The Birth of American Football by Norman Macht
The Birth of American Football: Where Did It All Start?
Sports writer Norman L. Macht tells the story of American football - from 1869 to the game we know today.
The embryo that grew to become American football was conceived on November 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Its parents were Princeton and Rutgers. It bore more resemblance to soccer or rugby than to the game we know today. The birth was reported in a brief item in the New York Tribune:
“Twenty-five of the students of Rutgers College played the same number of Princeton College a game of foot-ball on Saturday. After an exciting contest of one hour the Rutgers were declared the winners, the score standing at 6 [goals] to 4.”
The rules had been drawn up by Princeton captain William S. Gummers. The ball could not be carried or passed. It could be advanced only by kicking or batting it with the hand or head or body. No tripping or holding, no tackling or collaring was allowed.
More than anything else, the game resembled two human walls colliding. The players wore no helmets or special uniforms. There were literally no holds barred once they were all down in a heap.
In 1872 a group of Yale students formed a team and invited Columbia to play them in New Haven. The New York Times gave it front page coverage:
“The Columbia men were so confident of winning that their backers freely and even offered odds as great as five to two.
The game was to be played with a rubber ball [which was stuffed, not inflated, to give it shape; when two men kicked it at the same time, the ball flew up in the air and all the stuffing fell out of it], best five goals out of nine. Columbia’s champions were large, heavy and solid, while the Yale men were small and seemed chosen more for activity and speed.
They were differently arranged. Columbia had two men near the goal posts and the others were scattered carelessly about the field, but the Yale men were placed with utmost mathematical precision. At the goal posts were the two ‘keepers and on their left and right two side men.
At a considerable distance from and in front of the goal were the ‘middle-men, eight in number, and arranged like a crescent. In the center of the crescent were the six ‘rushers,’ who were to follow the ball wherever it went.
And who, as they were to do the hard fighting, were the heaviest men on the Yale side. Two ‘pea-nutters,’ who were to keep ahead of the ball and when it came near the goal were to drive it over,”
Yale led, 3 goals to none, when darkness ended the game.
By 1880 the number of players on each side had settled in eleven. Thin leather helmets began to appear. In 1892 the new University of Chicago became the first to hire a football coach – Yale star Amos Alonzo Stagg - to build a team that would help publicize the school.
In 1894 the Chicagoans traveled to California to play two games against Stanford. They played 19 games that year and won 11. Stagg remained at Chicago for 40 years.
Eastern schools dominated college football until the 1920s, when Chicago went east to play Princeton and Knute Rockne brought his Notre Dame to New York to play Army.
Winning teams drew huge crowds and large financial rewards for their schools, which led to large-scale recruiting of high school stars and the college football scene as we know it today.