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American football - history



American football evolved from the sport of rugby football. The first football game, played on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, was played with a round ball with 25-men on each team and resembled a combination of rugby and soccer in its rules. After several years of irregular collegiate play with games played under varying rules, the representatives of Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York on October 19, 1873 to determine a set of rules for all colleges involved to follow. They developed 12 simple rules, establishing (among other things) 20-a-side teams and fields 400 by 250 feet while prohibiting the carrying or throwing of the ball; instead, the ball could be kicked. A notable absence from this conference was Harvard, who disagreed with the prohibition of running with the ball. Harvard gravitated towards rugby and ultimately played Yale in a variation of rugby in 1875. Two Princeton players attended the Harvard-Yale game and were thoroughly impressed with the sport, praising it to fellow students back at their college. In a feat the Professional Football Researchers Association compared to "selling refrigerators to Eskimos", the two players managed to sell the sport to Princeton; Princeton then invited Harvard, Yale and Columbia to a meeting to "sit down and decide to play [rugby] the way Princeton wanted". The group adopted most of the rules of rugby union, but set different rules regarding touchdown scoring by counting four touchdowns as equal to a goal but of lesser value than a goal after touchdown.


All of these schools except Yale formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, with Yale eventually joining in 1879. After several rejected suggestions, Yale player Walter Camp (now regarded as the "Father of American Football") succeeded in passing rule changes in 1880 that reduced the teams from 15 to 11 players and instituted the snap to replace the chaotic and inconsistent scrum.Camp had not expected the snap to result in major strategy changes; the previous strategy had been to punt the ball if a scrum resulted in bad field position, and Camp assumed this would not change with the institution of the snap. However, a group of Princeton players invented a way to prevent opposing teams from scoring; as the snap was uncontested, teams could hold the ball indefinitely to waste time. Princeton used this strategy in the 1881 Princeton-Yale game. The two schools entered the season with undefeated, and Princeton wanted to retain their undefeated record. To that end, they wasted the entire first half by holding the ball and gaining no yardage, angering Yale's team and its fans. However, Yale, under the leadership of Camp (the team captain), decided not to risk a mistake and they utilized the strategy in the second half, much to the chagrin of Princeton and its fans. Derided as the "block game", it proved extremely unpopular with spectators and fans. Those in charge of the rules realized this exploitation would need to be fixed immediately.


Although reverting to the scrum was considered, a rule passed in 1882 by Camp stated that a team would have three downs (tackles) to advance the ball five yards or else they would forfeit control of the ball to the other team. This rule change made American football a separate sport from rugby and the resulting five-yard lines added to the field made it resemble a gridiron in appearance. Other major rules changes included a reduction of the field size to 110 yards long by 53.3 yards wide and the adoption of standardized scoring system that awarded four points for a touchdown, two for a safety and a goal following a touchdown, and five for a goal from field. Tackling below the waist was legalized in 1888, eliminating the last major remnant of rugby. Despite these rule modernizations and innovations, football remained a violent sport —- dangerous mass-formations like the flying wedge resulted in serious injuries or even death for players. The situation reached its peak in 1905 when there were 19 fatalities nationwide, getting to the point where President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to eliminate the game if major changes were not made.


To help improve safety, 62 schools met in New York City to discuss rule changes on December 28, 1905. The Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, later named the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), was formed as a result of the proceedings. The legal forward pass was introduced in 1906 after its suggestion by John Heisman, albeit with a set of restrictions that made it have little impact at the time. Additionally, the time of play was reduced from 70 to 60 minutes and the distance requirement for a first was increased to 10 yards over three downs. Further, the neutral zone was created along the width of the football. In 1914, the roughing-the-passer penalty was implemented for the first time, while the rules were changed to allow eligible players to catch the ball anywhere on the field in 1918. Further, field goals were lowered to three points in 1909 and touchdowns raised to six points in 1912. The field was also reduced to 100 yards long, but two 10-yard-long end zones were created, and teams were given four downs instead of three to advance the ball 10 yards.




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