The History of American Football and its Growth as a Game

Last updated on September 12th, 2022 at 02:07 am

Humans have played ball games as far back as recorded history will go. We can trace ancient ball games to the Mayans, Mesoamerica, and to ancient China. 

For example, there are records of a game called cuju in China played in 2300BC, cu meant kick, and ju meant ball. The aim of the game was to keep the ball off the ground by kicking. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has credited it as the earliest form of football. 

Throughout our centuries of existence, games have been an integral part of human life. As we’ve developed and evolved, so have our games. Nowadays, these games have turned into huge money makers. In 2020, the 32 teams of the NFL generated $12.2 billion in revenue. So people focus their whole life on sport, and games. 

But where does American football originate? What was it derived from? What do the early days of American football look like? 

Let’s find out how American football became the sport we all know and love today. 


Where Did American Football Come From?

In the continent of America, there is no doubt that Native Americans would have played football-like games, but the version we know originally comes from Europe and was brought over by the colonizers who came to settle in America. For decades, they played football games at European schools, in the city streets, and across country towns and villages. 

The game we all know and love as American Football developed from different varieties of rugby and football popular in the United Kingdom at the time. It’s been referred to as ‘mob football’, and historians think American football was closely tied to the development of rugby. 

American universities like Princeton, Yale, and Harvard took part in inter-college football games playing mob football as far back as the 1820s. For example, in Harvard, a tradition called ‘Bloody Monday’ started in 1827, when second- and first-year student classes engaged in a massive football game. 

Around 1867, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and Brown started engaging in playing a rudimentary form of football, adopting rules from the London Football Association. 

Walter Camp–The Father of American Football

Walter Camp was born in 1859 and died in 1925. He was an American football player, a coach, and a sportswriter. He played as a halfback in Yale University’s football team from 1876 to 1882. 

Camp was there when The American Intercollegiate Football Association was established, and he also worked as a football coach at Yale University from 1888 to 1892. During his tenure, the team won 67 games, losing only two. After that, he went to Stanford University, coaching their team in 1892, 1894, and 1895. 

He was behind many of the rules still used in American football today. For example, he proposed at his very first meeting to decrease the players to 11 from 15. It was rejected initially but passed three years down the line. He also established the line of scrimmage and created the trademark throw from center to the quarterback.

Walter Camp

These changes saw American football move from combining UK football and rugby roots to becoming its own defined sport. Camp also introduced the points system still used in games today and the standard offensive arrangement of players. 

His innovations in the sport created the game as we know it, and he has been credited as the ‘father of American football. 

The First College Football Game

They credit the first college football game as a game between Rutgers University and Princeton on November 6, 1869. However, as they followed different rules, the game was played with a soccer ball and looked more like a rugby game than American football. There were 25 players per team. 

Nevertheless, Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 in front of around 100 fans in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and paved the way for future intercollegiate football games. They played matches using the rules of the host school. 

The American Intercollegiate Football Association

In 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met to devise a standard set of football rules for all intercollegiate games. Harvard opted not to attend, as they preferred a rugby-style game where you could run with the ball. This game also saw an oblong ball being used, not a round one. 

Harvard and Yale played a rugby-style game against each other in 1875, and Princeton athletes observed this. They adopted the scoring system and used the rugby union rules while forming the Intercollegiate Football Association. 

Walter Camp introduced new rules in 1880 that turned the game into a more modern form of American football. 

The First Professional American Football Game and Player

Quickly, American football was becoming popular not just in the colleges but among the general population. It brought up fierce competition and rivalry but gave people something to focus on. 

Pudge Heffelfinger started playing football at Yale college for Walter Camp from 1888 to 1892. He was 6ft 3inches and weighed 210 pounds. He then played for the Chicago Athletic Association, but at that point, it wasn’t considered sportsmanlike to pay footballers for playing. 

However, the two Pittsburgh teams had a fierce ongoing rivalry and wanted an advantage. Pittsburgh Athletic Club offered Heffelfinger $250 to play, but he turned it down. So the Allegheny Athletic Association offered double. He and two players took them up on their offer, and Heffelfinger scored the only touchdown in the game, giving them a win of 4-0. His payment of $500 would be $15,080 in 2021 dollars. 

This fee made Pudge Heffelfinger the first professional American football player on record

The first professional game was a match between the Latrobe Athletic Association and the Jeannette Athletic Club on September 3, 1895. Latrobe’s quarterback, John Brallier, was the first person who confessed that he was being paid to play. 

