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American Football History

 Ancient Greek football player balancing the ball. Depiction on an Attic lekythos

Ancient Greek football player balancing the ball. Depiction on an Attic lekythos

American Football is the number one spectator sport in the US. With three young boys in my home, football has become an ever present sport in my home. From September until November my two oldest sons play high school football. My youngest son plays house league football from the end of August until November and then he begins training again in March for rep league football which continues until the beginning of August. Thus, my football free days as a football mom last only from mid-November to the end of February. But I must admit, they are exciting if not exhausting months. As well, my boys are avid NFL fans each having their own favourite team. The Super Bowl, the big NFL Championship game is watched avidly in our home as well as by millions of others in North America. My sons' involvement with the sport inspired me to investigate the history of American football which minus some rule variations is virtually the same game played here in Canada

Ancient Origins of American Football

The game known as American football is a combination of soccer (European football) and English Rugby. However, the ancients Greeks are believed to have played a sport which is the ancestor of all three of these sports.

  • Harpaston, a Greek game played about 2000 BC, is a game mentioned frequently in classical literature.
  • It has been referred to as a brutal game.
  • This ancient sport had very simple rules: kicking the ball, running with it or throwing it, in all cases across the goal line, achieved points.
  • The defense's objective was to stop the other team from scoring in any way possible.
  • There was no defined field length, no side line boundaries and no set number of players on each team.
  • In other words, it was a lawless game.
  • England is believed to have been the birthplace of modern football.
  • Most modern versions of the game seem to have evolved from a 12th C form of football that was banned by Henry II and Henry IV because it took interest away from the preferred sports of royalty — fencing and archery.

Development of Rules and Standard Play in Football

Football began to emerge as a sport with consistent rules and boundaries in the early 1800's when it was played in seven major public schools in England.

  • Six of these schools, including Eton, Harrow and Winchester were playing one form of the game.
  • A seventh school,, the Rugby School was playing a wildly different game of football.
  • The six schools refined their rules and the end result was the game known in Europe as 'association football' or soccer for which the rules have changed little since that time.
  • Why the Rugby school developed such a markedly different game has been lost in history; however, by the 1830's, running with the ball was common practice; 18 foot goal posts had been added including a crossbar 10 feet above the ground.
  • That cross bar led to the development of a rule allowing the scoring of a goal only by a ball passing over the bar from a place kick or drop kick.
  • If a player was able to 'touch down' the ball behind their opponents goal line they were awarded a 'try at goal' meaning they were allowed to attempt a place kick at the goal (conversion).
  • By about 1865, British schools and universities had taken up this game and it was given the name 'Rugby' in honour of the school at which it developed.

Birth of American Football

November 6, 1869 is regarded by most football historians as the birthday of American football.

  • This day marked the first intercollegiate football game which took place between Rutgers and Princeton University.
  • Each team had 20 players but the game was still more of a kicking, soccer-style game than modern football.
  • Prior to this game, Boston schoolboys got themselves some press coverage by playing a form of football on the Boston Commons involving both kicking and throwing.
  • This game was more like rugby than soccer and became known as the 'Boston Game'.
  • In 1862, they organized the Oneida Football Club which is thought to be the first formal football club in the US.
  • Because of the press coverage, this style of football gained in popularity and became integrated into the college game.
  • American football, historically, has been a game fraught with frequent rule changes.
  • The Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA), established in 1873 by Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton and Yale Universities, was designed to create a standard set of rules for the game and set 15 as the number of players per team.
  • However, Harvard did not agree with the more soccer-style of game endorsed by the IFA and stayed with the Boston style of play.
  • During a series of rugby-style games against Montreal's MacGill University, Harvard began including the rugby 'try' (origin of today's touchdown) into their game.
  • The other colleges eventually followed Harvard's lead and on November 23, 1876, a meeting in Springfield, Massachusettes resulted in a set of standardized rules being developed based on the Harvard-MacGill games.

Scoring in American Football

Touchdown: When a player catches a pass in the opponent's end zone or runs with the ball into the opponents end zone. A touchdown is worth 6 points.

Extra Point: After scoring a touchdown, the scoring team may try to kick the ball through the goal post for 1 extra point.

Two-point conversion: After scoring a touchdown, the scoring team my alternatively try to run or pass the ball into the end zone. If they are successful, it is worth two points.

Field Goal: During play, if a team kicks the ball through the goal posts of the opposing team, it is worth 3 points.

Safety: If a defensive player tackles an offensive player in the offensive team's end zone this is known as a safety and is worth 2 points.

Walter Camp, the Father of American Football

Walter Camp, a Yale couch was considered by many to be the father of American football. He considered 11 the ideal number of players for a team and was instrumental, in changing the form of play from rugby-style to the game watched and played today by millions.

