How Football Developed as a Game in the United States
American football evolved from two games that were popular in other parts of the world: soccer and rugby. The first form of American football emerged on November 6, 1869, when teams from Princeton and Rutgers, two New Jersey universities, competed in a game that was closer to a rugby match than a football game.
Walter Camp, a sensational Yale University player and a driving force behind many new rules, is known as the father of American football. Camp helped write the first rules for football — which was already being played in universities on the East Coast and in Canada — in about 1876.
In 1880, Camp authored rules that reduced the number of players per team from 15 to 11 (today’s total) and replaced the rugby scrum with the center snap to put the ball in play. (In a scrum, players from both sides close up tightly together. The players then try to gain possession of the ball with their feet. Gaining possession with one’s hands is unique to American football — both rugby and soccer forbid it.)
Camp also championed the rule that a team needed to gain 5 yards in three plays in order to maintain possession. Today, teams must gain 10 yards in three plays or decide to punt on fourth down.
Camp devised plays and formations and instituted referees. However, his biggest proposal was tackling, which was introduced in 1888. Tackling — which allowed players to hit below the waist for the first time — made the game more violent. It also popularized an offensive strategy known as the flying wedge, where an entire team (ten players) would mass in front of one ball carrier in the form of a wedge.
Football was almost banned in 1906 after a dozen and a half deaths (and many more serious injuries), but President Theodore Roosevelt saved the game by convincing college representatives to initiate stricter rules to make the game less brutal and dangerous.
Although the game has been cleaned up over the years, football is a high-impact collision sport, and with collision comes pain and injury. Even with rules and protective equipment, players still are vulnerable on the playing field.
In the first 90 years of football, college football was far more popular than pro football. The game was (and still is, at many schools) all about tradition and the many rivalries between colleges. Eighty years ago, having more than 50,000 fans attend a great college game was not unusual. During that same period, NFL games — which officially began in 1920 — were fortunate to draw 5,000 fans.
Pro football emerged as an equal to college football after its games began being televised nationally in the 1960s, but it took decades for the NFL to supplant college football. And to this day, many colleges have as much fan support as some NFL franchises.