Friday, December 12, 2014

"American Football" came from . . . . Canada?

American Football Came from . . . Canada?
The Origins of American Football in the 
Harvard-McGill Game of 1874

When I was about eight years old, I received a book for Christmas on the history of American Football.  OK! My brother received the book; but I liked it, and read it A LOT.

I loved that book.  It introduced me to characters like Jim Thorpe, the “Galloping Ghost” and the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.”  I read about historic games like the “Sneakers Game,” the 1953 Cotton Bowl (in which Rice was awarded a touchdown when an Alabama player jumped onto the field from the bench to tackle Dickie Maegle at the 40 yard line) and the “Ice Bowl.” 

The book is also where I learned that the first game of “American Football” was played in 1869 between Rutgers University and Princeton University.  Over the years, I often heard this ‘fact’ recited as dogma without questioning whether it was true.  But although the Princeton-Rutgers game was, apparently, the first recorded game of inter-collegiate “football,” in the United States, it was probably not the first game of what we now think of as, “American Football.” 

In 1869, the players were not permitted to carry the ball and run.

Football, or foosball or fotbol, as the rest of the world calls soccer, is a game played with the feet.  The ball, for the most part, may not be carried or thrown.  “American football,” which was derived from the Rugby rules of football, involves moving the ball while carrying it, throwing the ball, and scoring by crossing the end-line with the football or kicking the ball over the goal.

So if the Princeton-Rutgers game is not the origin of, “American Football,” where did it come from?
“American Football” came to the United States from . . . (drum roll please) . . .   


Early Football

Ball kicking games have been around for centuries.  Kicking games were even known in American universities since at least the late 1700s.  The tradition of intramural football games, of various kinds, existed at several American colleges throughout the early 1800s.  

But those early games were generally played without official rules, with large numbers of players, and were, on occasion, dangerous.  Harvard and Yale even banned football games in the mid-nineteenth century, long before the Princeton-Rutgers game in 1869. 

Advancements in rubber manufacturing technology in the early 19th probably helped promote the game by making the ball cheaper and more consistent in size and shape, thereby making the game more accessible and more reliably fun. 

In England, a variety of different football games, each played under their own set of rules, developed separately at a number of schools.  Eton, Winchester, Rugby, Harrow and Cheltenham all had their own, distinctive set of rules. 

In 1863, the London Football Association adopted its first formal set of rules, based on rules drawn from the best aspects of the various sets of school-specific rules.  These “Association rules” form the basis of the modern game of soccer (‘soccer’ being a play on the word as-SOC-iation).  
The first intramural collegiate game of soccer under Association rules took place at Oxford, England on November 2, 1869, a mere week before the Rutgers played Princeton in the first intercollegiate game of “football.”  There would not be an intercollegiate match in England until the Cambridge-Oxford match of 1872.

By 1871, two years after the Rutgers-Princeton match, there was sufficient interest in the rules of football, then spelled as two words – “foot  ball’ – that  the American publishing firm, Peck and Snyder published, “Book of Rules of the Game of Foot Ball, as adopted and played by the English Football Associations” (Peck and Snyder are known to baseball card collectors as the publishers of the first baseball card).

The Peck and Snyder rule book was compiled and edited by Charles Alcock, the Honorary Secretary of the football Association of London, and was dedicated, “Expressly for the Benefit of the American Colleges, Etc.”  The book included seven distinct sets of rules; the Association rules and the rules of six different schools, including the Rugby School.   The back of the book included advertisements for the sale of footballs (“association balls” and “rugby balls”) and football uniforms (“same price as baseball”).  The stage was set for the development of a distinctly American brand of football.


On November 6, 1869, Princeton played Rutgers in the first intercollegiate game of ‘football.’  The game was played under Rutgers’ rules, which were more or less like what we know as soccer, although batting the ball in the air with ones hands was permitted.  The ball was kicked and passed up and down the field by kicking; and goals were scored by kicking the ball between two posts.  Rutgers won the day by a score of six goals to four.

Although the rules of the game were not similar to modern "American Football," one feature of the game still has a familiar ring; Princeton students cheered on their team with their "rocket cheer" - the original Sis-Boom-Bah.