John Brailler

As of 1897, the Latrobe Athletic Association paid all their players for playing football for the entire season, becoming the first professional team. 

American Football’s Evolution

When Camp introduced the snap instead of using a chaotic rugby scrum, a couple of game techniques came out as a result. First, people realized that if the snap was uncontested, they could continue holding the ball for the entire game and stop the opposing team from getting it. Yale and Princeton used this trick in a game against each other in 1881, ending in a 0-0 tie. 

Camp proposed a new rule. Each team would be limited to three downs or tackles to get the ball forward by five yards. The ball would be handed over to the other team if they could not do so within the three downs. 

This rule discerned American football from rugby, and the pitch was marked with five-yard lines to indicate the distance, giving it a similar appearance to a gridiron. In addition, the scoring system was amended, and tackling below the waist was legalized. 

The Dangers of the Game

American football has always been violent. In 1905, there were 19 fatalities across America because of the game. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded immediate changes. His sons were playing football at college and secondary levels. 

Representatives from 62 schools met on December 28, 1905, in New York City to discuss potential changes that could make the game safer. From this meeting, they created the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (later renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association). In addition, they introduced a rule of the legal forward pass, another discerning feature of modern American football. 

1902 football game between the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan

Mass formation plays became illegal. Forward passes became legal and more commonplace. They also stated that at least seven offensive players had to be on the line of scrimmage during the snap, there could be no pushing or pulling, and no arms could be linked. This prevented crashes or collisions on the pitch. 

Famous Football Rivalries

Rivalries formed as football games spread across America’s colleges and universities. Virginia and Carolina started the ‘South’s Oldest Rivalry,’ and Georgia and Auburn had the ‘Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.’ 

Meanwhile, in 1920, the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was founded, with 14 teams being represented. At that point, the teams only had an agreement to play with each other and declare a champion at the end of the season. By the end of the first season, most of the teams had dropped out. Only four teams remained: the Akron Pros, Decatur Staleys, Buffalo All-Americans, and Canton Bulldogs. 

In 1921, more teams joined, bringing the total up to 22. Of them were the Green Bay Packers, who hold the record for the longest use of an unchanged team name. In 1922, the Staleys were renamed the Chicago Bears. 

The APFA changed its name to the National Football League (NFL), and a rival league also formed called the American Football League (AFL) in 1926 but flopped after just one season. 

1932 saw the first NFL playoff game held, as two teams were tied. The Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans had to have their game inside because of cold weather, and the Bears took home the championship. The playoff was so popular among fans that the NFL reorganized their teams into two divisions, ensuring a playoff game would always be held between the two top teams. Draft selections from top college players also began. 

Creating ‘The Bowl’ 

Football conferences developed, the Southwest Athletic Conference and the Pacific Coast Conference began in 1915, and the Southeastern Conference formed in 1932. After this, Bowl’s popped up.

The Orange Bowl began in 1935 an annual American college football bowl game in the Miami area. The same year, in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl started, and so did the Sun Bowl in Texas. These bowl games were an excellent way to match up teams from greater distances to play together. Soon, the Associated Press started a weekly poll ranking all the nation’s college football teams. No national championship games exist, but this weekly poll could announce who was crowned the National Champion of college football based on their rankings. 

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Let’s travel back in time to 1958. We’re at a nail-biting conclusion of the 1958 NFL season, and the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants are playing against each other to determine the champions. 

After 60 minutes of play, the game is tied and goes into the first ever sudden death over time. It’s being watched live all over the nation. 

Baltimore Colts vs New York Giants

In the end, the Colts won 23-17, and the game has been nicknamed the ‘greatest game ever played,’ skyrocketing American football as we know it to the popular game loved across America today. 

Modern American Football

Another American Football League (AFL) was formed in 1959. While it was the fourth to call itself the AFL, it was the first that threatened the NFL. They attracted college draft choices, and the two leagues later agreed to a season-ending game between their two champions to determine the winner. It was originally known as the AFL-NFL World Championship but soon changed its name to the Super Bowl. 

In 1970, the two leagues merged to create a 26-team league, securing television contracts and the game we all recognize today. Over time, we’ve seen additions such as a live scoreboard and names on football jerseys. They’ve become so commonplace that it’s difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. 

American football has grown up to become the nation’s most loved sport. The Super Bowl continues to be the most-watched night on television annually and has become a worldwide sensation. As a result, advertisers often wait and pay exorbitant amounts for a Super Bowl advert, debuting expensive commercials for their films, tv shows, or products.

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