American Football

Ronald A Smith. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 2, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

American football had its origins in English rugby football. The game was adapted from rugby during the period from the 1870s to the early 1900s, and the game first became popular in the elite colleges of the East after Harvard University refused to play soccer (association football). Led by Yale University’s Walter Camp (1859-1925), players changed rugby football rules to reflect the desire in the United States for a more scientific, rational game. Only after football became the most prominent college sport, based on a desire for a manly game, did football become professionalized, and the professional game did not challenge the dominance of college football until the 1960s, when television coverage of the National Football League (NFL) became popular. By that time African American players had become prominent in both college and professional football. With increased revenues, professional players formed a labor union and demanded a higher portion of the profits being made by team owners. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, colleges continued to be “feeders” for the professional leagues, and college and professional teams prospered.


Rugby football evolved at Rugby School, one of England’s elite private secondary schools known as “public schools.” Two distinct forms of football had developed in Britain: association football (soccer) and rugby, a contest emphasizing running more than kicking. The English Football Association codified the rules of soccer in 1863, when it was founded by elite ex-public school and Oxford and Cambridge University players working in London. The Football Association had hoped to create one game of the various school and college games but was unable to convince the rugby players of the need for one unified game of football. The Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 to promote the running game with one set of codified rules. During the 1860s and early 1870s many U.S. collegians were playing forms of soccer, whereas Harvard students had created a game more akin to English rugby than soccer.

On most U.S. campuses football, of the soccer type, had evolved as part of class battles. The sophomores would challenge the freshmen to a kicking game in which the kicking of opponents appeared to be as common as kicking the ball. These games were part of the traditional indoctrination process found on all college campuses where cocky sophomores initiated freshmen through hazing. At Harvard the first day of school in the autumn was concluded annually with what was known as “Bloody Monday,” when the sophomores generally beat the freshmen into submission. Other matches throughout the year might include the freshmen combining with the juniors to battle the sophomores and seniors. These matches became so brutal, especially the Bloody Monday matches, that Harvard authorities banned football in 1860.

Most other colleges, however, continued to play football, including two New Jersey institutions—Princeton and Rutgers—which were located only about 32 kilometers apart. A year after the Civil War, when baseball was expanding greatly throughout the United States, Princeton had beaten Rutgers in their first intercollegiate baseball contest 40-2. Three years later Rutgers challenged Princeton to a two-out-of-three football contest. On 6 November 1869, the first intercollegiate football game was played on the Rutgers campus with teams of twenty-five on a side. The agreed-upon rules resembled those of soccer, but the players could bat the inflated rubber ball with hands or fists as well as with feet. The goal posts were eight paces apart and were located at the ends of a 69-meter field. Rutgers accumulated six goals first and won 6-4 before a crowd that included a small number of Princeton partisans, who took the train to New Brunswick. They and the Rutgers fans saw a contest featuring “headlong running, wild shouting, and frantic kicking” and a Princeton player who forgot which end was his and sent the ball to his own goal. The game was followed by a gastronomic and convivial evening that included a roast game dinner, impromptu speeches, and the singing of college songs. A week later Rutgers visited Princeton, playing under Princeton’s usual rules that allowed the free kick, whereby a player could catch the ball in the air or on first bounce and kick it without hindrance. Princeton’s 8-0 victory called for a third and decisive game, but it was not played, possibly because of institutional interference but more likely because the two institutions were not able to agree on common rules.

Although most colleges were playing a variation of association football, the soccer-like game was short-lived despite the rules being codified on several campuses. Harvard was the only major school not playing a form of soccer. The Harvard men called their pastime “the Boston game,” in which a player could catch or pick up the ball and then kick it or even run with it. The opportunity to run with the ball was key in the development of a nonsoccer game in the United States. The game resembled rugby, not played by any other college. Yale, Harvard’s chief rival in crew and baseball during the early 1870s, played its first intercollegiate soccer contest when it beat Columbia in 1872. The Yale victory began what would become the most successful college program during the first century of intercollegiate football. The next year, a “western” school, Michigan, challenged Cornell to a football game, but Cornell’s president, Andrew D. White (1882-1918), banned it when he made his classic comment: I will not permit 30 men to travel 400 miles merely to agitate a bag of wind.” With interest expanding, Yale called a convention to write common rules for league play in 1873 (Peckham 1967).

