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American Football

Football is an extremely popular team sport enjoyed by millions the world over, yet it has numerous varieties, including two distinct forms native to North America. North American football owes its origins to British Association Football and rugby that developed in the early 19th century. Canadian and American football were spawned in the latter half of the 19th century as an amalgamation of the two sports, to which the path into its modern identifiable form was wrought with many twists and turns.

Both British football and rugby were played in North America in the 19th century, most prominently amongst the eastern colleges and universities. Different rules were adopted at different colleges, as there existed no real uniformity at first. The first club to be formed was the Oneida Football Club of Boston in the 1860s, composed of high school boys from Boston. Many of them went on to attend the Ivy League colleges of the region, where they brought with them their more organized form of football.

It was from this that the first intercollegiate game of football was played on 6 November 1869 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, between Rutgers and Princeton. The rules used that day were very similar to Association Football and it was deemed a success as Columbia, Yale and Stevens all joined the original two colleges in competition in the following years.

During those years, Harvard was perfecting their own game, similar to rugby, as it was characterized by less kicking and allowed running with the ball if a player was being chased. An Intercollegiate Rules Convention was held in New York in 1873 with Harvard's refusal to attend as they now found a shortage of opponents to challenge. This decision had far reaching consequences, as it caused. Harvard to look elsewhere for opponents and, as luck would have it, a team in a similar predicament existed north of the border.

While British football was popular in the United States during this period, Canada tended to lean towards a game that was more similar to rugby, partly due to climactic conditions. Rugby could be played under worse field conditions than football and thus, later into the fall, better befitting the Canadian calendar. Members of the English garrison stationed in Montreal during the 1860s played rugby against civilian teams composed principally of McGill students. This led to an upsurge in the game's popularity amongst the English-speaking segment of Quebec and by the early 1870s, Quebec could boast of having the best rugby teams in North America.

Harvard's isolation and similar style caused them to challenge McGill to a series of contests in the spring of 1874 at Cambridge, which has frequently been cited as the most important turning point in the history of North American football. The first game was contested under Harvard's rules and the second under McGill's. Although both teams normally used more than 11 men, McGill only arrived with 11, which gave birth to the present number of 11 men-a-side in American football. The Canadian style was also more open and made a good impression on the Americans, as the editor of the Harvard Magenta thought it to be much better than the "somewhat sleepy game now played by our men." Harvard then adopted McGill's style, which included an egg-shaped ball along with the drop kick and free kick.

Subsequently, Harvard went on to challenge its fierce rival Yale to a game of rugby the following year and Yale was quickly won over. By 1877, the rest of the Ivy League schools had adopted the new style. The Association Football style of play disappeared from American campuses until shortly after the turn of the century, which allowed American football to firmly take root in the US.

It took one man, affectionately known as the "Father of American Football", Walter Camp, to officially transform rugby football into a new sport. Camp was a legendary player, and later coach, at Yale, who wrote the first book ever published on football. While playing for Yale, he devised the revolutionary changes that transformed the game.

The first was the introduction of the scrimmage, which meant that instead of dropping the ball between two teams locked in scrums, one side would be given possession to plan offensive movements, and the other side would have to try to stop them. Once a score was made, the teams would exchange control of the ball. The scrimmage was initiated to speed up the game, however, it proved to be a complete failure when put into practice, as some teams would keep the ball for entire halves. To solve this problem, Camp decided to adopt the system of downs used in Canada, whereby a team would have three opportunities to move the ball five yards. In 1912, this rule was changed to the present form of four downs allowed to gain 10 yards.

Camp later reduced the number of players per team from 15 to 11 and each player was assigned a specific position to specialize in and a standard arrangement of seven linemen, a quarterback, two halfbacks and a fullback was devised. He also created signal calling and reduced the field substantially in size from 140 by 70 yards to its modern 100 by 53 yard dimensions. Lastly, he revised the scoring system, giving a larger value to touchdowns than field goals, which placed a greater emphasis on running over kicking. Camp's introductions later set the stage for football's lasting domination by statistics (yards per carry, total passing and running yardage, etc.).

The new game introduced by Camp did not come without problems, however, as a defining characteristic of early American football was its extremely violent nature. Injuries were rampant and fatalities would occur on a regular basis. In 1905 alone, 18 people lost their lives and 154 more were seriously injured. To remedy this problem, the forward pass was brought into the game in 1910. This final major development to the game introduced some finesse and precision to a sport that had previously been based on sheer physical force.

Canada developed its own version of football, separate from the British and American models, which became basically a hybrid of the two. After the McGill-Harvard game in 1874, the Canadian game ceased to influence the American game and the roles became reversed. Canada moved cautiously away from rugby towards American Football, which became the major reason why Canadian and American schools soon ceased playing exhibition games against one another. Like the Americans, Canada dropped the rugby scrum in the 1880s and adopted the scrimmage. However, it was a compromise between the two styles, as it was only a three-man scrimmage, which attained more motion and flow than the American game. The game also became notable for kicking exchanges rather than for running or lateral exchanges.

At this time, Canadian rugby- football was still highly disorganized, as games were played sporadically between various colleges and universities in Ontario and Quebec. There were various rugby unions that organized competitions, and many disagreements arose between them over rules until the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) was formed in 1891. A hodgepodge of rule adjustments was made by the CRU, many at the behest of former Toronto Varsity captain J.T.M "Thrift" Burnside. He proposed 12-men-a-side and three downs to acquire 10 yards, both still in place to this day, along with the continued use of the larger field. These rules stand out as the primary defining features of the Canadian game. Many other minor variations were introduced in the years thereafter, leading up to the last major rule introduction in 1931, when the CRU finally approved the forward pass for all leagues. This led to the dropping of the old oval rugby ball, and a new streamlined and narrower ball was adopted in order to facilitate passing. As a result, the Canadian game finally resembled less of rugby and became a variation of the American game.

