Bob “Liquid” Fawcett is a pal of mine and a member of my rugby club, Western Suburbs RFC in Northern Virginia. He plays backline positions, but I don’t hold that against him. - Wes


The Missing Link Between Gridiron and Rugby


By Bob Fawcett



American Football owes its origins to rugby.  One, however, would not guess this to be the case, since they share almost nothing in common, except tackling and an ovoid ball.  Being a former player in both sports, I learned a great deal about rugby and gridiron.  But, I never understood their relationship; my American football experience did not cross over to rugby as smoothly as I had believed it would.  Puzzled, I wondered how these two sports ever had anything in common.  What was their commonality?  How did gridiron end up so different from rugby?  I read the texts, I viewed old photographs, and I even remember seeing old movies from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  But, the structure of gridiron looked even in those days much the way it does today, and in any event it still had no semblance to rugby.  I knew that the game had undergone huge changes in 1906 and again in 1912.  But, I hadn’t a clue what the game had changed from.  Then, I finally got my answer from an improbable source. 


I came across this rare 1903 archive film of a nominally American football game between Chicago and the University of Michigan.  I am led to believe it was one of Edison’s early excursions into motion pictures.  Good thing, he did.  Without it, I would have never known how truly unusual the game had been. 


What was striking about the film was how at once alien and familiar gridiron looked back then.  It vaguely resembles modern American football.  But, the game then shared a noticeably greater resemblance to rugby than its modern descendant does. 


This was a time before the forward pass was introduced (which happened roughly three years after the film was made, in 1906).  It has been said that the forward pass permanently severed gridiron’s relationship to rugby.  Watching this film clip, one can easily see that.  Without forward passes, the game looked like a more or less permanent scrum. 


I use the term “scrum” cautiously.  It appears from the film that the “scrum” was formed on opposite sides of the ball (as it is in rugby and gridiron today), but there was no “put in.”  Nor was there apparently a gridiron center snapping the ball.  Rather, play was started by a dapper gentleman - apparently the ref - placing the ball in between the unengaged packs a few yards apart.  Then, after the ref cleared out, the packs would crash into each other and contest the ball, evidently using arms as well as feet.  As you can imagine, this built-up collision was violent, and resulted in injuries - the film memorializes several instances of dazed and unconscious players being taken off the pitch. 


The other oddity is the composition of the scrum itself.  It is not the neat, single line carefully constructed in modern gridiron, nor is it a recognizable 3-2-3 rugby formation.  Instead, it appears to be an amalgam of players packed (but not necessarily bound) in a tight mass of humanity.  The backs are largely out of frame, but there are clearly at least two of them stationed a few yards behind each side of the scrum, whose apparent occupation it was to slam into the backs of their own forwards/linemen at a full run.  Presumably, this was for the purpose of:  (1) enhancing the momentum of their respective packs; and (2) pulling the ball out of the resulting mess.  There is also a lack of out-of-play set up characteristic in modern gridiron.  Once the ball is dead, both sides immediately recover their appropriate side and the ref resets the ball for another scrummage.  (There also appears to be no signal calling as is associated with modern gridiron - of course, the film clip comes without sound, so there’s no way one can be certain that this was indeed the case in 1903).


This style of play appears to have resulted in the ball rarely coming out of the scrum, since the ref stopped play and reset the ball every time the ball (or carrier) hit the ground.  In the few instances where the ball does make it out, it is advanced by lateral passing - as in rugby (and in rarer circumstances in modern gridiron).  However, if a ball carrier actually gets out of the scrum, he is often tackled long before he has a chance pass away to a fellow back.  Moreover, it appears that the vast majority of the team is involved in the “scrum.”  The clips reveal only a few “backs” laterally distanced away from the pack.  Therefore, a lone back breaking free of the scrum may not have anyone to pass to at all.  Tackling was roughly identifiable to its modern American counterpart.  Unlike rugby, American football tackling has fewer restrictions.  In 1903, it appears to have had none.


All these interesting conventions, however, result in surprisingly boring play.  The ball doesn’t move that often, and all one can really see in the film are the incessantly-collapsing scrums (which only resulted in resets that resulted in more collapsing scrums).


The chief difference I noted between rugby and proto-gridiron was the padding; a difference as noticeable then as it is today.  But, as conspicuous as the soft padding was, it still didn’t seem to be adequate.  It was if Americans looked at the game of rugby, decided that it wasn’t violent enough, and changed the rules to make mass collision the primary objective of the game.  It was obviously a very violent affair, as judged from the film.  Contemporary statistics bear this out:  deaths and serious injuries were common in the game back then.  In fact, it was so notoriously injurious that President Theodore Roosevelt famously threatened to ban gridiron unless it was made safer (it was, slightly, in 1906). 


Still, one can see the similarities with rugby:  the scrum (which later became “scrummage” in gridiron, and eventually “scrimmage.”), the lateral passing, the freer flow of play (no lengthy stoppages).  One may also recognize some decidedly modern American conventions:  the diving backs, the setting of the ball by the referee, the proto-padding.  Nevertheless, this was still clearly a different game than either rugby or modern gridiron. 


Having played both sports, I recognize a few of the shared elements of their modern rules.  There are not many, but they are there.  The differences, however, are so numerous; they could not reasonably be listed here.  This was underscored by the fact that I learned gridiron long before rugby, and learned the hard way that one cannot approach the sport of rugby from the perspective of an American football player (for instance, attempting to inject American tackling sensibilities during a rugby match will quickly get you red-carded - or dead.)  But, after seeing this clip, I can more clearly see where American football owes its heritage.  The elements of both sports are vaguely preserved in that 1903 film.  I can now more easily imagine where gridiron came from, and how it got to where it is today. 

I guess I owe it Mr. Edison for providing yet another service for posterity:  cinematically preserving a historical link that I could not have possibly imagined in my own mind’s eye. 


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