Harvard absented itself from the convention, protesting the soccer game as inferior to its own, and its action drastically changed the history of American football. While Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers agreed to common rules, Harvard kept its own. This stance led Harvard to two matches in May 1874 with McGill University from Montreal, Canada. The first game between the most elite institutions in each country was played under Harvard rules and the second under McGill’s rugby rules. Harvard men enjoyed the rugby game and in the spring of 1875 played nearby Tufts College in the first intercollegiate rugby game between colleges in the United States. Soon Yale asked Harvard to play a football game, but Harvard would agree only if rugby rules were the basis. Yale, to save face, agreed to “concessionary” rules, but they were really those of rugby. Some Princeton men traveled to New England to see the game. Wanting to play the more prestigious Yale and Harvard in the future, Princeton had to change to the rugby game.

After Princeton accepted rugby, a convention was called in which the future “Big Three” and Columbia met to adopt standard rugby rules and form the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) in the autumn of 1876. Yale was reluctant to accept fifteen men on a team rather than its favored eleven. Nevertheless, the IFA decided to initiate a Thanksgiving Day championship contest between the two leading teams of the previous year. Yale and Princeton were chosen for the first of the traditional Thanksgiving Day games, and the two schools continued to dominate the game for the next two decades. By the 1890s the contest kicked off New York City elite’s social season, giving added social significance to the contest. As many as forty thousand viewed the contest in the Polo Grounds or at Manhattan Field. The Thanksgiving Day tradition spread across the United States; in 1893 the New York Herald called it “a holiday granted by the State and the nation to see a game of football.”


The eastern elite schools Americanized the rugby rules that the rest of the schools accepted as their own. Walter Camp, the “father” of U.S. football, had played for Yale in the first Thanksgiving Day championship game. Camp, more than any other person, created the U.S. version of football. Camp began attending football rules meetings in 1877 as a sophomore and continued for the next forty-eight years. In 1880 he suggested possibly the most radical rule in football history, one giving continuous possession of the ball to one team after a player was tackled. In rugby, when a player was downed, the ball would be placed in a “scrummage.” The ball might go forward or backward, with possession in doubt.

To Camp, this rule was not rational. Camp proposed a “scrimmage” in which the team in original possession would snap (center) the ball back to a quarterback who would hand it to another back in a logical play. One team could control the ball for as much as an entire half unless the ball was fumbled away or was kicked to the opponents. Camp, by the early 1880s, suggested incorporating the notion of “downs,” in which one team was given three attempts (downs) to advance 5 yards (4.5 meters) or lose possession of the ball. The 5-yard chalk lines created a “gridiron” effect and a new nickname for the game. The consequence of the short distance to be gained in three attempts created the need for exacting plays, the development of signals for calling the plays, and the introduction of players running interference for the ball carrier, another modification of rugby.

Mass plays led to the charge of brutality during the late nineteenth century. The change from the more open running of the original rugby game to tight line smashes resulted from a rule to allow tackling below the waist in 1887. The low tackle did much to reduce the effectiveness of open field running and contributed to the unfolding of various wedge formations, including the famous “flying wedge.” Wedges were V-shaped formations that “snowplowed” a particular position in the defense. In the flying wedge players began about 25 yards (23 meters) behind the scrimmage line and progressed at full speed from two angles to form a “V” formation just before the ball was passed to the runner behind the “V.” The play was so brutal to the defensive player at whom it was aimed that it existed for only one season before it was outlawed. Plays such as the flying wedge and other mass plays eventually led to the forward pass, a radical change legislated in 1906 to open up the game.

The game’s brutality was evidenced at a time when U.S. society was urbanizing and thought to be losing manly qualities found on the frontier. College students had often been the symbol of the effete, pale, and dyspeptic scholars, persons lacking the virile element considered to be an important aspect of U.S. society. Football could counteract this negative, demasculinized image and give college life the picture of vitality and manliness. As the century waned, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), more than any other person, stood for the strenuous life needed for U.S. leadership in the world. Roosevelt believed that football, if played fairly, could add to the vigor of the nation. “Hit the line hard: don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard” was to Roosevelt and many other people a metaphor worth pursuing in life as in football.