The development of football from an amateur game to a professional one was an even longer process than the initial creation of the game. The first professional team in the United States appeared in 1894 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The first pro league was not established until 1920 with the advent of the American Professional Football Association, which consisted of 14 teams, all located in the Midwest. It was not until the mid-1920s that the pro game achieved respectability, which was largely due to the arrival of the talented and exciting running back Red Grange. He was nicknamed the "Galloping Ghost" and toured the nation with the Chicago Bears in 1925, filling stadiums wherever he went. The pro game continued to grow and by mid-century, it was one of America's most popular sports. The advent of the Superbowl and merger of the two top leagues allowed football to easily attain the crown of most popular sport in America in the 1970s, which has continued to this day.

Professional development was much slower in Canada. The Intercollegiate Union was set up in 1898, which awarded Canada's oldest football trophy, the Yates Cup, to the top college or university team in Ontario and Quebec. The winner would advance to the CRU playoffs for the Dominion Championship against the senior winner of the rugby union playoffs. In 1909, Governor-General Lord Grey donated the Grey Cup as an award for the winner of the Dominion Championship. The trophy was coveted by all teams and served to increase the professionalism in the Canadian game, as well as to finally attract western teams to the competition in 1921, giving it a national identity. University teams finally quit the competition in 1934, as the proliferation of American professionals into Canadian clubs had been increasing. The Canadian Football League was finally formed in 1958. It still exists today after much turmoil over the years, including the allowance of American teams for a few short years in the 1990s.

The origins of North American football and its successive development into a popular professional sport is a path that encompasses two nations, who each developed their own take on the popular 19th-century British sports of rugby and Association Football. It is the variations that emerged during those formative years which explain the differences in the Canadian and American games played today.

In the sport of American Football the first footballs were made of a pig's bladder covered with leather (not necessarily pigskin) for added protection. Pig's bladders faded from the scene not long after intercollegiate football began in 1869. One account indicates rubber bladders were being used in 1871 and they were probably around long before that, Charles Goodyear having patented vulcanization in 1844.

Football is a game of antiquity, known to many peoples. The ancient Greeks played a form of football known as harpaston, and the Romans played a similar game, harpastum. In medieval times a form of football known as calcio flourished in Italy. Natives of Polynesia are known to have played a variety of the game with a football made of bamboo fibers, and the Inuit played a form of football with a leather ball filled with moss.

American football historians, those who have studied the game and its origins, place the game's beginnings in rugby, an English game played with many similarities to football. Rugby began in 1823 at the famous Rugby Boys' School in England. Another cousin of the game of football is soccer; its beginnings can also be traced to English origin, being played as early as the 1820s. The first game was played at Rutgers University in New Jersey on Nov. 6, 1869. But even though the forward pass was legalized in 1906, until the ball took on its present size and shape in 1935, the pass was a nonplay. The ball used in the very first game was round, like a soccer ball. It was tough to carry, and awkward to throw. Then, in 1874, a rugby-type ball was used in a contest between McGill University Foot-Ball-Club and Harvard University Football Club. This new ball looked like a watermelon and wasn't much easier to throw. But laterals and short flips were becoming common.

Today, almost one hundred years since the inception of the NCAA, the sport of college football flourishes as one of the most popular of collegiate games. Colleges and universities are placed into three divisions under NCAA guidelines and each division has many conferences. Seasonal and conference play leads to post-season bowl games, where the champions of conferences meet to play in front of a world-wide television audience. Some of these bowls include the Rose Bowl, played on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California, between the Big Ten and Pacific Ten conference champions. Other bowls include the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia.

Lorin Deland invented the "flying wedge" - a football play based on using mass momentum provided by advance blockers to clear the way for the tailback carrying the ball - after studying Napoleon's military campaigns. The dangerous "flying wedge," became routine. Hard-running backs like Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs and Red Grange of the Chicago Bears were the big stars of the day.

Professional football was first played soon after the demise of the Intercollegiate Football Association, around 1895. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed; one year later it was reorganized and in 1922 was renamed the National Football League. Unlike the APFA, which handed out franchises far and wide with little discretion, the NFL, from 1946 to 1949, was limited to ten teams. The APFA, on the other hand, consisted of twenty three teams in the year between its inception and the change-over in becoming the NFL.

A merger in 1970, fifty years after the inception of the first pro football association, combined sixteen NFL teams with ten AFL teams to comprise one league with two conferences. In the 1980s, further expansion was proposed and by the 1993-94 NFL season, approval was given for a thirty-team league. The next step towards growth of the league would be to realign the NFL into eight different divisions, each with four teams. Pro football, like its college counterpart, was not without its failures. Among the number of competitive leagues that have folded in failure are the All-American Football conference, 1946 to 1949 and the World Football League, 1974 to 1975.

Once watched by no more than a handful of loyal sideline enthusiasts, football is now available for worldwide viewing. With the advent of cable television, dozens of high school and college games can be watched over Friday and Saturday afternoons. At the end of each NFL season, champs from both the National and American conferences meet in the Super Bowl to determine a national champion. This game, always played in January, has been called the most watched sporting event of all time, with a viewing audience from around the entire globe, watching and listening to the television in dozens of languages.

Matt Polacko. Touchdown! The History of Football in North America. History Magazine. February/March 2008.


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