The Origins of American Football

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Podcast transcript

In the mid-19th century, the various games called football separated and evolved into their own sports. 

While association football and rugby became dominant on one side of the Atlantic, a totally different version of football evolved on the other side.

That version of the game, over the course of 150 years, has grown into the move valuable professional sports league in the world.

Learn more about American Football and how it grew into the game it is today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


The origin of this episode actually came from one of my listeners in New Zealand who suggested an episode on the origins of gridiron, which is what American football is called in many countries. 

People outside of the United States and Canada probably are vaguely aware of American football from references in movies and on television, but they might not know exactly what is happening if they were to watch a game.

People in the United States or Canada might be very familiar with the game, but they have no clue how the game came to be what it is today. 

So regardless of how familiar you are with the game, I think there might be something that you’ll learn from it.

I previously did an episode on the common origins of Association Football, aka soccer, rugby, and American Football.  It is hard to believe they all had the same origins, but it’s true.

It is sort of like how dolphins, monkeys, and bats are all mammals. They look totally different, but they all have similar origins.

What we know as American Football has its origins in rugby. If you were a rugby fan or an American football fan, you could watch the other game and get the basic gist of what was going on. I, as an American, attended the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and was able to watch games and understand basically what was happening, even without knowing the minutia of the rules.

There is a rectangular field, goal posts, and an oval-shaped ball. Each team is trying to advance the ball down the field to a zone at the end of the field to score points. 

While those basics are the same, anyone watching the two sports would very quickly realize that they are watching two very different sports. 

As early as 1820, there were ball games being played at American Universities on the East Cost. Each school tended to have its own rules, and the games were mostly an excuse for a mob of people to get wild. 

Dartmouth College in New Hampshire had an annual game called “Old Division Football”. There is a photo of a game from 1874 you can find, and it is basically a field full of people chasing after a ball.

Because every university had its own set of rules, there was an attempt made to try to create a standardized set of rules that every college would adopt.

The first intercollegiate game took place on November 6, 1869, when Rutgers University faced Princeton University. 

This game would probably not be recognized by anyone today as American football. For starters, the ball was round and there were 25 players on each side. 

You would win by kicking the ball over the other team’s goal, and you couldn’t touch or carry the ball. This early game was more like a more violent version of association football than it was like rugby. 

As more colleges wanted to play each other, the Intercollegiate Football Association was established in 1873. This organization supported college teams playing each other. Prior to this point, teams would often have to negotiate the rules before each match. 

In October of 1873, students from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers all met in New York to establish a uniform set of rules. 

These rules were again more like Association Football than the new Rugby Union which had formed in 1871 in England

Harvard refused to attend as their version of the game allowed for picking up the ball and running, whereas the Intercollegiate Football Association did not.

Harvard wasn’t able to find opponents at American colleges, so they scheduled two games versus McGill University in Montreal in 1874. The first game used Harvard rules and the second game used Rugby Union rules.

In June 1875, Harvard faced Tufts University with a new version of the rules. In this game, they adopted the rugby concept of a try, which became known as a touchdown in American football.  They also had 11 players on a side, and play stopped with the ball carrier was tackled to the ground.

In October of that year, Harvard played Yale for the first time using these new rules, but with 15 players on a side. There were spectators in attendance from Princeton, who really liked the new rules, and one person in the stands who would attend Yale the next year and create the modern game: Walter Camp. 

Walter Camp entered Yale in 1876 and became influential in codifying many new rules which would define the game and are still in place today.

For starters, he set the number of players on each side at 11. That is still the size of a team at most levels of competition today.

He also created the concept of a line of scrimmage. This is the invisible line on the field which is determined by the placement of the ball. The line of scrimmage came from the rugby scrum, and scrum is just short for the word scrummage. 

Along with the line of scrimmage, Camp also created the position of the center and the quarterback, as well as the idea of the center snapping the ball to the quarterback.

The initial rule regarding snaps stipulated that it had to be done by the center’s foot, not by their hands. They would kick it backward with their heel. 

The entire concept behind these rules was that it allowed for one team, the offense, to have an uncontested attempt to advance the ball until they either score or lose control of the ball. 

Each team would line up on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage until the ball was snapped, and the play would continue until the player carrying the ball was tacked down. That is why each play is called a down. 

The idea of a line of scrimmage radically changed the game. However, there was a problem. A team could control the ball forever so long as they didn’t turn it over. 

Some teams, in particular Princeton, just kept advancing incrementally in very short distances. 

In 1882, Camp suggested a rule change to solve this problem. The offensive team had to advance the ball five yards within three downs. If they failed to do that, they would forfeit control of the ball. 

In 1881 the field was set at its current dimensions.  The length of the field was set at 100 yards long with 10-yard end zones, and a width of 53 ? yards.

There were also experiments with different point values for different methods of scoring. In 1883 a touchdown was worth 4 points, the points after a touchdown was worth 2 points, a safety was worth 2 points, and a field goal was worth 5. This system of different points for different types of scoring was actually adopted by rugby union, from american football.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, a touchdown is getting the ball into the zone at the end of the field. If you do that, you can kick the ball through the uprights for additional points. A field goal is kicking the ball through the uprights without a touchdown, and a safety is when you push the opponent all the way back into their endzone. 

There was one other big advance in the early 1880s which would truly set American football apart from rugby. They legalized interference, or as it is called in American football, blocking. 

Blocking is totally illegal in rugby. 

Walter Camp first saw blocking in the 1879 Harvard-Princeton game where he was an official, and he was shocked at what he saw. However, he soon realized how powerful it was and he began using it with Yale the next year. 

