After a sultry summer, all of a sudden the air turns chilly and crisp. The sunlight is somehow brighter and more intense. The days get shorter. The leaves start turning their riotous colors. When I was growing up, this was the time my brothers would stash away their baseball gloves and start tossing around the football.
Football Season had arrived.
American football got its start as a college sport. In fact, virtually all the rules, playing strategies, player equipment, and methods of scoring that today we consider part of American football evolved during its early college years.
American football probably originated in England and it came to this country in two separate versions. The first version, which involved more kicking, eventually became the game we know as soccer. The second version, which involved more carrying and running with the ball, was akin to the British game of rugby.
Ivy League colleges on the East Coast were the first to embrace the game in America. November 6, 1869 is generally considered the date of the first official intercollegiate football game—between Princeton and Rutgers Universities. The game was more like soccer than what we think of as football today.
At first each college played by its own variations. Rules were minimal. The teams played “mob style,” with huge numbers of players on each side attempting to advance the ball to a goal on the opponents’ side of the field by any means necessary! It is easy to imagine how violent and dangerous this got.
As more colleges embraced the sport, rules and refinements became part of the game. Yale athlete-turned-coach Walter Camp contributed much to transforming the soccer-rugby variations into the modern game of American football—determining team and field size, instituting scoring rules, and introducing the system of downs.
The University of Michigan was the first school west of Pennsylvania to establish a college football team (1879). Other Midwest schools soon followed. The U-M team, undefeated for 56 games between 1901 and 1905, was invited to compete against California-favored Stanford in the first Tournament of Roses game in 1902. University of Michigan won 49-0—perhaps accounting for why there wasn’t another Tournament of Roses game until 1916!
By the early 1900s, the foundation was laid for the game of American football. The expansion and popularity of football continued to grow in leaps and bounds, with rule refinements, intense team rivalries, and star players who successfully made the transition from college to professional football during its fledgling years—like Jim Thorpe and Red Grange. Interest in college football went from regional to national through radio and then TV broadcasts. Post-season Bowl games, beginning with that 1902 Tournament of Roses game, have kept college football in the limelight.
At the same time that American football was evolving on college campuses, amateur athletic clubs were also embracing the sport. By the 1880s, most athletic clubs boasted a football team. It didn’t take long for competition between clubs to “kick in,” encouraging them to recruit the best college players by offering them sums of money. The first documented example of a football player being paid occurred in 1892, when Yale All-American Guard William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was paid the then-astounding sum of $500 to play one game for the Allegheny Athletic Association. The very next year, at least five teams were openly paying at least some players. Professional football was born!
Through the early 20th century, pro football was chaotic at best. Team owners had no control over players or rules, and teams regularly fell apart. Schedules were disorganized. Local leagues were formed but folded frequently—although the Ohio League, made up of several teams from small Ohio towns, became an early center for player talent and exciting games.
Finally, in 1920, the first professional league was created—the American Professional Football Association, with 10 teams. Two years later, it was renamed the National Football League, with 18 teams—mostly from small cities in the Midwest.
The Detroit Lions became an official NFL team in 1934. That year, a group led by Detroit radio executive George Richards purchased the talented yet financially struggling Portsmouth Spartans NFL team and moved it to Detroit. The team was renamed the Lions, a nod to the Detroit Tigers’ already existing Major League baseball team.
The public interest in pro football continued to ebb and flow during succeeding decades, due to the popularity of certain players, more rule changes, improved equipment, and national broadcasts. Leagues, franchises, and teams continued to vary. The most significant change came in the 1960s, when the newly formed American Football League competed against the NFL in the first Super Bowl game (1967).
Despite the current extravaganzas of Super Bowl games and tailgate picnics, football is still just a game—a test of individual skill and team sportsmanship. As long as Football Season continues to come around every year, that won’t change.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
20th century, 19th century, sports, football, by Donna R. Braden