So, Super Bowl XLIX is this weekend! This blog post is intended for those of you who, like me, don’t really know anything about the sport! I am not into sports, but I am into expanding my knowledge, and that is what we are in the business of here at the McAllen Public Library. I also like understanding the history of anything that gets millions of people all over the country so worked up. Even if you don’t understand all the rules of football and don’t normally follow the sport, it can still be fun to at least understand the history behind this game that millions of people care about and be part of it for one evening.
Since the first human civilizations, most cultures have had some sort of game where the point is to get a ball or other object across a certain distance- into a goal or past a certain line. Ancient Mesoamerican cultures played a game with a rubber ball in an I-shaped court, where the losers were sometimes sacrificed. Both men and women in ancient Greek and Roman cultures played different types of ball games. The rules of how this ball is moved across the space, and what form the ball takes, are what distinguish one sport from another. In American football, an oblong-shaped ball is thrown or carried past a certain line. In Association football (what we call soccer in the United States), a round ball is kicked into a net. In basketball, a round ball is thrown into a raised basket. In hockey, a puck is hit with sticks over ice into a net. But in all these games, the goal is to get the ball (or puck) past a certain point, which is being defended by opposing team members.
American football has its origins in soccer and rugby, and began at various universities in New England in the latter half of the 19th century. The rules were not standardized at all, and each university played their own form of the game. In what is usually billed as the first modern football game on November 6th, 1869, Princeton and Rutgers played each other in a game that was pretty much the same as soccer, except with 25 players on the field per team instead of 11. After this first game, Columbia University also began to play, later joined by Harvard and Yale. In 1873, representatives from Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia, and Yale met to formalize the rules of the game. It was pretty much a modified version of soccer. Harvard did not participate because their style of play was much more like rugby, and they played against McGill University in Montreal, Canada. However, Harvard slowly won the other universities over to their side of a more rugby-style game. In 1876, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers all met to formalize the rules of the game. This became known as the Massasoit Convention, and it was still based mostly on the Rugby Football Union code.
Football began to take the shape we know it today in 1880 mostly thanks to one man, Walter Camp. He was a Yale student and football player from 1876 to 1882, and remained heavily involved after graduating. In 1880 the rules committee began to adopt his ideas, which included establishing a line of scrimmage, the exchange between a quarterback and a center, and the amount of points awarded for touchdowns and field goals. The second big innovation came in 1906 when the forward pass was legalized, making it a much less dangerous game. Up to this point, serious injuries and even deaths were common. By this time the sport had spread beyond New England to the Midwest, and the NCAA, or National College Athletic Association, was established in order to govern all college sports.
Although football began in and was regulated by the universities, it was also simultaneously played at amateur athletic clubs. Paying the players was supposed to be illegal, but clubs often found ways around this. These athletic clubs are where professional football began, separate from university football.
And that is pretty much where my interest in football’s history ends, so it is also the end of this post! But if you want to do a Big Bang Theory-Leonard style crash course in football, check out these links!
For more on the evolution of American football, check out these articles:
- Ancient Mesoamerican ball games
- Ancient Greek and Roman ball games