College and Professional Football

College football was a U.S. symbol of virility before the first identified contest in which players were known to be paid. The professional game has been traced to the payment of Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger (1867-1954), the acknowledged greatest college player of the nineteenth century. Heffelfinger was on Walter Camp’s first all-American team in 1889 as well as the next two years. In the autumn after his graduation from Yale, he was playing for the Chicago Athletic Club, as was Ben “Sport” Donnelly, formerly of Princeton. When the club concluded a tour of the eastern United States, Heffelfinger and Donnelly did not return to Chicago. The Allegheny Athletic Association, located near Pittsburgh, saw an opportunity to defeat the rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club with the help of outsiders and recruited Heffelfinger and Donnelly to play for them. Heffelfinger received the enormous sum of $500, approximately a worker’s yearly wage, plus travel expenses, and Donnelly received $250 plus expenses. In a contest with high betting stakes, Heffelfinger picked up a fumble and ran for the game’s only touchdown.

Other “amateur” teams began paying their players in western Pennsylvania, upper New York, and especially Ohio. Most of the better players were collegians, who at times played on Saturdays for college teams and competed under assumed names for pro teams on Sundays. Some of the players were professional baseball players as well as collegians. Christy Mathewson (1880-1925), a Bucknell University player and later a star pitcher for the New York Giants, played for Pittsburgh Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss (1865-1932), who fielded a football team in 1898. The strongest teams early in the twentieth century were formed in Ohio, where Akron, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, and Massillon created unparalleled rivalries, particularly the Canton Bulldogs and Massillon Tigers of towns a buggy ride apart. A scandal emanating from a bribe offer disrupted continuous play, but pro-football in the area was renewed in 1912. By then the game resembled the modern one with the legalization of the forward pass, touchdowns counting six points and field goals three, and four downs to gain 10 yards (9.1 meters).

Ohio again led the way in the professional game. Collegians such as Knute Rockne (1888-1931) of Notre Dame and the great African-American stars—Paul Robeson (1898-1976) of Rutgers and Fritz Pollard (1894-1986) of Brown—played in Ohio. Rockne once played for six different teams in a two-month period. Massillon hired forty-five top players for one game to ensure that the opponent would not hire any of them. Jim Thorpe (1888-1953), the star of the Carlisle Indian School around 1910, was paid $250 a game in 1915 to play for the Canton Bulldogs. When Thorpe, the “greatest athlete” of the first half of the twentieth century, made his debut at Canton, eight thousand spectators saw him lead the Bulldogs to a victory over the hated Massillon Tigers. Although the crowds at professional games did not compare with those at the best college games, interest in football was increasing when World War I, momentarily, halted the game.

Two of the most important pro franchises were a result of industry-sponsored teams—the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. In Wisconsin in 1919, Curly Lambeau (1898-1965), a Notre Dame dropout, received $500 from the Indian Packing Company of Green Bay to organize a team, the Green Bay Packers. After a 10-1 season playing regional teams, each player was paid $16.75. The following year George Halas (1895-1983), a former University of Illinois player, organized a team with money from the Staley Starch Company of Decatur, Illinois. Players on Halas’s Decatur Staleys were hired by the company and paid $50 a week, with two hours off each day to practice football. After a ten-win, one-loss, and two-tie season, the average payment for playing was $125 a game. Halas, with the blessing of the Staley company, moved his team to Chicago, where he renamed it the “Bears” because it shared Wrigley Field with the Chicago Cubs baseball team. In 1920 he joined a group that was the forerunner of the National Football League. The NFL was formed as the American Professional Football Association in 1920 and renamed the National Football League in 1922. Green Bay and Chicago, along with the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, came to dominate the NFL until the end of World War II.