Blocking soon lead to formations like the flying wedge, and players interlocked their arms to form a wall for players to run behind. The flying wedge was actually a sports adaptation of an ancient military formation. 

The flying wedge was made illegal in 1884 because it was considered to be too dangerous.

The new sport saw rapid growth in the last two decades of the 19th century with colleges all over the country establishing football teams and playing other universities.

The Army-Navy game of 1893, which is the annual game between the Army military academy in West Point, New York, and the Navy military academy in Annapolis, Maryland, saw the first use of a helmet. 

Navy player Joseph M. Reeves had a leather helmet made by a shoemaker to protect his head after suffering a concussion. Fun fact, in addition to inventing the football helmet, Admiral Joesph Reeves also is known as the father of the aircraft carrier. 

There is something else that I haven’t mentioned yet which also is a huge difference between ruby and American football, the forward pass. 

The forward pass was initially just a trick play. It was technically illegal, but it happened so infrequently that it was often allowed becaue the refereess never had seen in happen and weren’t familiar with the rules. 

Football began to get a very voilent reputation. In 1904, 19 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured, and another 19 were killed in 1905. Preisdent Theodore Roosevelt held a meeting with 60 schools in 1905 and threatened to ban football unless something with done. 

A new rules committee which assembled in 1906 made a series of changes, one of which was making the forward pass legal. The idea was that it would spread out the players on the field, reducing collisions.

The first legal forward pass was attempted by Bradbury Robinson of Saint Louis University on September 5, 1906. It was an incomplete pass.

This rules committee became the basis of what would eventually become the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. 

Later that decade, the rules committee changed the points awards. Field goals were reduced to three points in 1909 and touchdowns were raised to six points in 1912.  They also changed the number of downs from three to four, and increase the distance you had to move from five yards to ten.

The first several decades of American football was dominated by college teams. However, other teams began springing up not aligned with universities, and that was the beginning of players being paid. 

The first person believed to have been paid to play a football game was Pudge Heffelfinger in 1892, but that was done in secrecy and wasn’t revealed until years later. 

In 1897, the Latrobe Athletic Association of Latrobe, Pennsylvania became the first wholly professional football team. 

In 1902, the first professional league was established known as the National Football League. Despite having the same name it wasn’t the predecessor of the modern league called the National Football League.

In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed with 14 teams. It was a very loose organization as the teams could play anyone they wanted. Only 4 of the 14 teams actually completed their full schedule of games. 

In 1921, what was to become the greatest team in professional football, the Green Bay Packers, joined the organization. 

The American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League in 1921, which is the league which exists today.

Of note is that fact that unlike baseball, which had a very strict color barrier barring black players, professional football never had such a restriction. There were several black players in the first years of the leage. There weren’t many, but they did play, including the famous baritone singer Paul Robeson.  Fritz Pollard became the first black head coach in 1921.

The use of football helmets didn’t become mandatory until 1939 in college and 1943 in the NFL. However, they were de facto used by everyone in the NFL before that. The last player to not use a helmet was Dick Plasman of the Chicago Bears in 1940.

The early helmets were just made out of leather, and might have had some rubber or foam inside to protect the head. 

The first plastic helmet was introduced in 1940 by the Riddle sports company out of Chicago, and the first face masks which consisted of a bar in the front was adopted in 1955. 

The ball used in football has evolved over time. As I mentioned before, the first balls were spherical balls. However, they eventually evolved to more oblong balls like rugby balls. 

The modern looking ball was adopted in 1934 that was more tapered at the ends and thinner in the middle. This made the ball much easier to throw and made the forward pass a much more practical play. 

Despite all the rule changes over the years, there are still some rather obscure rules that are on the books which are holdovers from the very earliest days of the sport. 

For starters, rugby passes are still totally legal in american football. You don’t see them very often, but they are called lateral passes. You will often see teams do it in desperate situations or when doing trick plays.

The other thing which is still legal, but is almost never done are drop kicks. A drop kick is not a punt. A drop kick is a kick where you kick the ball after it bounces on the ground. Drop kicks became all but extinct after the ball change in 1934 as it became much harder to do a drop kick with the tapered ball design. 

Nonetheless, it is still legal. There has only be one successful scoring drop kick in the NFL since 1941. On January 1, 2006, Doug Flutie, the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots, did a drop kick on a point after touchdown. It was done because it was his last NFL game, and turned out it was his last play in the NFL. 

The Patriots coach Bill Belichick let him do it as a gesture for his last game because he knew he was one of the few players in the league who could drop kick. 

The last thing I’ll mention is that there is another variant of gridiron which is known as Canadian football. Canadian football is very similar to the American variant with some important differences in rules. However, I will leave that for a future episode. 

American football, despite being loosely based on rugby union, is now a totally different animal. Despite being over 150 years old, the game is still evolving with new rules being adopted to make the game safer and more competitive. 


Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener bigboy1865,  over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Definite no brainer

Umm….what’s not to like? Topics vary so you don’t lose interest, gives you enough info to know if it’s worth digging into a subject further, etcetera.

P.S. There is one thing I don’t like, it’s not long enough.? But I know it takes a lot of work, which I appreciated.

P.P.S What are your family’s feelings on the podcast given how much time the prep takes?

Thanks, Bigboy! As for the episode length, you might not have noticed but the episodes have been getting slightly longer over time. The average length used to be about 10 minutes and now it seems to be around 12-13 minutes. I wouldn’t expect any dramatic increase in length beyond what it is now.

As for the amount of time it takes, I don’t have a wife or kids, so I don’t really have to worry too much about family. Even if I did, I just treat it like a job. I’ve gotten pretty good at writing episodes now, so if I focus, I can get them done much faster than I could when I started two years ago.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.