The teams played a second game two weeks later, under Princeton’s rules.  Princeton’s rules permitted catching the ball, but not running with the ball; the person catching the ball could make a free kick from the spot of the catch.  Ball movement was still primarily accomplished by kicking and goals were scored by kicking the ball through a goal, as in soccer.  Princeton won the game eight goals to zero.

Over the next few years, intercollegiate football progressed; teams from Princeton, Yale, Columbia and Penn played each other on a number of occasions under rules more like soccer than what we know as American football. 

At Harvard, football clubs played intramural football under a unique set of rules that involved mostly kicking the ball, but which permitted catching and running with the ball; but only if pursued by a defender.  Again, scoring was done, as in soccer, by kicking the ball into a goal.

A group of Canadians changed things up.

McGill - Harvard

The first intercollegiate game of football that included many of the now-familiar elements of “American Football” (kick-offs, punting, carrying the ball, touchdowns, field goal kicking and kicking goals after touchdown over a cross-bar) took place May 15, 1874 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Harvard University hosted McGill University, of Montreal, Canada, for a weekend of football.  

McGill University had initiated the challenge; proposing a home and away series of two ‘football’ games; each game to be played under the host team’s rules.  McGill played football under the All-Canada Code, which were designed along the lines of the Rugby School rules.  Harvard, however, would not permit its players to travel, so McGill travelled to Cambridge where both games were played.

The Harvard foot-ball club has received from McGill college, Montreal, an offer to play two games in Cambridge, between the 1st and 15th of May, and the challenge has been accepted.  One of the matches will be played according to the Rugby rules, which are adopted by the McGill university, and the other according to the rules of the game as played at Harvard.

The Rutland Daily Globe (Vermont), April 10, 1874.

On May 14, the teams played their first game, under Harvard’s rules.  Harvard defeated McGill by a score of three goals to zero.  

On May 15, Harvard battled McGill, under the All-Canada Code’s rugby-style rules, using a rugby-style ball provided by the visitors.  The game ended in a scoreless tie. 

Despite the lack of scoring, the game was considered a great success by the players and the fans.  The rugby-style of football had taken a firm foothold in America.  An article published in the Harvard Advocate, shortly after the game, presciently predicted that: 

Football will be a popular game in the future.  The Rugby game is in much better favor than the somewhat sleepy game now played by our men. 

The accuracy of that prediction stands in stark contrast to the long-running joke that, in America, "soccer is the sport of the future - and always will be."

For whatever reason, the physical play engendered by running, tackling and the scrums, or scrummages (predecessor of today’s line of scrimmage) was more attractive to the American psyche than the kicking of the soccer ball. 

Development of the American Game

Less than three years later, the football clubs of Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Columbia met to form the Intercollegiate Football Association (a forerunner to the NCAA), and to codify the rules.

At various times since then, the rules have been changed or modified in efforts to make the game more exciting, interesting or fair.  In 1880, the number of men on the field per team was fixed at eleven (a number borrowed from the Eton School via Yale).  The rugby ‘scrum’ was abolished in 1880, in favor of the “American Football” scrimmage, in which a team retains the ball after each “down,” without engaging in a scrum with the other team.  This rule change set the stage for the development of the set formations and strategy that characterize American football.

1882 ushered in the rule limiting a team to three downs on each possession, unless the ball is advanced by five yards.  They felt the need to introduce an incentive to advance the ball down the field in the wake of the so-called “block game” of 1881, when Yale and Princeton played to a scoreless tie, each team holding the ball for an entire half.  Without overtime and without a playoff system, the game also resulted in the first disputed “National Champion.” 

Some things never change. 

The game reached its modern form in 1906 with the introduction of the forward pass and the extension of first down yardage from five yards to ten. 

Thank You Canada

So, the next time you see any news coverage of the CFL, or read about the newly-crowned Gray Cup champions, don’t just shake your head dismissively at the big field, the funny motion plays and three down limit; take a moment to acknowledge their role in creating our own form of football, and give thanks to Canada for introducing us to our national sport.

Partial List of References:

1.      Parke H. Davis, Football, The American Intercollegiate Game, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.
2.      Professional Football Researchers Association, No Christian End! The Beginnings of Football in America.
3.      Walter Camp, Football Facts and Figures, A Symposium of Expert Opinion on the Game’s Place in American Athletics, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1894.

No comments:

Post a Comment