It’s confusing. If you find yourself at an international airport and tell someone that you love football, they might think you mean soccer, which the rest of the world calls football. It may be necessary to specifically say American or Canadian football (also a little bit different from each other) to come to any type of understanding. How can three different games be called the same thing? They are all related. The history of football has its roots in rugby and soccer.
Despite the manly football men who like to think soccer is a sissy sport, it is the first cousin of football. Soccer was the first of the three sports to be played. In 1823, during a game of football (soccer), a guy named William Ellis at Rugby School in Rugby, England, picked up the ball and ran with it to the goal. No account of the story mentions if he had gone insane or if the move was planned. Apparently, someone else also thought that was a great idea, so the game of rugby football was born. They made the ball oval shaped so it was easier to carry, but it would still bounce and be easily kicked. In 1871, the English Rugby Union came into being and gave everyone standard rules. Before this, teams would just decide on the rules before the game.
Meanwhile, in America, the same confusion was beginning. On November 6, 1869, the first college soccer football game was played. Rugby was actually pretty popular already at the time, but Harvard had banned it in 1860 because it was considered “barbaric.” After 1869, when collegians started playing soccer, the games got more and more like rugby. No one knew the rules anymore, because they changed constantly. The game wasn’t just growing into something different than soccer. It was becoming different than rugby, too.
Teams and fans liked it, but it was still confusing. In 1876, Walter Camp started attending Yale to study medicine and business. He played in the first Yale vs. Harvard rugby game that year. He was a smart man who had always been incredibly athletic. He is an important player in the history of football. He was instrumental in coming up with the rules for American football, which were written at the Massasoit Convention later that year. That convention paved the way for the NCAA.
Walter Camp played Varsity for Yale from 1877 to 1882 (the last two years in graduate school), and he was captain of the team for three of those years. He’s credited with a lot of the football rules and scoring still used today. While he didn’t invent football – it came about more by evolution – he is widely credited as “the Father of Football.”
Camp created the quarterback position, the idea that one team should have undisputed possession of the ball at a time, strategic plays, the number of players, and other key positions. He was the first Yale football coach, and he was involved in every rulemaking convention and committee until his death in 1925.
By 1885, modern American football was pretty much what it is now, with a few minor exceptions. Obviously, a lot more pads are worn now, and football helmets are required. For those of you who love to watch the most brutal tackles at the end of every year, you’ll be glad to know that Camp was the first to fight for tackles as low as the knee. In 1905, there were almost 20 deaths and well over 100 serious injuries. The public (no doubt led by players’ mothers) was outraged, and there was even a White House conference. Soon after, the NCAA was formed. There were more safety precautions and equipment after this point.
The first professional player appeared in 1892. People who think the salaries of pro football players are outrageous these days will be shocked to learn that the first paid player got $500 for one game. In 1892, that was a small fortune. The cause of it was a serious local rivalry. The Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) was playing the Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC). The AAA was so desperate to win this game that they found a guard who played for Yale and the All-America team and paid him to make sure they won. His name was William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, and the AAA did win (four to nothing) after he ran 35 yards for a touchdown.
In 1893, the PAC wised up. They made a smarter decision than their rivals did, and signed the first player to a professional paid contract. The player had to play for Pittsburgh for the entire year. Not to be outdone, in 1896, the AAA decided to have the first completely pro team, but only played two games that season.
In 1897, the Latrobe Athletic Association team also went to a completely paid team, and they were the first to play a full season as professionals. The history of football now goes pro.
In 1899, the longest running pro team began. On the south side of Chicago, the Morgan Athletic Club was formed. After going through a handful of name changes, they are now (since 1994) the Arizona Cardinals.
For the next twenty years, chaos grew. Salaries were rising, and the players were abandoning teams and contracts and running to the highest bidder. College players were playing both college and pro, teams were disbanding and forming throughout every season, and the sport lacked organization. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed.
In 1922, the association officially changed their name to the National Football League. The first American Football League came and went in 1926, lasting only the one season. There were several other leagues, including the AAFC, USFL (a spring league), and many reincarnations of the AFL. All finally merged with the NFL..
The first NFL draft took place in 1936. The first drafted player was Jay Berwanger, a halfback for Chicago. He chose not to play.
On September 7, 1963, the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in Canton, Ohio, where the NFL was first formed as the APFA. That same year, NFL Properties, Inc., was formed to deal with the licensing of merchandise including replica jerseys.
1966 was the most contentious year between the NFL and the AFL. Both leagues spent a record amount of money recruiting the best players. They finally agreed to merge, but not until 1970. At the end of the 1966 season, the first AFL – NFL World Championship Game was played. The Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35 to 10. The third AFL-NFL World Championship was called the “Super Bowl” in 1969 (after the 1968 season). The name stuck, and the 1967 World Championship became the first Super Bowl. After the two leagues combined in 1970, the Super Bowl became a game played between the two best NFL teams, which were now divided into conferences.
Ever wonder when the Super Bowl commercials started to become big business? In 1984, a British director named Ridley Scott directed a commercial for Apple Computers where they announced the upcoming availability of Macintosh Computers. The rest is history – Scott became a famous director (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator), and Super Bowl commercials are definitely the most expensive, and usually the most entertaining, on television.
Monday Night Football began as an idea that the NFL tried to sell to CBS or NBC. Both networks declined. CBS had the successful “Laugh In” on that night, and NBC had the “Doris Day Show.” ABC was the last to be offered the deal, and they jumped on it. In September of 1970, Monday Night Football made it’s debut. It, of course, was wildly successful, and is still on today.
Incidentally, one of the main arguments against prime time, weekday football was that women would never watch, which might keep households from watching. In 2003, women made up a little over 40% of the Monday Night Football audience.
Flag football has been around since the 1940’s. It was designed as recreation for soldiers on military bases. Every December since 1979, there has been a National Collegiate Flag Football Championship. Children are often introduced to the sport of football through flag football, which many feel is much safer than tackle football.
In 1981, a man watching an indoor soccer game got the idea for Arena Football. In 1987, the first game was played. The sport is much faster paced and higher scoring than traditional football.
In 2001, there was a spring league formed called the XFL (Extreme Football League) with ties to professional wrestling. The games were very low-rated on TV and the league only lasted one disastrous season.
Whether it’s high school football on Friday nights, College Football on Saturdays, or NFL games on Sundays and Monday nights, football is one of the most popular sports in the United States (as well as Canada and Australia). It will no doubt continue to be played, perfected, and loved for many decades to come.
James Martell is a successful freelance writer offering guidance and suggestions for consumers. His many articles give information and tips to help people save money and make smarter decisions.