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Football Explained: The Game of Foot Ball

This is meant as a primer on the history of football. A more comprehensive look can be found here, but because the intent of this series is to welcome and not intimidate, this is a considerably simpler, less in-depth look at the origins of football.

Hurling or Criapan

Rugby derived from an 18th century Welsh game known as "criapan" or "hurling". This game was played with a slippery wooden ball. Two teams would attempt to move it to their respective team’s "goal" over a roughly defined field, often many miles long. The game had no written set of rules, but mother necessity invented certain loose positions: stronger men who grappled for the ball, and faster more elusive men who ran with the football. A more detailed listing of the rules can be found here.

Rugby Football

The first set of rules for Rugby was written in 1845. That landmark notwithstanding, the sport enjoyed a fluid evolution from hurling to the modern rules of rugby union and rugby league football. Rugby league play is closer to modern football, so we will focus on its rules and play. Rugby league is played with an oblong football on a rectangular field (figure 1.1). Like modern football, a team has a certain number of tries before forfeiting the ball to its opponent. In Rugby league, play stops when a player is taken to the ground or forced out bounds while in possession of the ball. This is known as a "tackle". A team has six tackles to advance before "turning over" or forfeiting possession of the ball. Tackling is allowed only of the ball carrier and any attempt to take down non-ball carriers is considered a penalty.

Figure 1.1: A modern rugby league playing field

American or Gridiron Football

American football has as murky and tangled origin as its precursor rugby. On November 9th, 1869 the first intercollegiate "foot ball" match was played between Rutgers University and Princeton University. It’s a misleading demarcation, as the game played between Princeton and Rutgers less resembled modern football than rugby or soccer. After various iterations of play and style, a move to eradicate American football in colleges for its extreme violence, a Boston revival and another wave of play amongst and between colleges, the father of football, and the single most important man in its history, Walter Camp, introduced a set of rules that revolutionized the game.

Mr. Walter Chauncey Camp

Like any great human, Camp is best understood through his accomplishments. A sportsman and journalist, Camp is best and most pertinent to our intentions today – known for his innovations to the game of football. Most significant:

The Line of Scrimmage: Courtesy Wikipedia: In American and Canadian football a line of scrimmage is an imaginary transverse line crossing the football field across its narrower dimension, beyond which a team cannot cross until the next play has begun.

Snap: During a snap the ball must start at the offense’s line of scrimmage with the point of the ball perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. The snap must be a fluid motion ending with the ball leaving the snapper’s hand (usually the center). The start of the snap marks the beginning of play for both teams.

Down and Distance: Camp first introduced that a team must gain five yards in three attempts or "downs". Doing so would reward the team with a new set of 3 downs or a "first down". This was later changed to 4 downs to gain 10 yards from the original line of scrimmage.

These rules gave football its distinctive character and forever extricated it from its origins as a bastardized form of rugby and soccer. Camp also invented the "safety", proposed reducing on-field teams from 15 to 11, helped establish the dimensions of the modern football field, and established the first modern football alignment, seven offensive linemen, one quarterback, two halfbacks and one fullback.

Figure 1.2: Players aligned in a "flying wedge"

From the Flying Wedge to the Forward Pass

Throughout its patchwork history, Football has been known as a violent sport. Though the modern game is known for its speed and ferocity, it is light-years more civil and organized than the football of our great forefathers. In the twenty years following the time Camp’s innovations created the foundation of modern football, football was known not just as dangerous but deadly. So called "mass-formations", none more famous than the Flying V or Flying Wedge (figure 1.2), in which entire units would run as one against a similarly assembled opposing unit caused the majority and the severest of injuries. In 1905, 19 athletes died from football related injuries. Through a series of reforms from 1905 to 1906 mass formations were illegalized and the forward pass legalized. In 1910, a rule requiring 7 offensive players to be on the line of scrimmage  at the time of the snap was implemented. The resulting game, with its grace, strategy and comparative civility, is alike the game of football as we know it, if not in play, definitely in structure.

Tomorrow: The History of the NFL: From The First Pro to the AFL.


The Football Coaching Bible/AFCA

The History of Pro Football by Denis J. Harrington