  • Camp was successful in 1878, in reducing the team size from 15 to 11.
  • He determined a standard playing field size of 110 yards.
  • In 1882, Camp introduced the system of downs.
  • At first, a team was allowed three tries to advance the ball 5 yards; in 1906, that distance was increased to 10 yards.
  • In 1912, a fourth down was added which is what exists today - the offence is allowed 4 tries to advance the ball 10 yards.
  • American football at this point in history was an extremely brutal game resulting in many deaths and because of this it was banned by many colleges.
  • Reform of the sport was encouraged by then president, Theodore Roosevelt and eventually a group was formed - the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the NCAA.
  • By 1906, this committee legalized the forward pass which in itself led to a new ball shape better designed for throwing and passing.
  • The forward pass also resulted in a more open style of game play reducing the rough mass plays which were responsible for most injuries and death.
  • The game was shortened from 70 minutes to four 15 minute quarters
  • A neutral zone was also created representing the length of the ball which separated the teams before the play began.
  • At this line of scrimmage, play began when the ball was snapped from centre to the quarterback.

North America's Fascination with Football

Adults and children alike in North America are fans of American football and thousands play in house leagues and rep leagues all over the continent. It is a favourite sport of high schools, colleges and universities and is a huge source of pride in schools and revenue in both college and professional leagues. It is amazing to consider how far back the story of football can be traced. From ancient Greece, to medieval Europe, American football has drawn inspiration. Although considered by many in this century to be a brutal, violent sport, its roots even as far back as 19th century college play were much more violent. Today, although injuries are not rare it is a much safer game. Rules and standardized play separate today's game from ancient Greek Harpaston and even mid-nineteenth century football. It seems to be one of those sports you either hate or love. In this household, we choose to love football. Better to play, but when my kids can't be out playing they are happy to watch their favourite teams battle it out on the field.

Resources Used

J. Just Food Now. The History of Football, the Greek Connection & The World Cup of Lamb June 8, 2010

Hornet Football.org. A Brief History of the Game.

Understanding American Football.com. The History of Football in America.


Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 03, 2013:


Thanks for sharing this article. My sons are watching the Super Bowl as I write this. None of their favourite teams are in the running this year. My oldest son is an Altlanta Falcons fan and as they lost out to the 49ers, we are rooting for the Ravens this year! Thanks again Linda!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 03, 2013:

I would love to research Gaelic football and hurling. Hope hurling is not what North American's do after a night of overindulgence ha ha! cfin, I will look into both of these sports. Thanks for the tip!


cfin from The World we live in on February 03, 2013:

I wish the USA had a better rugby team. The 6 nations is on in Europe right now and is just as big of an affair as the Super Bowl is in the USA. Except it is an international competition between countries rather than clubs. There is also a club system. I think in the USA rugby is mostly amatuer because of the dominince of NFL. Similar to how American football is only played small time in Europe (a handful of people at my college struggled to make a team)

In Ireland we also have Gaelic football and hurling (ancient sport). You should check it out. You might find it interesting. I love how the USA has its own sports! It's part of what makes a nation.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 12, 2012:

I'm sure there will continue to be modifications over the years to improve safety especially. But it will always be a game loved by young and old alike!

Sarah Johnson from Charleston, South Carolina on August 12, 2012:

Wow! I figured football was just football, and had no idea it had such a history of fine tuning the rules. Makes me wonder if we are done or if more changes will come!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 11, 2012:

Hockey is the big guy sport in this area but as my husband like myself is first generation Canadian,European football or soccer was more of an influence. Our boys played soccer for years but when my oldest son hit grade 10 he wanted to try something new and voila football became the new word in the house. All three now love it and I have grown to love it as well. Watching them play is the most thrilling part. Thanks for commenting Cyndi and so glad you enjoyed the read!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on August 10, 2012:

I had NO IDEA this had English origins! It's a good thing you don't mind football, hehe, because with a houseful of boys, I think you'll be watching or taking a child to some football function for a long while. Fantastic hub - I don't know much about it. I come from a family of mountain bikers, but I can definitely see the appeal. :)

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 09, 2012:

nanderson500, yes he was a well educated man which brings into focus the idea that football is not a game for just the 'dumb jock' Neanderthal types. After watching my boys play for a few years now I've come to appreciate the complexity of the game and how the athletic guys with smarts are more of a benefit to football.

nanderson500 from Seattle, WA on August 08, 2012:

Good hub, nice to read about Walter Camp, he was a smart guy.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 08, 2012:

greeneryday, glad you enjoyed it and I myself would never have considered Greece as the birthplace of my kid's favourite sport. I'm learning something new with every hub I write!

greeneryday from Some tropical country on August 08, 2012:

Interesting history of American football, I have never knew till this day, that it was all started in Greece. Thank you for writing such an informative hub... voted up for interesting...

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