American Football History

The history of American football. How and when the game of football, known originally as soccer and rugby in England, came to America. Details of both college and pro levels.

HISTORY OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL

Football historians, those who have studied the game and its origins, place the game's beginnings in rugby, an English game played with many similarities to football. Rugby began in eighteen twenty-three at the famous Rugby Boys' School in England. Another cousin of the game of football is soccer; its beginnings can also be traced to English origin, being played as early as the eighteen twenties.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: ITS BEGINNINGS

At the same time, a group of students at Princeton began playing what was then known as "˜ballown'. First using their fists to advance the ball, and then their feet, this game consisted mainly of one goal: to advance the ball past the opposing team. There were no hard and fast rules applied to this earliest attempt at the game we now call football.

At Harvard, the freshman and sophomore classes competed in a football-type game, played on the first Monday of each school year; this event came to be known as "˜Bloody Monday' because of the roughness of the game. Pick up games, similar in style to that played on "˜Bloody Monday', soon became popular on the Boston Common, catching on in popularity around eighteen sixty.

Soon after the end of the American Civil War, around eighteen sixty five, colleges began organizing football games. In eighteen sixty seven, Princeton led the way in establishing some rudimentary rules of the game. Also in that year, the football itself was patented for the very first time.

Rutgers College also established a set of rules in eighteen sixty seven, and with the relatively short distance between it and Princeton, a game was decided upon by both universities. A date was chosen, November sixth, eighteen sixty nine; Rutgers won by a score of six goals to four, and thus was played what has become known as the very first intercollegiate football game.

In eighteen seventy three, representatives from Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale met in New York City to formulate the first intercollegiate football rules for the increasingly popular game, still being played with many of the rules of soccer. These four teams established the Intercollegiate Football Association, and set as fifteen the number of players allowed on each team.

Walter Camp, the coach at Yale and a dissenter from the IFA over his desire for an eleven man team, helped begin the final step in the evolution from rugby-style play to the modern game of American football. The IFA's rules committee, led by Camp, soon cut the number of players from fifteen to eleven, and also instituted the size of the playing field, at one hundred ten yards. In eighteen eighty-two Camp also introduced the system of downs. After first allowing three attempts to advance the ball five yards, in nineteen six it was changed to ten yards. The fourth down was added in nineteen twelve. Tackling below the waist had been legalized in eighteen eighty-eight.

Within a decade, concern over the increasing brutality of the game led to its ban by some colleges. Nearly one hundred eighty players had suffered serious injuries, and eighteen deaths had been reported from the brutal mass plays that had become common in practice. In nineteen hundred five, President Theodore Roosevelt called upon Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to help save the sport from demise.

At a meeting between the schools, reform was agreed upon, and at a second meeting, attended by more than sixty other schools, the group appointed a seven member Rules Committee and set up what would later become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.



From this committee came the legalization of the forward pass, which resulted in a more open style of play on the field. The rough mass plays, which once caused so many serious injuries, and even deaths, were prohibited by the committee. Also prohibited was the locking of arms by teammates in an effort to clear the way for their ball carriers. The length of the game was shortened, from seventy to sixty minutes, and the neutral zone, which separates the teams by the length of the ball before each play begins, was also established.

Today, almost one hundred years since the inception of the NCAA, the sport of college football flourishes as one of the most popular of collegiate games. Colleges and universities are placed into three divisions under NCAA guidelines and each division has many conferences. Seasonal and conference play leads to post-season bowl games, where the champions of conferences meet to play in front of a world-wide television audience. Some of these bowls include the Rose Bowl, played on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California, between the Big Ten and Pacific Ten conference champions. Other bowls include the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia.

PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL: ITS BEGINNINGS

Professional football was first played soon after the demise of the Intercollegiate Football Association, around eighteen ninety-five. In nineteen twenty, the American Professional Football Association was formed; one year later it was reorganized and in nineteen twenty-two was renamed the National Football League.

Unlike the APFA, which handed out franchises far and wide with little discretion, the NFL, from nineteen forty-six to forty-nine, was limited to ten teams. The APFA, on the other hand, consisted of twenty three teams in the year between its inception and the change-over in becoming the NFL.

A merger in nineteen seventy, fifty years after the inception of the first pro football association, combined sixteen NFL teams with ten AFL teams to comprise one league with two conferences. In the nineteen eighties, further expansion was proposed and by the ninety three-ninety four NFL season, approval was given for a thirty-team league. The next step towards growth of the league would be to realign the NFL into eight different divisions, each with four teams.

Pro football, like its college counterpart, was not without its failures. Among the number of competitive leagues that have folded in failure are the All-American Football conference, nineteen forty-six to forty-nine and the World Football League, nineteen seventy-four to seventy-five.

Arena Football, an indoor league played in the spring with eight man teams, debuted in nineteen eighty-seven. It is still played, but does not enjoy the popularity or success that is found in the National Football League.

PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL TODAY: A BUSINESS

From its humble beginnings in eighteen sixty-nine, when the first intercollegiate game was played between Rutgers and Princeton, football has become a multi-billion dollar business in its professional form.

Once watched by no more than a handful of loyal sideline enthusiasts, football is now available for worldwide viewing. With the advent of cable television, dozens of high school and college games can be watched over Friday and Saturday afternoons. Pro games are televised on Sunday and Monday nights, with at least half a dozen games televised each weekend during the season. At the end of each NFL season, champs from both the National and American conferences meet in the Super Bowl to determine a national champion. This game, always played in January, has been called the most watched sporting event of all time, with a viewing audience from around the entire globe, watching and listening to the televise in dozens of languages.

Although television commercials foot a very large part of the bill, the competition between networks for the coverage rights highly inflates the value of NFL franchises. In nineteen twenty, a franchise cost one hundred dollars. By nineteen sixty, each was worth approximately two million dollars. In nineteen ninety three, when the league decided to expand, selling teams to Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida, the cost rose to one hundred forty millions dollars per franchise.

In the same year, the NFL signed a five-network, four year television contract, totaling almost four and a half billion dollars.

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