A Brief History of the Game

Football’s Early Beginnings

Football (as well as rugby and soccer) are believed to have descended from the ancient Greek game of harpaston.   Harpaston is mentioned frequently in classical literature, where it is often referred to as a “very rough and brutal game“.  The rules of this ancient sport were quite simple:  Points were awarded when a player would cross a goal line by either kicking the ball, running with it across the goal line, or throwing it across the line to another player. The other team’s objective was simply to stop them by any means possible.  There was no specific field length, no side line boundaries, no specified number of players per team, only a glaring lack of rules.


Harpaston:  Luckily (for everyone) uniforms & equipment have improved dramatically.

Most modern versions of football are believed to have originated from England in the twelfth century. The game became so popular in England that the kings of that time (Henry II and Henry IV) actually banned football. They believed that football was taking away interest from the traditional sports of England, such as fencing and archery.

Evolution and the Beginnings of Standardization

Football didn’t really begin to take on any consistency of rules and boundaries until it was picked up as a sport in the seven major public schools of England in the early 1800’s.  Six of the seven schools were largely playing the same game (including Eton, Harrow and Winchester) - while the seventh, Rugby School (founded in 1567) was playing a markedly different version of football.

The other schools moved ahead refining their rules and eventually their game became known as "association football" – or soccer, which was played back then much as it is today.

Rugby School went in a different direction.  How and why the game developed differently at Rugby School appears to have been lost in history, but what is known is that by the 1830's, running with the ball at Rugby School was in common use and 18 foot goal posts had been added with a cross-bar at 10 feet above the ground.

The inclusion of the cross-bar was accompanied by a rule that a goal could only be scored by the ball passing over the bar from a place kick or drop kick. Apparently this was done to make scoring easier from further out and also to avoid the horde of defenders standing in and blocking the mouth of the goal.

Players who were able to "touch down" the ball behind the opponents goal line were awarded a "try-at-goal" - the player would make a mark on the goal line and then walk back onto the field of play to a point where a place kick at the goal was possible (a conversion). There was also an "off-your-side" rule used to keep the teams apart.  Passing the ball forward was not allowed.

By the mid-1860s British schools and universities had taken up Rugby's game and honored the school by giving the "new football" the name of rugby.

The game soon went trans-Atlantic to America and landed on fertile soil.

Roots of American Football

The birth date of football in the United States is generally regarded by football historians as November 6, 1869, when teams from Rutgers and Princeton Universities met for the first intercollegiate football game. In those early games, there were 20 players to a team and football still more closely resembled rugby than modern football.

The game of football has a history of constant rule changes. Rule changes have been implemented to bolster the excitement of the game of football and to increase the game's safety.

In 1873, representatives from Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale Universities met in New York City to formulate the first intercollegiate football rules for the increasingly popular game. These four teams established the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) and set 15 as the number of players allowed on each team.

Walter Camp, the coach at Yale and a dissenter from the IFA over his desire for an eleven man team, helped begin the final step in the evolution from rugby-style play to the modern game of American football. The IFA’s rules committee, led by Camp, soon cut the number of players from fifteen to eleven, and also instituted the size of the playing field, at one hundred ten yards. In 1882 Camp also introduced the system of downs. After first allowing three attempts to advance the ball five yards, in 1906 the distance was changed to ten yards. The fourth down was added in 1912.

Within a decade, concern over the increasing brutality of the game led to its ban by some colleges. Nearly 180 players had suffered serious injuries, and eighteen deaths had been reported from the brutal mass plays that had become common practice. So in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called upon Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to help save the sport from demise.

At a meeting between the schools, reform was agreed upon, and at a second meeting, attended by more than sixty other schools, the group appointed a seven member Rules Committee and set up what would later become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.

From this committee came the legalization of the forward pass, which resulted in a redesign of the ball and a more open style of play on the field. The rough mass plays, which once caused so many serious injuries, were prohibited by the committee. Also prohibited was the locking of arms by teammates in an effort to clear the way for their ball carriers. The length of the game was shortened, from seventy to sixty minutes, and the neutral zone, which separates the teams by the length of the ball before each play begins, was also established.

Though refinements to the game would continue to the present day, the modern game of American football had arrived.