The sport known as football (or in some parts of the world, American football) was not always the organized, efficient, gentlemanly showcase of athletic talent that it is today. In fact, back in the mid-1800s, it was a particularly brutal, physical game where players routinely ran into each other with enough force to knock over a small tree. At that time, throwing opponents to the ground was as normal as … well, maybe there’s more in common between the football of old and the game played today than was previously believed. However, to best understand how the version played in the National Football League today came to be, several historical events and places need to be briefly visited. First stop — ancient Greece.
Sports have existed in some shape or form for thousands of years, and it seems that many of those were far more brutal and violent than most sports played today. One such game was called “harpastum.” Although the exact details of this game vary by time and location, the basic premise was the same: Two teams of multiple people use whatever means necessary to both score on, and prevent scoring by, the other team. Among the accepted means of defending the ball were tackling, punching, kicking legs out from under players, and other ways of beating an opposing player into submission.
Games similar in style to harpastum were frequently played in cities all across Europe, once again varying in structure from one place to the next. Sometimes these games were played with the entire populations of two towns competing against each other. Eventually, they were deemed illegal by the ruling authorities, probably because, at that size, these games seemed a little too much like tribal warfare. However, the origins of football — through rugby and soccer, which will be explained shortly — can definitely be traced back to this game, with subtle influences by several other games.
Football Came From Where?
Speaking of rugby, it seems that any die-hard football fan owes a big ‘thank you’ to our neighbors across the pond. That’s right — football would not exist without England.
Starting in about the middle of the 17th century, many boys schools in England played a football-type game that was essentially a mix of rugby and soccer. Eventually, some people figured out that they preferred the soccer elements of the game, while others preferred the rugby parts. Around 1870, the hybrid game split into two specific sports: rugby and football (soccer).
Back in the U.S., teams from several Ivy League universities had started playing a version of the hybrid soccer/rugby game that people attending those schools had brought with them from England. That game would eventually become American football, but at the time it still largely resembled rugby, especially in the structure/rules of the game. The first official game of ‘gridiron football’ was played November 6, 1869, between teams from Rutgers and Princeton Universities. Rutgers won with the thrilling score of 6-4.
‘Football’ Starts to Become Football
The kind of football played in the Rutgers/Princeton match-up was still closer to the sport of rugby than it was to the football played today. There were differences between rugby and that old-school type of football, certainly, but it had yet to really distinguish itself as a completely different sport.
As football’s popularity grew, so did the need for a means to ensure that everyone involved was playing the same game. So in 1873, people from the universities of Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale got together and created a set of rules and regulations all football teams would have to follow. Enter the Intercollegiate Football Association (or IFA) — the sport’s first governing body.
The most notable rule change was that teams in the IFA were limited to fielding 15 players, where before there were 20 to 25 people playing for a team at a given time. However, not everyone involved with football at the time was satisfied with the IFA’s changes. One such person was Walter Camp, the man who’s widely known as the ‘father of football.’ A Yale graduate and member of that school’s football team, Camp went on to coach the team from 1880-83 and chaired the Yale Football Committee from 1888-1912. During that span, he advocated and implemented many changes to the structure of football. This directly resulted in shaping the game to the version that is played today. Among those changes were:
- Reducing the number of players on the field for one team to 11
- Introducing the line of scrimmage
- Introducing an updated scoring system and changing the point values of touchdowns and field goals
- Introducing the ‘downs’ system of possession (i.e. a certain number of attempts to gain a certain number of yards)
- Increasing the number of downs from three to four
- Increasing the number of yards that needed to be gained to maintain possession from 5 to 10
- The creation of certain positions, such as quarterback
- The addition of new structures, such as the safety, interference and game-play penalties
- Legalizing the forward pass
- Legalizing a tackle made below the waist
- Changing the size of the field (reduced from a rugby field)
Camp also had a hand in editing and revising each edition of the official American football rulebook until he passed away in 1925. Considering the man’s influences, calling Walter Camp the ‘Father of Football’ seems pretty fitting.
