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The History of American Football ... NFL, American Footballs History and Birth


American Football is born.

Although football had been played by immigrants to America since 1609, it was in 1875 that a distinctive American style of football first began to emerge and develop with its own set of rules.

At the East Coast colleges, various violent and bloody games had been played with Harvard actually banning such sports between the years 1860 and 1874.

Then in 1867 Princeton developed their own soccer like game and two years later played Rugters in a 25-a-side match with the goal posts being just 23 meters apart (25 yards). At the return match, the two teams played to the Rugters London Association rules.

In 1871 Harvard experimented with the soccer-like Boston game which still allowed some running with the ball, but the appearance of the 1871 rugby laws gave the colleges something to agree on, and after playing a rugby-style game against Canada’s McGill University in 1874, Harvard switched to the oval ball game.

In that year Harvard also played Yale, who had met at Eton on the 1873 football tour and insisted on 11 players a side. By the following year Yale also shifted to the rugby style game although sticking to soccer sized teams and they were soon followed by both Columbia and Princeton.

In 1876 five colleges formed the intercollegiate football association, all playing a rugby-style game with goals kicked from opposite the point of touchdown, although the points system was different. Yale then joined this association in 1880.

The main driving force behind a new American football was Walter Camp of Yale, who in 1880 got agreement of the 11 a side teams and then on the replacement of the scrum with a line of scrimmage and an orderly snapback to a fullback with two half backs and a full back behind him.

After Princeton and Yale had some had played some scoreless blocking games, another of Camp’s ideas was adopted in 1882. This was “downs” – initially it was three attempts to move the ball forward five yards. This crucial change led to tactical innovations like strategy signals and a game being played in instalments.

By 1897 chalk lines were used to assess progress and with a series of both horizontal and vertical lines being used which created a true “gridiron” pattern. The verticals were later dropped but the nickname stuck.

In 1882 the Canadians left to play their own game on a larger pitch with 12-a-side teams and a heel back in the place of a scrum, while in the US point values were fixed the following year, although in was 1886 before there were any points for touchdowns and 1904 before they counted for more than a goal. In 1894 the games playing time was cut down from 90 minutes to 70 minutes and referees first made their first appearance in 1885.

Unfortunately not all of Camp’s ideas were that progressive. In 1888, Camp, by allowing tackling above the knee, unwittingly ushered in one of the most violent periods in the sports history. 

Coaches like Amos Alonzo Stagg pioneered massive formations like the “flying wedge” and the “turtleback”. The following year there were 9 deaths in just three months and the following four seasons brought with them a reported death toll of 71 with 366 serious injuries, a level of violence that quickly lead to major rule changes.

In fact, Dr James Naismith was so disturbed by this violent trend in sport that in 1891 he deliberately invented a non- violent game he called Basketball!

Ironically it was Stagg, the Yale Coach, who pioneered the five-a-side version of the game.