The History of American Football

From Rugby to gridiron

In 1843, a young student named William Ebb Ellis at Rugby school in England, seemingly tired of the restrictions placed on him during a traditional game of association football, picked up the ball and ran with it down the field. While Ellis had violated the golden rule of football, that it is illegal to touch the ball with one’s hands, the students and staff at Rugby were intrigued by the prospect of a game which involved carrying, rather than dribbling with, the ball. The result was the game we now call Rugby. By 1845, a set of rules had been developed. Large goal posts were erected on the school’s playing field, and it was decided that players who touched the ball down over the goal line would be permitted a try at goal, and would receive points for successfully kicking the ball over the cross-bar which lay between the posts.

The game of Rugby quickly increased in popularity. More schools, and later private clubs, were intrigued by the sport and leagues began to develop. The school’s invention was even exported to Canada. There are records of the sport being played at Trinity College in Montreal by the 1860s. A number of other Canadian universities followed suit and a league, played according to Rugby school rules, developed during the 1860s.

The development of the modern game

Like several other popular sports including ice hockey and basketball, American Football as we know it today first developed on college campuses. In the 1870s, colleges began to challenge each other to a game which followed almost exactly the rules laid down in Rugby thirty years earlier. In 1874, Harvard and the Canadian college McGill faced each other in their first game of Rugby, and Harvard challenged Yale a year later.

Intrigued by the game, representatives from Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale met to discuss the adaptation of the rules of Rugby to suit their own needs. The meeting became known as the Massoit Convention of 1876. The delegates made only minor adjustments to the rules, essentially preserving the original principles of the sport. At the same meeting, the representatives agreed to form the Intercollegial Football Association.

The game finally began to evolve into the modern version of American Football under the influence of Walter Camp, head coach at Yale. Camp decided that the number of players on each team ought to be reduced from fifteen to eleven. He also introduced a new scoring system in which a ‘touchdown’ would be worth six points; a principle that still exists today.

It was also Walter Camp who introduced the most significant difference between Rugby and American Football; the system of ‘downs’, in which a team is only given a certain number of plays to cover a particular area of the field before they are forced to give up possession of the ball to their opponents. In addition, one of the fundamental principles of Rugby, that the ball can only be passed backwards, was eliminated from the new version of the rules. Camp would remain a strong influence on the development of the sport until his death in the 1920s.

This new version of the game caught on quickly at other colleges, and games were soon being played according to Camp’s new rules. Unfortunately, the development of Camp’s system of ‘downs’ led to increasingly vicious tackling, and observers soon became concerned about whether or not the sport was safe enough to be played on college campuses. Their concerns were not without foundation; a number of players had been seriously injured, or even killed, playing the sport by the early 1900s. Eighteen players were reportedly killed in 1905 alone. One of the observers who expressed concern for the safety of the students was none other than the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, who implored Walter Camp to save the sport by reassessing the rules and suggesting alternatives which might make the game safer.

Adaptations introduced to make the game safer included the introduction of a neutral zone and a total ban on interlocking formations, in which the players would link arms to create a human barrier with the aim of protecting a teammate who was in possession of the ball. It was also decided that at least six players should be on the line of scrimmage (this later became seven) at the beginning of a play, to help prevent vicious tackling. The adaptations were successful, as the number of deaths and injuries decreased dramatically. The introduction of the new rules made the game recognisable as the modern version of the sport. Subsequent rule changes during the course of the 20th Century proved to be only minor alterations – the fundamentals of American Football had been laid down.

The development of professional American Football

The first professional football player is thought to have been Yale-man William Heffelfinger, who accepted money to play for the Alleghery Athletic Association against their rivals, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, in 1892. However, the first professional league was not established until 1910. Between 1910 and 1912, the administration of professional leagues was disorganised to say the least. Players had little incentive to remain loyal to a single team, and often acted as ‘freelance’ athletes, selling their services to a team temporarily before moving quickly to another club.

By 1920, it was decided that it would be in the best interests of the sport to develop a body that would oversee a major football league and bring some organisation to the game. It was with this intention that delegates from major teams came together in Canton, Ohio, to discuss the future of the sport. They formed the American Professional Football Association, renamed the National Football League (NFL) by 1922. The representatives drafted a constitution and made a number of important decisions, including a motion that would reduce the constant movement of players and encourage team loyalty. Jim Thorpe, who had found fame as an athlete and as a football and baseball player, was the first person to be elected President of the new organisation.

The NFL flourished in the remainder of the 20th Century, and American Football became increasingly popular, even stepping outside of the shadow of baseball in the years following World War II. This massive increase in popularity owed a lot to technological developments, most notably in 1939, when the game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles made history as the first to be broadcast on television. Indeed, although over six hundred NFL players had fought for their country and twenty-one had been killed, the sport recovered quickly from the disruption imposed by the War, and an increasing number of Americans began to enjoy games, as more families began to purchase television sets.

However, in 1959, the sport faced one of its greatest challenges yet. Frustrated by the NFL, Lamar Hunt resolved to create a serious rival to the NFL; the American Football League. The 1960s were dominated by squabbles between the rival leagues over players and television rights. The AFL even took their grievances into the court room, claiming that the NFL were unfairly dominating television coverage and players. The court eventually ruled in favour of the NFL, but it was becoming increasingly clear to players, coaches and fans that something would have to be done to curb the belligerence that was beginning to pervade the sport.

In 1966, senior figures from both leagues agreed that the AFL and NFL should merge in time for the beginning of the 1970 season, thus eliminating arguments about players, sponsorship and air time. Since 1970, therefore, one major football league, still known as the NFL, has existed in the United States. The league is divided into the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference, the champions of which meet each year in the eagerly anticipated Super Bowl. The fact that NFL games are closely followed by American Football fans across the world to this day reflects the successful compromise between the AFL and the NFL.