Sports History Saturday: Early American Football History and the Father of American Football

early footballEarly American Football History

In the beginning, the basic rules of football involved advancing the ball down the field past the other team by whatever means deemed necessary.   This made the early days of football particularly brutal as even punching and gouging were allowed (sounds like “The Three Stooges”!).  At one point, Harvard played their games on Mondays and game day was referred to as “Bloody Monday”, so brutal was the sport.

Just to make it a more “interesting game” in those early days, each team had their own set of rules.  The only rule that was constant for all teams was that each team consisted of fifteen players.  Curiously, tackling below the waist was a no-no but tackling around the neck was perfectly acceptable!

The formation of a human wall by locking arms and running just ahead of the ball carrier was called the “Flying Wedge”.  “Piling” on the ball carrier was a common practice, which led to the deaths of several players.  As a result, President Theodore Roosevelt came close to banning the sport entirely – by Executive Order no less.  If teams could not find a way to end the brutality which had resulted in serious injury and death, then he would intervene.

An American Football Rules Committee was formed to address the concerns of the President and Congress.  Eventually, with a few rule changes like no more punching and gouging and banning piling on and the “Flying Wedge”, the sport continued.  By 1906, the number of deaths in the sport had dropped dramatically, rising and falling again in subsequent years through the end of the first decade of the 20th century.  But there were still some “unusual” rules of the game (at least by today’s standards) in those early days.

footballflyingwedgeFor instance, a team was penalized 15 years for each incomplete pass (1910).  Also in 1910,  pass interference was illegal only within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage – after more than 20 yards from scrimmage it was allowed.  In 1911, the practice of concealing the ball in a player’s jersey was banned.

In ensuing years, the point system changed, essential elements of the game such as equipment underwent innovations, field goals for scoring and definition of various penalties were added.  With all the confusion of every team for itself in the early days, I wonder if our “instant replay” system today could keep up!?!

Father of American Football

Walter Chauncey Camp was born April 7, 1859 in New Britain, Connecticut.  He attended grammar school in New Haven and then went on to attend college at Yale in 1875.  Harvard and Yale played their first rugby game on November 13, 1875.  The two teams had agreed to play under a modified set of rules and Harvard won the game 4-0.

Walter_Chauncey_Camp_portraitAfter Camp began to play for Yale, he proposed some rule changes for how the game of rugby was played.  By 1880 his proposal to reduce the number of players from fifteen to eleven was passed.  The most well-known change he made to the game was the introduction of a line of scrimmage vs. scrum (rugby rules) and the addition of the quarterback position who would receive the ball from the center — at first not with the hands, but with the foot of the center.  Placing the foot on the ball and heeling it back constituted a “snap”.  While it was eventually changed to snapping the ball by hand, for a time the foot rule was kept as an option.

scrumEven with those changes, the modified sport didn’t generate much excitement.  For instance, one team in particular, Princeton, used the scrimmage to maintain control of the game and also slow it down.  B-o-r-i-n-g!  Camp eventually introduced other changes as to how the ball was advanced down the field and innovations in scoring, field size, oversight of the game (referee and umpire).  What evolved over the years was the game of American football, distinctly different from either rugby or soccer.

After graduating from Yale, Camp continued to serve on the Rules Committee until his death in 1825.  With all his innovations and devotion to the sport (he coached at Yale and Stanford, compiling an overall record of 81-5-3), he is considered the “Father of American Football”.

As long as it isn’t Kansas State, I hope your favorite college team wins today (Wreck ’em Tech!).

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.


  1. Hear, Hear!

  2. For football fans everywhere a bit of history..



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