American Football – correctly called gridiron football after the vertical yard lines marking the field – can trace its’ roots back to a game of soccer, or Association Football, played at Rugby School in England in 1843.
A young student named William Ellis became tired of simply kicking the ball, and picked it up and ran with it down the field. This, of course, was a foul, since in soccer it is illegal to touch the ball with your hands – even accidentally – but other students and staff suddenly became interested in the possibility of developing the game into something rather different.
Within two years, they had developed a set of rules for the game that they then called Rugby Football (now simply rugby, for short – or even rugger). They re-designed the large goalposts into the familiar “H” shape, and it was decided that a player who touched the ball down behind the goal posts would be allowed a try at kicking a goal over the horizontal bar – hence the term “try”.
The Game Caught On
The game caught on, and soon other schools were playing it and it was then taken up in Canada where a league developed in the 1860’s. The idea then spread to college campuses in the US and by the 1870’s colleges were playing each other. In 1874, McGill college of Canada challenged Harvard, and they played their first game. A year later, Harvard challenged Yale. In 1876, representatives of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia met to discuss altering the rules, and this meeting became known as the Massolt Convention, when the ground rules of American Football as it is known today were first laid down.
The game developed under the auspices of the head coach at Yale, Walter Camp, who also had a full-time job as an executive at a watch manufacturer. He decided that the number of players should be reduced from 15 to 11, and also introduced the system of “downs” where a team only has a certain number of plays to cover a determined number of yards before having to give up possession to the opponents. Camp was also responsible for axing the rule that the ball can only be passed backwards.
The game caught on quickly at other colleges, but unfortunately the system of “downs” led to vicious tackling which in turn caused serious injuries, and a number of deaths. Indeed, in 1905 alone, no fewer than 18 players were killed. Concerns were obviously raised by many, including Theodore Roosevelt who suggested new rules and put a certain amount of pressure on Camp to make changes.
The rules were altered to ban interlocking formations where players would link arms to protect a team mate in possession, and at least six players (later seven) should be on the line of scrimmage at the beginning of a play in order to reduce vicious tackling. These new rules had the desired effect, and the number of injuries and deaths decreased markedly. Thus was born the sport that we know today, with only a few minor changes being made during the 20th century.
The First Professional Player
The very first professional player is thought to have been one William Heffelfinger who in 1892 accepted money to play for Alleghery Athletic Association against Pittsburgh Athletic Club. The first professional league was not actually established until 1910, but for the next few years players had no incentive to stay with a particular club, and sold their services to the highest bidder.
In 1920, representatives of the major clubs decided to meet and create an overseeing body for the sport and thus was born the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed in 1922 as the National Football League (NFL).
The game expanded considerably after this, and despite the fact that over six hundred players fought in the second World War, 21 of them being killed, it bounced back very quickly. Indeed, one of the highlights of 1939 was the game between Philadelphia Eagles and Brooklyn Dodgers which was the first to be televised. As more and more Americans bought televisions after the war, so the popularity of the game increased exponentially.
However, in 1959, one Lamar Hunt decided to create a competitor to the NFL and founded the America Football League. This led to a serious amount of political infighting between the two over television rights and players, which finished up in the courtroom. The court eventually ruled in favour of the NFL, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the squabbles were damaging the sport, and in 1966 officials from both sides agreed that they should merge by the beginning of the 1970 season.
This duly occurred and stopped all the arguments about sponsors, players, and television air time.
Since then, the league, still known as the NFL, is divided into the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference, the champions of which meet each season in the Super Bowl.
Thus has developed the sport which we know and love today.