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A Brief History of American Football

American football, simply called football in the US and Canada, originated during the second half of the 19th century. Initially, American football combined elements from both soccer and rugby, but over time it developed its own style.

Despite being considered a dangerous activity by some people, throughout its evolution, the rules of football have been revised on numerous occasions by different athletic clubs and leagues, to make this sport safer.

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Currently, American football is one of the most popular sports in the world. Keep reading to know more about the origins of American football.

How Was American Football Originally Played?

The sport that we know today as American, or gridiron, football has not always been played the same way. While many of the defining elements of football, such as the ways of scoring have remained relatively unmodified through time. However, some aspects of American football have changed over time.

Number of Players

For example, when in the late 19th-century football began to be practiced by North American college students, every university team could have up to 25 players on the field simultaneously (in contrast to the 11 that are currently allowed).

The former number had to be altered to avoid the excessive accumulation of people on the field and the potential dangers of it.

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Type of Ball

The use of a round ball is another of the features that characterized the first days of American football. This ball could not be carried or picked up easily.

Instead, to make their way into the opponent’s scoring zone, football players had two options – they could either kick the ball with their feet or try to bat it with their hands, heads, or sides. Round balls were in time replaced by oblong ones.


Another aspect that defined the early history of football was the scrum, a method of restarting the game borrowed from rugby; used whenever the ball had gone out of play.

During a scrum, players from each team would get together, with their heads down, to build a packed formation. Then, both teams would engage in a pushing contest to try to gain control over the ball.

Scrums were eventually replaced by snaps (also known as ‘passes from the center’). Snaps are much more organized, and, because of that, they also allow football viewers to have a better appreciation of what is happening on the field every time a game is restarted.

The Origins of Football Protective Equipment

History of American Football

Football equipment has also experienced significant changes throughout time. In the beginning, when American football had not yet been differentiated much from rugby, football players would participate in games without wearing any protective equipment at all.

However, football’s physical roughness eventually prompted players to start wearing leather helmets.

Some historical sources suggest that the first in-game use of a leather helmet occurred during the 1893 edition of the Army-Navy game, which took place in Annapolis. However, the use of helmets would not become mandatory among the college football leagues until the year 1939.

The introduction of other components of the football protective gear came after that of the helmet. Shoulder pads were invented in 1877, but their use only became popularized during the turn of the century. Sometime later, in the early 1920’s, the use of face masks was also registered.

When Was the First Official Football Game Played?

American Football

The first official football game was played on September 6, 1869. This college league game was played between Rutgers and Princeton. The final score of the game was 6-4, with the victory going to Rutgers.

During this game, the contenders played following the rulers of European soccer, something that by that time was common among many college teams across the United States. However, football players in Canada at the time tended to follow the rules of rugby.

Who Was The Father of American Football?

Walter Camp (born April 7, 1859 – March 14, 1925) was a football player and coach from Yale. Camp is often considered responsible for formally separating American football from rugby; an achievement for which he won the title of ‘Father of American football’.

During the early 1870’s, North American college league games were played following the rules of the hosting university. This led to some incongruences and soon the need for a standard set of rules was evident. With this objective in mind, in 1873, the universities of Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia instituted the Intercollegiate Football Association. Four years later, Yale was also included among the members of the IFA.

In 1880, as one of the representatives of Yale in the IFA, Camp promoted the introduction of the snap, the line of scrimmage, and the 11 players per team rule in American football. These changes contributed to reducing violence and the potential disorder that manifested on the field each time a scrum was held.

However, there were still some improvements to be made to the rules of this sport. The latter became obvious in 1881 in a game between Princeton and Yale, where both teams decided to hold the ball during their respective initial turns, knowing that they could remain uncontested as long as the snap wasn’t executed. This game resulted in a 0-0 tie.

To stop this perpetual blocking from becoming a regular strategy in football, Camp successfully introduced a rule that limited each team’s possession of the ball to three ‘downs’. From that point on, if one team failed to advance at least 5 yards (4.6 m) within the opponent’s field during its three downs, control of the ball would be automatically forfeited to the other team. Many sports historians agree that this was when American football was born.

Eventually, the minimum of yards required to keep the ball was increased to 10 (9,1 m). Camp was also responsible for setting the standard system of scoring in football.

Who Was the First Professional Football Player?

According to historical records, the first time a player was paid to participate in a football game was on November 12, 1892. On that day, Pudge Heffelfinger received $500 to represent the Allegheny Athletic Association in a match against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. This is widely regarded as the beginning of professional football.

It’s noteworthy that even though at the end of the century directly paying a player to secure his participation in a game was a practice forbidden by most leagues, sports clubs would still offer other benefits to attract star players. For instance, some clubs helped their players find jobs, while others would ‘award’ best players with trophies, watches, as well as other valuable items.

When Was the NFL Created?

NFL game

The NFL is the most important of all the existing American football leagues. It was created in 1920, under the name of the American Professional Football Association.

The objective of this organization was to elevate the standards of professional football, help teams schedule their games, and put an end to the practice of bidding for players, which had long been practised among rival clubs.

In 1922 the APFA changed its name to the National Football League or NFL. In the mid-1960’s, the NFL began to merge with the American Football League but managed to keep its name. In 1967, after the merging of the two leagues, the first Super Bowl was held.

Nowadays, the Super Bowl is one of the most-watched club sporting events in the world, with more than 95 million viewers congregating annually to enjoy the final NFL game of the season.

Wrapping Up

American football began in the late 19th century, played by college students at universities.

At first, football was played following the rules of soccer, and it also had taken many elements borrowed from rugby. However, from 1880 onward, a series of rules established by Joseph Camp (who is considered the ‘Father of football’), definitively separated football from other sports.

In its earlier stages, American football was considered an extremely violent sport but over time, football has evolved into a much more organized and safer sport.

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Jhonfrank Sánchez López
Jhonfrank Sánchez López

Jhonfrank Sánchez is a Venezuelan writer and Literature major interested in studying ancient civilizations, history, symbolism, and how they have shaped modern thought. As a researcher, he has specialized in Greek mythology, a field of investigation that he confesses has always stimulated his passion for learning. In his free time, Jhonfrank enjoys coming back to the classics, as well as reading mystery short stories, and poetry.