Monday, March 12, 2012

Football History 101: The Gridiron’s Genesis

Today we begin our journey through the winding, often precarious, path of the evolution of football that I am calling "Football History 101."  As you will see, the sports and media behemoth we know today began as a bastardized version of English soccer and rugby.  You’ll also learn that the game’s rise in popularity, to the dominant feature on the American sporting landscape it is today, was not predetermined; it came with many stops and starts.  Finally, what I hope you’ll find during our journey is an even greater appreciation and understanding of the game.

The Birth of American Football

Aww, wook at the wittle baby football...

As you know, I have focused Naptime Huddle on the history and structure of football at the professional level—in the form of the National Football League.  However, to get a firm grasp of football’s evolution, we have to begin at the collegiate level.*

Beginnings of the game we now know as “football” can be traced to the English game of rugby, which came to U.S. colleges as an intramural sport in the early 19th century.  The game was popular primarily at the Ivy League schools:  the Big Three being Princeton, Harvard, and Yale.  A hybrid of rugby and soccer began to take shape in the 1860s, when schools started having intercollegiate contests.  Each school would have their own twists on the sport’s rules and strategy, and opposing clubs might take certain aspects of those versions back home.

Walter Camp...very dapper!
The game took a giant leap forward in the 1880s, when certain developments made the game look more like the football we know today.  One of the more influential figures during this time was Walter Camp, a Yale student, who petitioned the still-young Intercollegiate Football Association (“IFA”) for many of these important changes.

One change was in determining possession of the ball as the game continued after the kickoff.  To this point, football was still using rugby’s “scrummage" method, whereby you started a new play by throwing it into a scrum of players from both teams.  The major step forward was to adopt a “scrimmage” system, where the team with the ball gets it back after its player is tackled.

Another significant step forward, encouraged by Walter Camp, was the “downs” system.  At this time, many sports had the same process for determining ties at the end of regulation:  whichever team had won the contest the previous year would be declared the winner.  As a result, football became very boring:  last year’s winner wouldn’t try to advance the ball when it had possession, it only protected the ball.  The solution was to require the team with possession to advance the ball five yards after three plays or give up the ball (click here for a discussion of the modern downs system).

Among other developments during this time were:

·   Evolution of the running game:  Several of the offensive players stood along a forward line, facing the defense. A center would hike the ball (with his foot!) to one of three “halfbacks,” who would advance the ball.  Since it was illegal to advance the ball with a pass, they experimented with laterals and pitch-outs;

·   Simplifying the scoring system from rugby’s confusing model (though the modern points system wouldn’t be in place for a few more decades); and

·   Fading of rugby’s offside rule, whereby teammates couldn’t be downfield from their ball carrier, and the development of down-field blocking (called “guarding”).

An 1894 Parker Brothers board game inspired by one of the greatest rivalries, then and now.

Football’s Decline in 1890s

Almost as soon as it started to gather steam, football’s presence in collegiate sports began to wane.  Its decline in popularity was attributed to its increasing brutality, which can be blamed on two new rules that were instituted in 1888:

1.  Offensive blockers couldn’t extend their arms and shove or grab defenders; and

2.  Defensive players were allowed to hit below the waist.

An example of an early uniform
The result?  Football became much more brutal and its pace slowed down considerably.  Offensive linemen, who had been standing upright and spreading themselves along the entire width of the field, began to crouch and stand much closer together.  Large blocking “wedges” became vogue in an attempt to help runners advance, but were very dangerous as players often got trampled.  Injuries escalated at an alarming rate.  Keep in mind, too, that players were protected by no more than thick wool uniforms; helmets were just leather caps and pads were virtually nonexistent at this time.

One notorious formation was one known as the “Flying Wedge,” which caused an alarming number of injuries and even compelled Army and Navy to cancel their 1894 game for fear of casualties.  With limits on how you can use your hands, offensive blockers would also take running starts to barrel through their opponents’ defensive lines.
The vicious Flying Wedge in action

Amos Alonzo Stagg
A positive result of the game’s new rules, however, was an explosion of brainstorming over tactics and strategy.  Among the game’s leading strategists at the time was Amos Alonzo Stagg, another Yale grad.  He developed plays to spring runners to the outside, as well as reverses and double reverses.  He also invented the “Turtleback” play, a more kinetic variation on the wedge formation in which the offense formed a tight oval around its ball carrier and rotated to the left or right, with one player acting as its pivot point.  As it moved around the edge of the defense, the formation would unravel as each player began blocking individual defenders until the player with the ball was free to run on his own.

At the end of 1893 season, the IFA attempted to diminish the game’s brutality with some more new rules: 

1.  Wedges and plays that sent several blockers ahead of the ball carrier were outlawed;

2.  Game length was shortened from 90 to 70 minutes;

3.  It became illegal to tackle anyone who wasn’t the ball carrier; and

4.  The receiving team was given a chance to receive the ball on kickoffs (previously, the ball was live on kickoffs, and recoverable by either team).

However, crafty coaches found ways around the new rules.  For example, Walter Camp (there he is again) invented the “trap play,” which is still in use today.  The offense would let a defender rush, full steam ahead, through its line only to have its linemen violently “bump” him in another direction to create a hole for runner.

With so much brutality, and institutions of higher learning remembering that their purpose was to create well-rounded, civilized leaders of tomorrow, many colleges shut down their football programs between 1894 and 1905.  In fact, the Georgia legislature voted to ban football in the state after the death of University of Georgia quarterback Richard Von Gammon in 1897, who suffered a severe concussion in UGA's game against the University of Virginia.  The governor vetoed the bill after a heartfelt note from Von Gammon's mother asking that the sport her son loved be spared.  Despite this example of maternal heroics, however, it seemed that football might vanish from the American landscape as quickly as it appeared.

How would football bounce back from this implosion and what form would it take?  Tune in next time for another installment of Football History 101!

*In the early offerings of this history course, my primary source for facts and information is the book Football:  A History of the Gridiron Game, written by Mark Stewart, published by Franklin Watts in 1998.  It is a thoroughly entertaining and readable history of the game.  As our lessons progress, I will go back to focusing on the NFL’s history.  However, if you want to learn more about the history of the college game, I highly recommend Stewart’s book.

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