- American football has its origins in a soccer-like game that developed in the middle of the nineteenth century
- McGill University of Canada helped to change American football to a game more similar to rugby
- Walter Camp helped to standardize the rules of American football and make it more like the game we know today
Imagine living without football! We would be void of the joy when we see our favorite team light up the football scoreboards. It would be a sad place. Luckily, it’s here to stay.
In the mid-1800s, a game similar to soccer began to become popular in the eastern United States. Players tried to kick a round ball across an opponent’s goal line. Throwing the ball or running with it was not allowed. A team might have as many as several dozen players. Schools began to organize teams and adopt uniform rules. In 1869 the first college game was played between two bitter rivals, Rutgers University and the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton University). Rutgers triumphed 6-4. The series of games was canceled after the next contest, because administrators feared the games were taking too much time away from players’ studies.
The Influence of Rugby
Harvard University organized a football team in 1873, but it had trouble finding an opponent. In 1874 Harvard invited McGill University of Montreal to send a team to Massachusetts for a game in May. As the teams warmed up before the game, they realized that they were not practicing the same game. The McGill players were running with the ball, because for them, “football” was a form of rugby. The teams agree to play one game of each of their two types of football. The Harvard team ended up liking the rugby version better. Harvard took its revised game to Yale the next year, and the popularity of the new form of football began to spread.
The Harvard-Yale football rivalry produced a key figure in the history of American football, Walter Camp. Camp played for Yale from 1876 to 1882. By 1880, some of the modern features of football had begun to be systematized, such as downs, yards to go, blocking, tackling (below the waist), and points for a touchdown. Camp made coaching football his vocation and continued the expansion of the rulebook to create the center snap and a system of scoring beyond touchdowns: safeties, field goals, and conversions. The popularity of football spread from colleges to high schools.
American football reached a crisis around the year 1900 due to increasingly severe injuries. Strategists had come up with plays such as the flying wedge in which a swarm of blockers traveled around the ball carrier and ran over potential tacklers. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt urged that the rules be modified to make the game safer, and the following year a group of coaches obliged. These innovations included the legalization of the forward pass. Some of the great strategists of the game emerged around this time. They included Amos Alonzo Stagg, Fielding Yost, Pop Warner, and John Heisman. Some of their plays and formations are still used today, such as Warner’s reverse and screen pass.