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.
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.
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, https://citrusvariety.ucr.edu/citrus/troyer.html
Lee Zion, “Yuma County Pioneer Photographs: Albert M. Troyer, Logan,” http://www.cogenweb.com/yuma/photos/pioneer/Logan/Troyer.htm