Across the world there are places with two seasons, one season, and four seasons. But in America there are five—and that fifth season is Football Season! Everything is decked in shades of crimson, gold, yellow and orange… and blue and black and brown and green and maroon and white, because I’m not talking about leaves, I’m talking about the paraphernalia of our favorite teams. Across the nation, people dress football, talk football, write football, watch football, and even sometimes play football. The game is as much a tradition of the season as trick-or-treating, turkey and stuffing, and early Christmas shopping.*
But how did all this come to be? When did we start all the cheering, the celebrating and, yes, the playing?
For that, we have to start halfway around the world and over two millennia ago, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Back in the days of tunics and togas, a game called phaininda (or harpaston) was all the rage with the Greek culture, and the Romans picked it up as well, changing the name to harpastum (or harpustum; the Romans may have helped invent football, but dictionaries weren’t on their agenda). The game involved two teams, a field divided into two halves, a ball, and copious amounts of pushing, shoving, kicking, and throwing, some of it even involving the ball. And that’s about all we really know of it.
The Roman era writer Atheneaus said this of the sport: “There is a great deal of exertion and labor in a game of ball, and it causes great straining of the neck and shoulders.”
Yep, that sounds like football. Just ask Peyton Manning.
“And so he gladly took the ball,
While dodging the other player;
He pushed it out of someone’s way,
While raising another to his feet,
And all around the cries rang out:
“Out of bounds,” “too far”, “right by him”,
“Over his head,” “down below,” “up in the air,”
“Too short”, or “pass back to the scrummage.””
Which shows that football spectators have disagreed with the referees since before there were referees, offering opinions which the players probably even then were wiser to ignore.
From ancient Greece, the Romans carried that game with them, along with roads, aqueducts, armies, and generals who liked to conquer whatever they saw, eventually dropping it off on the island of Britain. And while the Romans left and the Saxons and the Danes and the Normans all came to conquer whatever they also saw in Britain, the game stuck around. Or well, something involving a ball and shoving and kicking and (occasionally) maiming stuck around. We have records of rival villages regularly challenging each other in a contest involving getting a ball to a set goal on opposite sides (sometimes a line, sometimes a post, sometimes the church tower, which was the medieval equivalent of saying “the endzone is Joey’s driveway.”)
One chronicler describes an event like this: “After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.”
Which sounds like any given weekend in America from September through November. Including tailgating, only with horses.
The ball game was apparently quite violent, and various kings attempted to ban it. Which banning lasted about as long as the king (and probably less). Eventually, even the monarchs began to enjoy it (Henry VIII is known to have ordered a pair of “football shoes” for his own efforts in the game).
Sometime over the next centuries, this “ball game” began to split into two distinctive types. One involved being able to carry, throw and catch the ball, as well as kick it over the goal. The other involved only kicking the ball, with hands not allowed. The former was given the name “rugby football,” or simply “rugby” after the English school which developed it in 1825. The latter was called “football,” or “association football” when in the 1860s, organizations called “associations” began to actually codify the rules (and try to end all the maiming). And yes, the word “soccer” is an abbreviated nickname for “association football.”
At some point the game traveled into America, where it leaned towards rugby or soccer depending on who was playing, but was almost always called “football.”
And that’s when the college students took over.
The first official game of “college football” took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, on the Rutgers commons. The game consisted of a contest between two teams to get a ball between two posts behind each team’s side of the field. The first team to score 6 goals would be the winner of the game. Apparently, the ball could be kicked through this goal, not carried or thrown, but the players could knock the ball out of the air with their hands. The teams took turns starting with the ball (the first turn was decided with a coin toss, possibly the first football opening coin toss on record), keeping it as long as they could prevent the other team from taking it away or until a goal happened. There was no clock, there were no downs, and it sounds more like soccer or rugby than what we know today, but it was, nevertheless, football, and Rutgers won it 6-4.
