Early Football in the USA


Football has obviously derived from rugby, but how and when did the sport find its way across the Atlantic?

Tommy Davis Pitt 1922As the game of rugby was becoming organised in England in the middle of the 19th century, expatriates were introducing the sport into North America.

The argument concerning where the first game was played is futile and impossible to confirm.

As rugby clubs were being established on the west coast, universities were organising teams to participate in the sport in the more populous states east of the country.

Princeton and Rutgers claim to have played the first football game on November 6, 1869. Rocky Carzo of Tufts University will dispute that fact. Carzo puts forward Tufts’ game against Harvard on June 4, 1875 at Jarvis Field in Cambridge, Massachusetts as the first game played under rules that we now call football.

Boston’s newspaper of the day, the Daily Globe reported, “The play opened briskly and five or six Tufts men found themselves laid on their back so violently that they imagined it was evening by the stars they saw. They soon repaid the compliment, however.”

The rough and tough violence that are integral to today’s game are certainly reflected in the Globe’s report. "This is the first game between two US colleges, playing rules as we really know football," commented Carzo to the Boston Globe in 2004.

"From our point, it's indisputable: Tufts and Harvard played the first intercollegiate football game in America. I know some people are going to take shots at us for saying it, but that's good. That's OK." More>>>

Although the arguments may continue over the birth of college football, it is easy to pinpoint the first major event in the sport’s history that occurred in 1874 when Harvard challenged McGill University from Canada to a football match.

Unlike Harvard, the type of football McGill played allowed a player to run with the ball. When the Harvard team saw the McGill players running with the ball during warm ups, they apparently made a call that would impact on the game forever.

The teams agreed to play two games - one with running and one without. The Harvard team decided it liked running the ball and added the run to its game plan. A year later, in the   first Harvard-Yale football game, players were allowed to carry the ball and the foundations of the sport were laid.

From team to team, university-to-university, state to state, football’s rules often changed from game to game depending on what the opposing teams decided. Some teams played with 15 men on the field; others with 11.

 In 1876, the Intercollegiate Football Association was created to establish standardised rules of play. One of the members attending the Association’s first meeting was Walter Camp, who went on to be known as the Father of American Football in honour of the contribution he made to the game.

Camp studied as a medical student at Yale where he played halfback and served as their team captain, which was the equivalent to today’s head coach position.

From 1880 the Association accepted various innovative proposals from Camp including the 11-man team, the quarterback position, a line of scrimmage replacing the scrum, offensive signal calling, and the requirement that a team give up the ball after failing to advance a required yardage in a specific number of downs.

In 1883 Camp secured the adoption of a scale of numerical values for scoring by touchdown, point after touchdown, field goal, and safety. Although he was an executive of a watch-manufacturing firm from 1883, Camp coached the Yale football team from 1888 through 1892, his teams winning 67 games while losing only 2.

Carnegie Tech defeat Notre Dame 1926

The game changed dramatically in 1905 when photos were published of the Sarthmore and Pennsylvania game. In all, 18 people died playing in that season.

President Roosevelt summoned representatives from the Big Three Universities (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) to the White House. Using the power of his office. Roosevelt convinced the meeting that new rules needed to be introduced to reduce the dirty play and brutality.

The outcome was the formation of the American Football Rules Committee that introduced changes in 1906 intended to open up the game and make it less dangerous. Some of the changes made included the revolutionary forward pass and the increase from five to ten yards for the line to gain.

Thus the modern spectator sport that is now enjoyed by so many began.

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