American Football

(By Bruce K. Stewart; From American History, November, 1995)

The origins of the sport that captivates U.S. fans each fall goes back hundreds of years, but the American version has its roots in the ivy league schools of the late 1800s.

More than 125 years ago, the sons of Civil War veterans fought on a new field of combat. Yankees, Rebels, and Westerners alike--assailed at every step by their opponents-- openly attacked each other, each man fervently battling for a few extra yards of precious turf. Some men died, while many more were seriously injured in the crude charges, brawling, and bucking that each man contended was his privilege as a gentleman. The fierce game of football had taken root.

Although football had been played in one form or another for centuries, the American version of the sport originated, for the most part, in Northeastern high schools and matured during the late nineteenth century in the Ivy League universities of the Northeast. As early as the 1840s, intramural matches had assumed a significant place in the campus life of students at Harvard and Yale University. Rivalries between classes became so intense that, by the beginning of the Civil War, the game had to be outlawed by the administrations of both institutions.

During the war years, a young man named Gerritt Smith Miller, who had played football while a high-school student in upstate New York, organized the Oneida Football Club in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the first to introduce the concept of teamwork to the game. Up to this time, players functioned individually on the field, with little regard to what their teammates were doing. Miller's "Boston game" assigned each player a role in advancing the ball or defending the goal.

Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in 1869, with Yale, Cornell, and Columbia following soon after. Most closely resembling soccer (ball carrying was not yet considered an option), the earliest games were melees in which roughly 25 men blocked, tackled, and fought to kick a round, leather-covered ball through a wooden crossbar.

Harvard University students again joined the ranks of footballers in 1871, but followed different, Rugby-like rules that permitted players to run with the ball. The other schools in the Northeast were not quick to adopt this innovation, leaving Harvard with no option but to restrict its play to intramural contests. Intercollegiate football, meanwhile, spread west as far as Michigan and south to Virginia.

In 1874, David Roger of Montreal's McGill University, where Rugby itself was played, challenged Harvard's captain, Henry Grant, to a three-game match between their respective teams. Harvard comported itself well in the cross-border encounters, in which many of its players had their first opportunity to use the easier-to-control egg-shaped ball made from a pigs durable bladder.

Flushed with enthusiasm for Rugby, Harvard challenged Yale to give its rules a try. On November 13, 1875, some two thousand spectators watched as the arch rivals met in the first American intercollegiate game played under Rugby rules. Harvard took the win, and the game of American football was never the same. With their flair for unifying far-flung ideas, Americans quickly became enthralled by the game and formally adapted Rugby's ball-carrying rules for the 1876 season.

At a time when field goals made by drop-kicks vastly outscored touchdowns, the game looked like a mongrel of European soccer and English Rugby. Of course, the American "frontier" version was far more rugged than its more dignified European counterparts. Although in the American version aggressive defenses doled out uppercuts and roundhouse punches before and after the ball was snapped, football was nonetheless considered a "gentleman's Adventure in sport."

Under Rugby's rules, "neither side had possession of the ball, nor the right to put it in play and to execute the ensuing maneuver. . . ." Walter Camp, an ingenious fellow from Yale University, proposed in 1880 that a scrimmage line be set on the spot where the ball was last downed. Whereas in Rugby's scrummage, the ball was tossed between two herds of men, the new line of scrimmage in football indicated the exact spot where the following play should begin.

Camp then created the positions of snapback (center) and quarterback for placing the ball into play. The snapback rolled the ball back between his legs with his foot to the quarterback, who pitched it to another player. This created the unique feature of having one team take undisputed possession of the ball. Perhaps more than any other single rule, the scrimmage-line innovation distinguished American football from its European antecedents.

To counteract the stalling tactics that often resulted from the offense having unlimited control of the ball, Camp also introduced a rule requiring the offensive team to gain five yards in three plays or surrender possession of the ball. Since everyone except the quarterback was permitted to carry the ball, guards such as Yale's towering William "Pudge" Heffelfinger often scored as many touchdowns as halfbacks or full-back. From Camp's forward-thinking rules came strategies and tactics for systematically advancing the ball. In tribute to his phenomenal foresight, Camp became known as the "Father of American Football."