It wasn’t long before other schools began challenging each other in similar contests, though the game rules seemed somewhat fluid as to what could be done, decided by the teams when they met. In 1874, four colleges set down rules for “Rugby Union,” formally introducing a running game, a touchdown, and a “free kick” afterwards. And that’s when Walter Camp, a Yale student, was invited to join his school’s erstwhile team. In the manner of great walk-ons, he proceeded not only to become the star, but to change the game itself. Camp was supposed to be studying for a career in medicine, but what he became was a doctor of football. Walter Camp almost immediately took over as the leader of the Intercollegiate Football Association rules committee. IFA, formed with Yale’s rival Harvard, was the forerunner of the NCAA and even the NFL, creating precise and specific rules about the game, including the use of an oblong ball. Over the next decade Camp invented the scrimmage line, the rule that one team possessed the ball at a time, the quarterback, the snap, the concept of downs and limited possessions, the idea of lining off the field in white at 5 yard intervals (a “gridiron”), and the idea of different levels of scoring for different types of goals, including the touchdown, field goal, and safety. He also invented tackling, reduced the number of players on each side from 20 (or more) to 11, developed the practice of signaling plays and created pretty much everything we think of as essential to modern American football. He even threw the first forward pass, resulting in a run for a touchdown; the referee ruled the play valid on a coin toss! Ironically, the forward pass was specifically rejected as a legal play by Camp’s rules committee when it was finally discussed in 1903 (some thirty years after Camp’s winning play). Then the committee adopted the pass three years later, in part to deal with accusations (made by President Theodore Roosevelt, among others) that the game had become too dangerous.
Camp’s football was certainly a different game from rugby, soccer, and ancient haspartum, and it was, essentially, all American. And Camp didn’t just stop with created the game; he created player statistics and the “All-American” ranking of players by quality and performance, paving the way for the modern sports page and the endless arguments of who the GOAT** is. Camp was the first collegiate head coach (for Harvard), the first to train other coaches (including the celebrated Amos Alonzo Stagg), and the first to have an assistant coach with an eye for knowing which player to put in which position—who was none other than his wife, Allie. Walter Camp is honored as the Father of American Football, but Allie Camp was unquestionably the game’s mother, showing that football has been the passion of women as well as men from its very start!
Of course, today we have college football and professional football. The latter rose out of competitions among local athletic clubs (including YMCA clubs). These were amateur events at first, until in 1892 a club paid $500 to “Pudge” Hefflefinger for a single game (a rather tidy little sum). Pudge earned his pay, winning the game with a fumble return for a touchdown. Within a year other clubs began paying their players, almost all workmen who played in their own time off, for about $10 a game. Eventually, these ad hoc professional teams would formalize, giving birth in 1920 to the American Professional Football Association—which would later change its name to the National Football League. By 1925, professional football was popular enough and successful enough that the question of whether the talented Ohio State football star Harold “Red” Grange would “turn pro” was the national news story of the day. Grange’s decision even involved a sports agent negotiating a contract with the Chicago Bears. Grange would earn over $125,000 for his first year on the team, an enormous sum, well over 400 times the income of the average professional player! That’s quite a change from the early days of tossing a pig bladder at a church tower for nothing but bragging rights.
But despite all that has happened over twenty centuries and the span of half a world, the words of an ancient Greek spectator still echo true today:
“A youth I saw was playing ball,
Seventeen years of age and tall;
From Cos he came, and well I know
The Gods look kindly on that spot.
For when he took the, ball or threw it,
So pleased were all of us to view it,
We all cried out; so great his grace,
Such frank good humour in his face,
That every time he spoke or moved,
All felt as if that youth they loved.”
Maybe that’s all there really is to our love for the game: The simple joy of watching young athletes at play in the crisp cool light of an autumn afternoon. Go team!
*Some people do this, I’m told. I’m male, so “early shopping” means the day before Christmas Eve.
** Greatest Of All Time, not a reference to the Navy football team’s mascot, Bill the Goat. Though you can certainly stop the argument by insisting that Bill is the Goat, and no one can say differently.
- Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football by Richard Whittingham , Library Call No. 796.332 WHI
- NFL.Com History pages: http://www.nfl.com/history
- Attalus.org Translations of Athenaeus: http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus1.html#14