"No less is your nimbleness, if it is your pleasure to return the flying ball, or recover it when falling to the ground, and by a surprising movement get it within bounds again in its flight. To watch such play the populace remains stock-still, and the whole crowd suddenly abandons its own games." -Anonymous
Imagine American culture without football. What would high school or college be without its packed stadiums filled with weekend spectators, or ESPN without Monday night football? Just where and when did modern football begin?
Some say football descended from the game of Rugby, but it dates back much further.
Football is said to be the child of an ancient Greek game, harpaston, meaning "handball", and a similar game "harpastum", meaning "to seize or snatch", played by the Romans. It's believed that harpastum is the true forerunner to football, as it adds the element of kicking the ball. Both were rather brutal games. The object of play was simple; the ball had to cross the goal line by whatever means possible without being intercepted by an opponent. Besides that, there were few rules, virtually no boundaries, and no organized field on which to play. During the Middle Ages, such a practice was known as "mob" football. It's said that during this period, they could move the ball any way they wanted so long as it didn't lead to manslaughter or murder.
The Roots of American Football
Although there is some mention of Native Americans playing the game, the history of traditional American football lies in twelfth century England. It was so popular, yet so brutal, that kings banned the game in order to restore society and return to more proper games of skill, such as fencing and archery.
When the English settled America they brought many traditions with them, including football. But the game still had few rules, and was played very aggressively. Because of its brutality and having been banned for a while, England eventually gave football some rules and boundaries, and milder versions were enjoyed in its public schools in the early 1800s. One version, "association football", or soccer, was already in play in many schools. But the Rugby School, founded in 1567, played its own way.
As in England, different American schools played the game in different ways. By 1820, Princeton played something called "ballown", where players used their fists and feet to move the ball across a goal. Harvard in 1827 began a tradition known as "bloody Monday". Every Monday, masses of freshmen and sophomores met on a large field to charge at one another, kick a leather ball around, and do whatever it took to drive the ball across the goal line. As the tradition's name would imply, many injuries were sustained in play. Football was so violent that it was banned at Yale. By the mid-1860s, a newer British version of the game had reached American soil, the game of rugby, soon to be called football.
November 6, 1869, was an historic day for football. Some regard it as the birthday of the sport, when Rutgers and Princeton joined forces to play its first intercollegiate football game. Teams had twenty members, and the game was played more like rugby than modern football. The two games are very similar, the differences lying mainly in scoring, markings on the field, the number of players, passes, and blocking.
The only real changes in football would be its rules to serve the needs of safety. Early American football is said to be so violent, that 18 students died from brutal mass plays, and 180 suffered serious injuries. To begin, four Eastern colleges, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers, convened in New York City in 1873 to formalize basic rules for intercollegiate football, which marked the beginnings of the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA). There would now be 15 players on a team.
Around that time a very influential Yale coach named Walter Camp, the "Father of American Football", led the organization and subsequent special rules committees to make football the game it is today. Camp fought for several reforms, including lowering the number of team players to eleven, and turning the rugby style game into modern football. Among other changes proposed by Camp, the size of the football field was set at 120 yards, and the "downs" system, or the number of attempts to advance the ball, was introduced to the game. To the three existing downs, Camp proposed that one more down be added in 1912, and the advance distance was lengthened from five yards, to ten yards.
A special rules committee appointed by key schools in 1905 established what would become known later as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The game of football was saved. With Camp's continued support, the committee made further reforms including legalizing the forward pass, and changing the ball's shape from round to watermelon. Football would be played openly, as opposed to mass play that had led to so many serious injuries. Other dangerous styles of play were banned, and the game was shortened to sixty minutes.
Pro football was on the horizon. In 1920 eleven teams combined to create the American Professional Football Association. It was changed to the National Football League in 1922. And football never looked back, except to remember where it began.
Like other popular ball sports, American football is rooted in tradition. To this day, college and professional football draws countless Americans to the stadiums, or to their television sets to support their favorite teams, to check the scoreboard, or to simply take a break from the rigors of everyday life.