An insatiable press, through a new breed of reporter--the "sports writer" relayed the news about football to readers from coast to coast. Before long, thousands of spectators were flocking to stadiums across the country to watch shifty ball carriers eluding their zealous pursuers. There was always great excitement among the fans just before game time as people arrived by horseback and in tally-hos or fancy carriages to cheer for their favorite team.

Early footballers prided themselves on their superb physical conditioning that allowed them to handle the walloping contact of the sport. Walter Camp once said that his Yale team of 1876 was remarkable for two things, "our toughness and our tackling. No wonder we were tough, for it had been a general killing off and survival of the fittest, both through the medium of our mining and also the ground upon which we practiced. Our training consisted of an hour practice in an afternoon and a three-mile run in the gymnasium every evening at nine o'clock. . . Such was the enthusiasm of our captain. . . that we believed that we were making ourselves models of strength and endurance."

On the field, players could push or pull their teammates along, even carry them forward. Ball carriers were permitted to crawl with the ball until held down. During such critical times, many fights broke out, slowing the game down and making it less interesting for fans to watch. Witnesses' descriptions suggest that these skirmishes looked something like a combination of wrestling, boxing, and a barroom brawl. One English spectator, after watching a game, allowed that football "is quite different than soccer and Rugby. In soccer, you kick the ball. In Rugby, you kick the man when you can't kick the ball. In American football, you kick the man."

Referees dared not declare a play finished until the tackled ball carrier fell to the ground and hollered "Down! " They had no rules to deter blind-sided hits or brawling, partly because they could not see into the thickness of the fray.

It did not take long for football's once-lustrous reputation as a gentleman sport to become tarnished. John L. Sullivan, the heavyweight boxing champion from 1882 until 1892, commented: "Football. There's murder in that game. Prizefighting doesn't compare in roughness or danger with football. In the ring, at least you know what you're doing. You know what your opponent is trying to do. He's right there in front of you. There only one of him. But in football--there 11 guys trying to do you in!"

Rough as these games were, no player substitutions were allowed. Young men were expected to play both offense and defense for the sake of honor, never leaving the field except when seriously injured.

Uniforms -- introduced into college play in that groundbreaking 1875 Harvard-Yale contest--were made from a thin canvas-like material called mole-skins, which soon tagged the players "canvasbacks." During June each year, players would begin growing their hair long as protection against the football season's bone-jarring collisions. But if a player secretly stashed pads beneath his unnumbered moleskins, his teammates would ridicule him without mercy.

For all its roughness, however, there was a lighter side to football during this era. After a game the two teams dined together, enjoying a feast of fresh fish and wild game; it was a practice that bestowed a soothing balm to their weary muscles. After dinner, unbridled boasting, story telling, and song satisfied a deeper appetite.

The year 1888 heralded energetic changes that led directly to the modern game of football. Before that time, defensemen were permitted to tackle only above the waist, a restriction that encouraged an open style of running and pitching the ball from player to player across the whole width of the field until the defense caught up. When tackling below the waist finally became legal below the waist but above the knees defensemen had a much larger target tackling area.

Ball carriers, much to their dismay, found that they could not easily elude such ferocious tackles. For counterbalance, the offensive line began bunching together to provide their carriers with more protection. Because there were not yet any rules regulating the number of men a team put on the line of scrimmage to begin each play, offenses initiated a new strategy of placing a mass of players in the backfield. At the snap of the ball, the players would all charge toward one defenseman. The power of these "massing plays" soon resulted in deaths and many grievous injuries.

During kickoff plays, teams made use of a loophole in the old rule that required the offense to kick the ball, but did not specify that the receiver had to be on the opposing team. Amos Alonzo Stagg, a Yale All-American in 1889 and later one of the game's greatest coaches, recalled that "the subterfuge was conceived of inch-kicking," whereby the kicker made an "inch kick" to himself, thus retaining possession of the ball. He would then hand it back to a teammate in a play called the V-wedge, "and the slow-moving mass of players clinging to one another moved forward in a slow lock-step run. The strategy was to open an aperture at a certain point of the wedge, through which the imprisoned runner would dart."

