Sunday afternoons in the fall are dominated by the sounds of families gathered around their televisions in the United States, participating in a ritual that has been around since just after World War II, when American football games began to be regularly broadcast on television. From late September until the Super Bowl in February, Americans gather with their families and friends to watch football in living rooms, sports bars, and stadiums. But who invented American football?
Growing up, I always heard that there was (American) Football and then there was Soccer. Somewhere in my young mind, I always imagined that some guy got tired of kicking a round ball around with friends and decided to try something different, and came up with the American game of football. However, growing up without cable television or the internet, I didn’t know anything about rugby or association football, and the version of soccer I played at recess really didn’t have much to do with the soccer that’s played in Europe (which is association football). But all of those things combined had a lot to do with the origins of the game of American football.
While the origins of American football can rightfully be traced to the nineteenth century, we have had competitive sports for many hundreds of years. Henry VIII owned a pair of leather boots used for some form of football. The Mesoamericans of South and Central America had ball courts as early as 1650 BCE, and possibly earlier. Sepak Takraw is a form of kick volleyball that originated in Malaysia in the mid-1400s. We also know that some Native Americans played some types of football games. It’s no surprise that Europeans were playing competitive ball games since the days of the Renaissance.
Rugby football began in the mid-1800s in Rugby, Warwickshire, England. Rugby is a full-contact team sport, where the ball is carried with the hands, as well as kicked with the feet. Like American football, Rugby’s rules are complex. The ball may be kicked or thrown to other players, but may not be thrown forward. Players who are in front of the ball when it is kicked cannot receive the kick. Tackles are allowed in Rugby, but this does not stop the play as a tackle does in American football. Instead, all players involved in the tackle move away from the ball and new players move into contest possession. Association football is what the world outside of America refers to as football. We Americans call it soccer.
Like Rugby, the history of American football began in England in the mid to late 19th century. In Association football, only the goalkeeper may touch the ball with their hands, and only while within certain areas in the pitch, as the field is known. The rules are very structured, designed to keep the ball in forward-play on the pitch. The game we know as American football also began in the mid-nineteenth century. Gridiron football was first played in Ivy League colleges in the East; Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, and Rutgers University were some of the first schools to have intercollegiate games. At the time, many of the colleges had their own rules. There was no agreed-upon system of rules that each school's football team played by. As you can imagine, that made for chaos on the football field.
It was because of this chaos that what we know as American football was created. When you ask the question ‘Who invented American football?’ the man most credited is Walter Chauncey Camp. He’s often called “The Father of American Football.”
Walter Camp was a zealous athlete. He enjoyed running, tennis, and swimming, but football became his passion. He played while a Yale undergraduate, excelling in the position of halfback. He also served as team captain, which, in those days, meant he was also the team coach. It was during his time as a coach that he revolutionized the game.
With each school playing by their own rules, games were pandemonium. While each school would agree to follow one set of rules during the game, it meant the players had to be familiar with every set of rules. As you can imagine, that was not possible even under the best of circumstances. Under Camp’s leadership, colleges began playing under the same rules. A rules board, the Intercollegiate Football Association, was formed, and Walter Camp was very active in helping to devise the rules that all schools would play by. Camp would serve on the rules board until his death in 1925.
While a coach at Yale, Camp’s team of football players won 67 games and lost 2. He also coached at Stanford. While he coached, he was also working full time, raising a family, and serving as a member of the IFA rules board.
Walter Camp developed many integral parts of the game we spend our Sundays watching. Prior to the development of the IFA, football was played with twenty-five players, and then the number of players was whittled down to fifteen men on the field (per side). Camp cut that down to today’s eleven players (on each side). Camp, concerned with the violence that became more endemic on the field, helped work toward the founding of the NCAA, which helped govern collegiate sports.
Camp introduced many innovations to the early version of modern football, including the forward passes (because Rugby only allowed lateral passes). He gave us the idea of “downs.” Today, players in possession of the ball are given four opportunities, called plays, to move the ball ten yards forward from the starting point, called the line of scrimmage. The defensive team may tackle any player in possession of the ball in order to stop the forward motion. Once the player hits the ground and the ball is whistled down, the play stops. After the fourth down, the opposing team gets to have their own attempt to score. Before Camp introduced downs to the game, games might go hours with no points being scored or even an exchange of possession!
As any modern football fan knows, the rules are ever-changing and evolving. Rules vary between high school games, NCAA games, Canadian football, and the National Football League. Even pick-up games at the local park may not follow the same rules from neighborhood to neighborhood. But we all have Walter Camp to thank for inventing, establishing universal rules, and a governing committee of the modern game we football fans love; America's most popular sport, football.