Football History —Just What Sport are We Talking About Anyway?

Mention the term “football” and depending on just where you are one of two entirely different games might come to mind. In North America, people will picture a smash-mouth game played by large men wearing pads and helmets on a field with goal posts at each end. The ball is moved down the field by running and passing. In most of the rest of the world “football” means a sport played by shorts-clad men and women on a pitch, or field, with netted goals at each end. It is a game that primarily involves the feet as the ball is kicked up and down the pitch. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the history of football, American style, the first type mentioned. Association football, or soccer as it’s commonly called, is addressed on a different page on this website.

Has football always been this confusing? In a nutshell, yes.

Soccer, Rugby and More
American Football (let’s make it simple and just call it plain ol’ “football”) has it roots in both soccer and rugby. A form of soccer was played as early as 206 BC in the Han Dynasty of China when teams competed in a game called Tsu Chu to celebrate the emperor’s birthday. The roots of rugby-type games go back to 11th century England when young boys played a tackle game with an inflated cow bladder. This child’s play evolved into violent clashes between men from opposing villages. Hundreds of players from each town would attempt to run the bladder into the middle of the their opponent’s town. Injuries and even death were such a common part of the game that the King of England eventually outlawed the sport.

In 1623, football resurfaced (legally) in England as a soccer-type game played on a field rather than in the town streets. Players were not allowed to touch the ball with anything except their feet. At about the same time, Irish teams took up a form of football that allowed players to hit the ball with their fists.

One of the biggest changes in the game happened at Rugby College in 1823. According to legend, William Ellis suddenly stopped kicking the ball, picked it up and ran down the field and across the goal line. Sure, Ellis had broken one of the fundamental rules of the game, but the crowd loved it. Rugby College recognized that Ellis had a good idea and began allowing players to run with ball. This was the official beginning of rugby and the catalyst for what we know today as football.

Meanwhile, Across the Atlantic
American colonists played similar football-type games. By the mid 1800s, colleges in the United States were challenging each other to games of football. In November 1869, some 100 fans watched Rutgers and Princeton play what might be considered the first college football game. Players were allowed to kick, hit or dribble the ball. Throwing the ball or running it was prohibited. Trivia buffs will want to know that Rutgers won that first game 6-4. (Click to see chart on football scoring ).