The Origins of American Football

I love football. Every year I eagerly await the fall season not just for the cooler weather and the change of color on the leaves of the trees, but also because it means the start of the football season as well. Anticipation builds inside me at the thought of watching my team take the field once again and make a run for the top spot in their division.

I’ve been a fan of the game, and the same team, for decades. I have watched the players, the teams, and even the football industry evolve and change over time. American football has remained one of the most exciting and beautiful games in all of professional sports. For all its appeal, just how and where did American football originate? All sports have their beginnings and what I found out left me appreciating the game even more.

During the early 1800’s a popular game known as rugby, where a football is kicked at a goal and run over a line, had its beginnings at the famous Rugby Boy’s School in England. Around the same time in America, the emergence of a game called “ballown,” similar to Rugby, was played by a group of students from Princeton. East coast prep schools like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Rutgers College also competed in football-type games. At that time these early games resembled the more traditional “mob football” style played in England. The rules were simple with large numbers of players trying to advance the ball into a goal area usually by any means necessary. By 1855 manufactured inflatable balls were being used as football evolved into a kicking and running game.

Since there weren’t many rules established, violence and injury were common due to the roughness of the game. The increasing brutality of the game became such a public concern because of so many injuries and deaths, that some universities banned it. President Theodore Roosevelt even threatened to ban the game and urged Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to help make changes or lose the sport. Eventually the Intercollegiate Football Association was formed by representatives of Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton to establish a new code of rules mainly based on the rugby games.

The man responsible for shaping American football as we know it today was Walter Camp. He enrolled at Yale in 1876 and led the IFA’s rules committee. He proposed reducing the number of players from 15 to 11. He helped establish the line of scrimmage and the snap from center to quarterback. Camp also proposed that teams be required to advance the ball a minimum of five yards within three downs. More changes were instituted like the reduced size of the playing field, scoring rules, and game time. By 1887 a paid referee and an umpire were mandated for each game and tackling below the waist was allowed. In 1889 officials were given whistles and stopwatches. The forward pass, one of the most important changes in the game, didn’t become legal until 1906.

Although the rules were changing, football continued to be played violently in the style of the earlier mob games. Changes had to be made to make the game safer. These changes were discussed on December 28, 1905 by sixty-two schools who met in New York City. Eventually the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed as a result. Over a century later college football continues to thrive as one of the most popular collegiate games. After the demise of the IFA, the American Professional Football Association was formed in 1920. The association was later reorganized and in 1922 renamed the National Football League.

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