American football history is full of colorful lore, including nicknames, heroic figures, and rule changes. Studying this history is a fun way to learn about American football.
As an electronic scoreboards continue to light up.
How Football Fields Got the Nickname “Gridirons”
A group of college football coaches made a number of changes to the rules of the game in 1906 to decrease the incidence of serious injuries. Among these rules was the legalization of the forward pass. Initially, a forward pass could not be made within five yards of the center. To help officials keep track of this distance, the coaches specified that football fields have vertical and horizontal lines five yards apart. This created a checkerboard pattern that resembled those in gridirons, metal racks on which meat was broiled. Thus, football fields came to be nicknamed gridirons. Although the rules were changed in 1910 to eliminate the vertical lines on the field, the nickname for a football field lives on to this day.
Pro Football Almost Didn’t Get off the Ground
The National Football League was established in 1921, but in its first few years it struggled to survive economically. There was no uniform schedule, and some teams might play 15 games in a season whereas others might play only 4. This made it difficult to determine a champion. The league’s first big attraction arrived in 1925 in the form of Red Grange. Grange had been a college star at the University of Illinois, where during one game against Michigan he scored four long touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. After turning pro, Grange joined the Chicago Bears in 1925 and in the winter the team barnstormed back and forth across the country for two months, drawing a total of nearly 400,000 spectators. By 1933 the league was able to firmly establish itself, creating two divisions and a standard schedule that led to a league championship game.
In 1934, the Ball Went on a Diet
To promote the passing game, NFL bosses changed the shape of the football in 1934. They made the ball longer and skinnier, which helped quarterbacks to get a better grip on it. By 1940 two of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game were taking advantage of the new passer-friendly ball. Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears and Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins tormented defense with their pinpoint aerial talents. Luckman, who was also a fine runner, led the Bears to four championships in the 1940s. Baugh, who became known as Slingin’ Sammy, set 16 passing records and included 3 punting records for good measure.
Today it is not unusual for a high school player to play both offensive and defensive positions. In the NFL and in major college football, however, players almost never are on the field for both offense and defense. This was not always the case before 1961. NFL players who were on the field for every play of the season became known as Ironmen. Two of the best were Mel Hein and Chuck Bednarik.
Hein played every minute of every New York Giants game for 15 years. He played center on offense and linebacker on defense from 1931 to 1945. Center was a particularly challenging position on the Giants, who played a single wing offense. This offense required that the ball be snapped directly from the center to the tailback, much as the shotgun offense today requires a long snap to the quarterback. As a linebacker, Hein was noted for his pass coverage. He helped to pioneer the technique of jamming a receiver at the line of scrimmage.
Chuck Bednarik was the last NFL player to play on both sides of the ball for every play, achieving the feat in 1960. Bednarik played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949 to 1962. Like Hein, he was a center on offense and a linebacker on defense. He capped his impressive 1960 season with a game-saving tackle against Green Bay in the championship game. But Bednarik’s most memorable play of that year was a devastating hit on New York Giants running back Frank Gifford; Gifford was sidelined for a full year because of the tackle.
The Moving Goal Posts
Prior to the 1974 season, NFL goal posts were flush with the goal line, with the main support protruding from the ground smack in the middle of the end zone. A team needed to reach only its opponent’s 40 yard line to have a reasonable shot at overcoming a narrow deficit at the end of the game. Additionally, the location of the goal posts made passing awkward down near the goal line. Receivers and defenders had to be careful not to run into the support, and quarterbacks had to be careful not to hit the goal posts’ crossbar when throwing a pass into the end zone. To eliminate all of these undesirable aspects of the game, the NFL in 1974 moved the goal posts back so that they were flush with the back of the end zone.