nebraska), Dec. 1, 1890.

A. M. Troyer, “The University’s First Foot-Ball Team,” The Hesperian, Feb. 15, 1894.

“Nebraska’s Two Athletic Fields,” Daily Nebraskan, Nov. 24, 1909.

Edward Morrow, “N.U. Graduate Imprisoned in Soviet Sabotage Purge; Wife Seeks America’s Aid,” Omaha World-Herald, April 5, 1938, 1.

“Seeks to Free Man in Russian Prison; Nebraska Woman Appeals to Washington to Act in Her Husband’s Case,” New York Times, April 6, 1938, 24.

“Fairhope Man Serving Term in Soviet Jail,” The Onlooker (Foley, AL), April 7, 1938.

“Troyer citrange,” Citrus Variety Collection, University of California Riverside,

Lee Zion, “Yuma County Pioneer Photographs: Albert M. Troyer, Logan,”

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Marker Monday: Spade Ranch

Marker Monday: Spade Ranch

Nebraska’s Japanese American History

Nebraska’s Japanese American History

The Blacksmith Shop

The Blacksmith Shop

Marker Monday: Long Pine – A Railroad Town

Marker Monday: Long Pine – A Railroad Town

Fred Astaire’s Omaha Origins

Fred Astaire’s Omaha Origins

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.