The suffering wrought by such plays increased dramatically with the introduction of the mighty "fling wedge," a remarkable "kickoff" play invented by Lorin E Deland, a military strategist, chess expert, and Harvard supporter who had never played a game of football in his life. Fans got to see Deland's bold new tactic for the first time in the second half of the 1892 Harvard-Yale encounter.

Deland divided Harvard's players into two groups of five men each at opposite sidelines. Before the ball was even in play team captain Bernie Trafford signaled the two groups. Each unit sprang forward, at first striding in unison, then sprinting obliquely toward the center of the field. Simultaneously, spectators leapt to their feet gasping.

Restricted by the rules, Yale's front line nervously held its position.

After amassing twenty yards at full velocity, the "flyers" fused at mid-field, forming a massive human arrow. Just then, Trafford pitched the ball back to his speedy halfback, Charlie Brewer. At that moment, one group of players executed a quarter turn, focusing the entire wedge toward Yale's right flank. Now both sides of the flying wedge pierced ahead at breakneck speed, attacking Yale's front line with great momentum. Brewer scampered behind the punishing wall, while Yale's brave defenders threw themselves into its dreadful path.

Brewer was finally forced out of the partially disintegrated wedge at Yale's twenty-yard line, where he tripped over one of his own players just as he was tackled by Frank Butterworth. Parke Davis, an early footballer turned historian, wrote of the action: "Sensation runs through the stands at the novel play, which is the most organized and beautiful one ever seen upon a football field."

Yale's incredible defense held and eventually won the game. However, Deland had opened Pandora's box. According to Davis, "No play has ever been devised so spectacular and sensational as this one." Stagg, writing in 1926, remarked that "The Deland invention probably was the most spectacular single formation ever opened as a surprise package. It was a great play when perfectly executed, but, demanding the exact coordination of eleven men, extremely difficult to execute properly."

Harvard's dangerous flying wedge quickly became the standard opening play for teams all across the country. But the play, which used the principle of mass momentum to great advantage, was deadly as well as effective. The cause of numerous deaths, the flying wedge was outlawed after only two seasons. As often happens with new sports rules, however, coaches and players soon found intriguing loopholes that kept the flying wedge alive.

Mass formations resembling the forbidden play crept onto the field on nearly every down. If anything, variations of the flying wedge became even more vicious than the original. Injuries soared, leading an outraged press to denounce the game for its excessive violence. For eleven years the press fueled the public's clamor for substantial rule changes, advocating such things as increasing from five to ten the number of yards a team must cover within four downs.

Barnstorming Rugby and soccer teams from all over Europe and Australia gave demonstrations across the United States to convince Americans of their games' noble values and superior morals. Some colleges did switch to Rugby or soccer, while others banned all kinds of football.

During those years, public outrage was not universal, nor was the negative sentiment shared by the players of the game. It was during this era that the first "sports heroes" captured the public imagination. Since 1889, Walter Camp had been selecting the best players to an All-American team. Outstanding players captivated the crowds and sustained growing interest in the sport despite concerns about the dangers associated with it. By the turn of the century, colleges across the country had become as involved with football as their Eastern counterparts. In 1896, the Western Conference--which later evolved into the "Big Ten"--was formed with memorable teams from the universities of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Chicago. In 1901 football was added to the program of events associated with Pasadena, California's twelve-year-old Tournament of Roses; on New Year's Day of 1902, the tradition of the Rose Bowl was born.

At the end of the 1905 season, the Chicago Tribune reported some frightening news: 18 FOOTBALL PLAYERS DEAD AND 159 SERIOUSLY INJURED! This report, coming weeks after he had seen photographs of the bloodied combatants in a contest between Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, led President Theodore Roosevelt to proclaim: "I demand that football change its rules or be abolished. Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards! Change the game or forsake it!"

