The History of Football in America

This bit of information may be painful to the macho among us, but the history of football in America - at least of the game we recognize today - begins with the Ivy League. In fact, the man considered to be the Father of American Football is the great Yale athlete, Walter Camp (the man holding the football in the middle of the picture below).

Walter Camp with Yale football team

But wait. It gets worse. In the history of football in America, we see that - yes! - football was too violent for those namby-pampy Ivy Leaguers. So when the game was banned in the colleges for being too dangerous, it was taken up by (you're gonna love this!) EAST COAST PREP SCHOOL BOYS!!! We kid you not!

Here's how the timeline worked. In the 1820's, Princeton and Harvard, joined by Dartmouth in the 1830's, were each playing different variations of the game. At this point in the history of football in America, the games were still mob-style, with huge numbers of players and very little in the way of rules. Not surprisingly, this free-for-all version of play was violent in the extreme, resulting in serious injuries that led to the banning of the game first in Yale (1860) and then Harvard (1861). Princeton v Rutgers But even as the game was being banned at the college level, it was being embraced by the prep school kids, those violent little rascals.

Now, the history of football in America still hadn't gotten us within shouting distance of the game we watch today. As noted with the early college versions, not everybody used the same format. At that point in the history of American football, there were kicking games (more like today's soccer) and running/carrying games. No one had yet come up with what has become the centerpiece of modern American football: the forward pass.

The next step in the history of football in America was again made by schoolboys, this time schoolboys of Boston, who played a form of football on Boston Commons that included both running and kicking, that is, it was more like rugby than soccer. Not surprisingly, this hybrid version of American football became known as the "Boston Game." In 1862, they organized what was known as the Oneida Football Club, thought to be the first formal football club in the United States.

The Boston kids got themselves some press coverage, so this hybrid version began getting traction. Still, when the college boys decided to give it another try in the late 1860's, they stayed primarily with the kicking game, and Rutgers vs Princeton (played November 6, 1869), although more soccer than American football, is usually considered to be the first game of intercollegiate football played in the United States.

When the competitions became intercollegiate, each school continued to have its own rules, with the home team's rules applying for each game.

When rules were first codified at a meeting in New York City's Fifth Avenue Hotel on October 20, 1873, the approach continued to more closely resemble soccer. But while Yale, columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers were on board with this kicking version, Harvard refused to join them, preferring to stay with the kick and carry Boston game.

Harvard then went on to play a series of rugby-style games (akin to the Boston format) against Montreal's MacGill University, incorporating the rugby 'try,' the origin of today's touchdown, into their version.

"Touchdown," by the way, simply refers to the physical act of touching the football down on the ground beyond the goal line.

Eventually the other colleges began abandoning the soccer version in favor of the rugby style of play, and at a meeting at the Massasoit House in Springfield, Massachusettes on November 23, 1876, a new set of standardized rules based on the Harvard-MacGill games was adopted.

Which brings us back to Yale and to Walter Camp.

Walter Camp, Father of American Football It was Walter Camp who, in 1878, proposed reducing the number of players from fifteen to today's eleven, and established the now-familiar line of scrimmage, with the snap from center to quarterback as the starting point for each play.

Funny thing here. Camp intended the plays from scrimmage to speed up the game. But what actually happened was that teams - especially good old Princeton - used the new rule to slow-walk the ball downfield, keeping possession for themselves until the fans - not to mention the defense - were just about lulled to sleep.

But Walter was a clever guy. He changed the rule so that a team had to advance the ball a minimum of five yards in three plays (now, of course, it's ten yards in four plays).

Bottom line, though, it was Yalie Walter Camp who, with his introduction of these new rules, moved the history of football in America ever closer to the game we recognize today.

The forward pass was still to come in 1906. It was meant not only to open up the game, but also to reduce injuries, which, largely due to such mass formation plays as the flying wedge, had gotten so bad that 19 fatalities were reported in 1905,prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten shutting down the game if the rules were not changed to limit the carnage.

Hard to think that the mayhem we see on Sunday Night Football is a pretty tame game compared with the version played by your average American college boy back in the day, but there you have it: the history of football in America has brought us to the professional sport we now love (or hate)

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