The relationship between the professional game and the intercollegiate game has been a long one and close in many ways. The star players of the early professional teams were mostly collegians from the time of Heffelfinger in the 1890s. Nearly as important, many college coaches had played professional football, including such renowned coaches as Knute Rockne of Notre Dame, Hugo Bezdek (1884-1952) of Penn State, Bert Ingwerson (1898-1969) of Illinois, and Jimmy Conzelman (1898-1970) of St. Louis. Coaches, too, shifted between college teams and pro teams. Examples included Arnold Horween (1898-1985), who moved from the Chicago Cardinals pro team in the 1920s to head Harvard University’s team, and Jock Sutherland (1889-1948), who took over the Brooklyn professional team after a successful career at the University of Pittsburgh. The midwestern Big 10 Conference and the Ivy League in the East were so concerned about pro-football during the mid-1920s that they legislated that all employees of athletic departments who took part in professional football games as players or officials were disqualified from employment in athletics at conference institutions. The case of Harold “Red” Grange (1903-1991), a star halfback at the University of Illinois, led to an outcry by colleges against the pros for signing a player before he graduated from college. During his senior year Grange signed a football contract with the Chicago Bears within a week of playing his last college game against Ohio State in 1925. The reaction was so negative that the NFL decided to make an agreement with the colleges not to sign any football player before his eligibility was completed or his class had graduated. The so-called Red Grange Rule lasted for more than a half-century, when the agreement could no longer stand up under federal antitrust law because it violated the freedom of people to sign contracts, a conspiracy in restraint of trade.

Pro-football received a degree of national attention when Red Grange joined the Chicago Bears and went on an eastern and then southern and western tour, at one point playing seven games in eleven days. Clearly, having the pros feed off the colleges was more important than having the colleges benefit from the pros. Pro-football gained stature because its teams increasingly used the colleges as “farm teams.” In an attempt to ensure an equitable distribution of college players within the professional ranks, the annual draft of college players was devised in 1936. When Jay Berwanger (b. 1914) of the University of Chicago (the first Heisman Trophy winner) was chosen by the worst team in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles, it was an attempt to give weaker teams an opportunity to improve their teams immediately. That Berwanger chose to enter business and not the NFL was a reflection of the lack of esteem accorded professional football during the 1930s. Some other star college players, however, were drafted and joined pro teams, including Byron “Whizzer” White (1917-2002) of the University of Colorado, who was paid the NFL’s highest salary of $15,800 to join the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1938. White became a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

College coaches and other college athletic officials feared the growth of professional football. At about the time the NFL came into existence, college coaches formed the Football Coaches Association (FCA). According to a New York Times report in 1921, one of the association’s first actions that year was to unanimously resolve that “professional football was detrimental to the best interests of American football and American youth and that football coaches [should] lend their influence to discourage the professional game.” The fear that pro-football would hurt the college game continued through the century.That fear was seen early in creation of the Red Grange Rule, and it continued with such actions during the 1960s as forbidding the mention of pro-football in college football telecasts and lobbying to pass federal legislation to prohibit pro-football from televising games on Saturdays, when college football is traditionally played. The fear of the pros was a major stimulus in the 1960s decision to allow unlimited substitutions (two-platoon football) to increase fan interest, which was being lost to the more exciting pro game. The fear of professional competition almost led to the creation of a playoff system for college football during the 1960s, but the previous development of “bowl” games at the end of each season made the playoff problematical and less attractive. In a similar way the success of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, put pressure on colleges to create their own hall of fame. As with the playoff system, the colleges did not financially support the hall of fame idea, and development of a college football hall of fame has languished for decades.

College football far outstripped professional football until the 1960s. The college game took advantage of claiming to be amateur, with athletes playing for the honor of their alma mater. British amateurism’s upper-class notions of participating in sport purely for enjoyment, not financial benefits, applied to college football in the United States as well. Even though the college game had been developed on a commercial model with huge stadiums, highly paid coaches, and subsidized athletes (either overtly or covertly), people generally believed that the athletes were amateurs. The positive virtue of “amateurism” added to the luster of football traditions of homecoming, pep rallies, “tailgating,” cheerleaders, and marching bands. Season-ending bowl games added to the interest. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, began in 1902 and has been continually played since 1916. During the Depression of the 1930s, several communities, principally in the South, decided that they could help the local economy by hosting bowl games. The Orange Bowl in Miami and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans started the rush to season-ending contests and were followed by the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and a host of new bowls after World War II.

College teams and professional teams lacked a large number of African-American players during the first half of the twentieth century. Southern institutions of higher learning refused to admit blacks until forced to do so by desegregation during the 1960s, and only a few institutions in the North had black students until after World War II. Outstanding players such as Fritz Pollard of Brown and Paul Robeson of Rutgers in the 1910s, Duke Slater (1898-1966) of Iowa and Joe Lillard (b. 1918) of Oregon in the 1920s, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh (1917-1943) of Syracuse and Kenny Washington (1918-1971) of UCLA in the 1930s, and Buddy Young (1926-1983) of Illinois and Marion Motley (b. 1920) of Nevada in the 1940s were exceptions to the rule. Professional football’s first black player was Charles Follis (1879-1919), who in 1904 played for the Shelby Athletic Club in Ohio. Fritz Pollard played pro-football after his Brown experience, becoming the first African-American head football coach in 1919 when he coached the Akron Pros. Blacks played in the NFL until the “color line” was drawn in 1933. Football remained segregated until the end of World War II, when the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League and the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference added black players shortly before Jackie Robinson (1917-1972) desegregated professional baseball.