The president immediately appointed a rules committee and pressured football coaches across the country to come up with a solution. John Heisman, Georgia Tech's coach, proposed that a passing play might be a good way to open up the game and help disband massing plays. He hoped that the forward pass would change football's emphasis from brute force to the kind of clever ball-handling that would please crowds and, more importantly, save players' lives.

Just after New Year's Day 1906, the rules committee approved the forward pass. Although the identity of those involved in the first play to involve a legal forward pass has been the subject of debate, credit is usually given to Bradbury Robinson of St. Louis University. A halfback, Robinson threw the ball to a teammate in a September 1906 game with Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

The new rule, however, was full of conflicting restrictions -- such as a penalty of fifteen yards for an incomplete pass -- that limited coaches' freedom to experiment with the innovative play.

It was six years after its introduction that the forward pass really came alive. Before the 1913 season opener, Gus Dorais, Notre Dame's talented quarterback, practiced concise pass patterns with a talented pass catcher on the shores of Lake Erie during their summer break. In the Notre Dame-Army game, Dorais made the forward pass a vital offensive weapon by passing for 243 yards, primarily to his main receiver and future coaching great Knute Rockne.

Meanwhile, flying-wedge principles continued to persist in insidious forms. In 1909, two important players -- Navy's Early Wilson and Army's Eugene "Icy" Byrne -- were both killed in massing plays, creating a "great clamor for re-form or radical changes . . "Embarrassed and perplexed by its own inadequacy and spurred on by public outrage, the rules committee finally permitted only four players to line up in the backfield, demanded a seven-man line, barred offensive lineman from using their hands, and required kickers to send the ball at least ten yards on every kickoff. At last football was freed of its own nemesis.

In spite of its destructiveness, the flying wedge and related "massing plays" did create some positive movements in American football. The news of the plays' power and alluring beauty helped to launch the exciting game across the country, while their destructiveness heralded the birth of player-safety measures, including the formation of the National College Athletic Association in 1906. Additionally, there arose united groups of concerned citizens, media, and college administrators, all of which endeavored to make football a fair game for both sides.

One such administrator, Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, wrote in the 1890s that "College football has come to stay: It has its advantages, its dangers, and its evils, but it fills a place which no other game can take. Its members are bound together by the strongest of ties. . . college spirit."

The flying wedge could be used only in place of a kickoff play at the start of each half or after a team had scored.

Teams from Stanford University and the University of Michigan met in the.first such game on January 1, 1902. However, the second Rose Bowl game, which pitted Washington State against Brown University, was not played until 1916.


"None of that sissy stuff for me. The players wore very little protective armor. I just let my hair grow long and pulled it through a turtleneck sweater," remembered Pudge Heffelfinger, Yale's three-time All American from 1889-1891. In his day, football players considered protective equipment contrary to the game's purpose, Occasionally, however, players would sneak shinguards and extra cotton padding into their pants or over their shoulders.

Before the Army-Navy game in 1893, a U.S. Naval Academy's tackle, Joseph W. Reeves (shown here with his bareheaded teammates), decided to try to avoid any further head injuries by having a shoemaker fashion a cap for him out of moleskin that would protect both his ears and head. This important innovation represents the birth of the American football helmet.

In 1896 George Barclay of Lafayette University employed a harness-maker who fashioned a one-piece "head harness" comprised of a leather head strap ant earmuffs. Few players took to wearing helmets, however, until the 1898 invention of the rubber nose guard. Somehow, this safety device, sometimes worn by the entire team, made protective equipment more acceptable in the players' eyes. With their long hair blowing in the wind and their handle-bar moustaches protruding beneath both sides of the long, black. bananas like mask, the players looked more like warriors than sportsmen.

By the early 1900s, college football's rules committee came to realize that hard, unyielding equipment was itself responsible for a significant number of injuries. The members recommended reducing the amount of hard materials permitted helmets and the safer game. Players experimented with various designs, such as the three all-leather, flat-top models shown below. It was not until 1939, however, that helmets became required equipment for all players.