Is the history of football important to understanding the game? Well, no more than understanding the history of anything else. We are not huge history buffs. Well, actually, we really are not history buffs at all. However, we do realize that understanding history can be a source of conversation or give insight into why something or someone is the way it is. So, we will give you a brief overview of the history of American football.
Ok, first, American football is really a derivation of rugby, not soccer (or what the rest of the world calls football). It always bothered me that American football, which primarily uses hands to move the ball, shared the name with football (soccer) that primarily uses feet. Finding out that American football came from rugby made me feel a whole lot better.
It all started in the late 1800’s by several different Ivy League teams. Most people seem to agree that the first games was held on November 6, 1879 between Rutgers and Princeton. However, this game is disputed amongst some other schools because it resembled rugby a lot more than anything else. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers all had a part in starting football. Leave it to a bunch of “brainiacs” at Harvard and Yale to help invent such a sport! Maybe that’s why it is has so many rules.
Football truly started evolving and becoming a much different sport than rugby in the 1880’s thanks to Walter Camp who played and coached at Yale. He is known as the “Father of Football” and began transforming the game by instigating the snap to start play and by making a team achieve at least 5 yards in 3 downs. These two rules probably did more to evolve the strategy teams use to play the game than any rules ever created.
Funny thing is before the 5 yards/ 3 downs rule (we’ll cover rules in the About Football), smart teams were able to hold on to the ball for essentially an entire game to ensure they won; and before this rule, there really was no such thing as a ‘gridiron’ (what the football field with all the markings on it is sometimes called).
In the early 1900’s, football was considered extremely dangerous because of the aggressive play and lack of protective equipment. In fact, in 1905 alone, 19 players died playing football! Can you imagine what would happen today if that happened in any sport? Due to this, Teddy Roosevelt intervened (what else does the President of the United States have to do but monitor sports..), got the schools to get together and they started making more changes to the game to really evolve it to something very, very different from rugby. This group of schools created the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States and that is what is now known as the NCAA.
In 1906, probably the greatest coach of all time, John Heisman (next to Paul “Bear” Bryant that is), introduced the forward legal pass. Yes, this is the same man that the Heisman Trophy is named after.
Until the 1920’s, college football was the primary form of the sport and it was dominated by the Ivy League schools. That still makes me want to laugh (you’ll get the joke after you understand more about Ivy League football if you don’t already)! How far the sport has come….
Professional football began in the 1920’s but really did not start making huge progress as a sport until the 1950’s when TV’s in so many households and TV contracts for the football leagues started coming into play. It still holds true today that TV has a huge impact on how the game is played and the strategies used to play it.
The first NFL championship game was played in 1958 between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. This game is still called the Greatest Game Ever Played and resulted in a 23-17 win by the Colts in overtime. This game, played out on TV in so many homes, really propelled the popularity of professional football.
In 1960, a competitor to the professional football league, called the NFL, started called the AFL and was a completely separate league. The AFL’s only saving grace though was Joe Namath, aka Broadway Joe, who was quite a heart throb in the day. In 1966, the two leagues realized there was not enough room for two separate leagues so they merged. Whew – that saved us from 2 separate set of rules and teams, if only baseball would take a cue from them!
In 1967, the first Super Bowl game was played and it continues to be the most popular, single day sporting event in the US.
Football continues to evolve. Every year rules are changed in both college and professional play. Some years, professional teams move cities or new ones are added. Conferences change. New players come in to their respective leagues and other’s careers come to an end. But one thing remains the same, this uniquely American sport continues to enthrall its fans and capture the hearts of so many. There are not many things that make grown men dress up in costume and paint their face, drink massive quantities of beer and make complete fools of themselves other than the avid football fan!