Toning It Down a Little Bit
With a new set of rules and structures in place, football’s unique game continued to gain popularity. A westward expansion began when other universities quickly formed team, and though the IFA only had eight teams from 1873 to 1880, by 1900 there were approximately 48 teams from different colleges and universities playing football.
During this time, it was common practice for offensive teammates to link arms and block for the ball carrier, just as it was common for the defensive players to do so in an attempt to tackle the ball carrier. The ball carrier was also routinely dragged forward by teammates while defensive opponents would attempt to tackle him to the ground, effectively making the ball carrier a human rope in a tug-of-war match between both teams. Unfortunately, these practices, combined with an increase in the amount of football being played, led to some unwanted publicity … in the form of a body count. In 1905 alone, for example, 19 people were killed while playing football.
The new sport’s brutality began to attract national attention, and that same year President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to handle the matter. Roosevelt basically told all the schools in the IFA to make the game safer, or he would see that it be made illegal. So in December of that year, over 60 schools convened in New York City to give the game a much-needed safety overhaul. That meeting led to the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, which eventually became the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or NCAA), as it’s known today. The NCAA would replace the IFA as the governing authority over college football, and eventually over all things related to college athletics.
Aside from the fancy title, the committee also imposed several rule changes to make the game safer. The most notable of the new rules was one that made it illegal for teammates to bind together and block opposing players. The passing aspect of the game, which was still a relatively new addition, was also changed so that the ball could be passed to any point on the field. Prior to this meeting, passes could only be thrown to certain parts of the field, which made receivers easy targets for tacklers.
Though the game was also being played by men not affiliated with any university or college, in the early 20th century these men’s programs were geographically scattered and therefore limited to playing teams in their region. In an early attempt to expand the game’s popularity beyond the university scene, several teams located in and around Pennsylvania created the National Football League in 1902. Due to its lack of structure, the NFL disbanded a few years later. The American Professional Football Association was created in 1920, both to help organize and unite the various men’s teams that already existed and to help football’s popularity continue to grow. Jim Thorpe, a famous Olympic athlete, was elected as the organization’s first president, and the inaugural season saw 14 teams competing.
Teams came and went during the first few years after the APFA was created, but by the middle of the decade there were 25 consistently participating teams, and soon there was an attempt to create a football organization completely separate from the AFPA. And around the same time in 1922, the AFPA became the National Football League, or NFL; while there was a football organization previously called by the same name, this new NFL had no ties to the previous one. All were sure signs that the transition from college to professional football had been made successfully.
1932 also marked a significant change in the NFL. That year, two teams were tied for the best record in the league and played in the first ever playoff game in order to determine a champion. The idea of a set of playoff games became so popular that at the beginning of the following season, they became a fixed part of the game''s structure. Also implemented that year were more rule changes, most notably one that allowed a pass to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, and one that called for every play to start from between the hash marks. In 1936, the game changed dramatically when the first player draft was held.
After a brief period of struggle which saw teams disband and merge due to a player shortage during World War II, the NFL resumed its growth, both in terms of popularity and overall size. Several other competing leagues attempted to start up, but none were successful until the American Football League was created in 1959. Unlike other start-up leagues, the AFL had a significant amount of financial backing and television coverage. Those in charge of the league specifically established teams in areas where the NFL already had teams in place.
All of these occurrences made the AFL a source of serious competition for the NFL. In 1970, however, the two leagues merged under the umbrella of the NFL. The new super league consisted of the American Football Conference (the old AFL) and the National Football Conference (the teams from the pre-merger NFL). Also resulting from this merger was the Super Bowl, a championship game that had the best team from the AFC take on the best team from the NFC.
Football is tremendously popular today at both the collegiate and professional level and attracts more television viewers in the United States than any other sport. Several other football organizations have been created over the years, both in the U.S. and in other countries and though most of these leagues have faltered, the fact that they even existed in the first place is a testament to the game’s continued popularity.
The year 2009 marked the first season of the United Football League, another independent league, and in 2010, the All-American Football League is scheduled to begin its inaugural season. So through the NFL and other leagues that try to ride on the coattails of the sport’s popularity, football’s rise continues long after the days when Walter Camp left his mark.