Television and Football

The introduction of television dramatically affected college and pro-football after World War II. Football games were first telecast in the autumn of 1939, but another decade passed before the cable required to carry signals spread from the East Coast as far west as Chicago. By about 1950 the growth of television made commercial telecasts of sport contests profitable. Colleges were concerned that telecasts would have a negative impact on attendance at stadiums, and in 1951 members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) decided to control the number of telecasts of their football games. From 1951 to 1984 the NCAA plan provided for national and regional telecasts each Saturday during the season. This monopoly existed first to limit games on TV and to preserve gate receipts. Later, when the NCAA contract with television networks was worth more than $65 million per year, receiving television revenues became more important to big-time colleges than preserving stadium attendance. A power struggle erupted between the smaller NCAA institutions and those that had regular game telecasts. The smaller institutions, demanding a greater percentage of television funds, helped spur the creation of the College Football Association (CFA). The CFA was created in 1976 to promote big-time football. Within five years the CFA helped sponsor a legal suit against the NCAA by the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia to break up the NCAA football TV monopoly. A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision went against the NCAA, and colleges were thereafter free to create their own television plans. The result was an oversupply of games and lower revenues to most institutions.

The professional National Football League had different results from television. The league’s popularity rose greatly after its championship game in 1958, when the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in a dramatic overtime contest seen by millions on television. During that decade the NFL solution to protect stadium attendance was to prevent televising within a radius of 75 miles without permission of the home team. The NFL also decided to pool television money, dividing the TV revenues equally among all the teams. This brilliant decision allowed smaller-market teams, such as the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, to remain financially competitive.

Competition from a new league also had an impact on professional football. Lamar Hunt (b. 1932), disgruntled at being unable to purchase an NFL franchise, in 1960 decided to form the American Football League (AFL), which soon received a multimillion-dollar television contract from the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). With the signing of star college players such as Joe Namath (b. 1943) of Alabama, the AFL received recognition, and in 1966 the NFL, which fought the AFL, accepted a merger of the two leagues. The merger, under the NFL name, became official as a twenty-six-team league in 1970. A playoff between the NFL and AFL beginning in 1967 added excitement and created greater wealth. The championship was called the “Super Bowl,” and Green Bay won the first two contests. The Super Bowl, a kind of U.S. holiday, has had some of the highest ratings in television history, easily surpassing baseball’s World Series in popularity. The NFL introduced Monday Night Football to supplement the traditional Sunday games beginning in 1970. “Prime-time” evening football was the creation of the NFL’s commissioner, Pete Rozelle, and the innovative Roone Arledge of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). For two decades Monday Night Football surpassed all regular televised sporting events in popularity.

Professional football’s increase in wealth from television has spurred both new labor disputes and competing leagues. Players formed the National Football League Players Association in 1956, but the union was not recognized by NFL owners until 1968. A desire for a larger share of the profits eventually led to several players’ strikes between 1968 and the mid-1980s. New football leagues, also looking at the growing wealth in the professional game, were formed. The World Football League lasted only one season in the mid-1970s. Eight years later the United States Football League (USFL) began as a spring sport in 1983. The March-to-July schedule did not conflict with that of the stronger NFL for a television audience, but the USFL survived for only three years because of low television ratings. Three years later the NFL established the World League of American Football (WLAF) with teams in Europe and North America. The WLAF acts like a farm system for the NFL and expanded the college football feeder system that has existed for much of the century.

Since the nineteenth century football has developed differently in the United States than in the rest of the world, where soccer football is the dominant sport. The game was thriving in colleges well before the professional game took hold. It has remained a game played almost exclusively by boys and men, unlike other popular team sports such as baseball, for which women formed a professional league in the 1940s and 1950s, and basketball, which girls and women made the most popular sport in schools and colleges for most of the twentieth century.