College Football to the NFL: History of the Game

Who doesn’t love a good college football or NFL game? We spend Saturdays glued to the television watching College Football. Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays are devoted to a heavy dose of NFL games. We think about football pretty much 24-7.

The Story Behind College Football and the NFL

When you’re thinking about the game, it’s natural to wonder about the history of football. Football’s closest predecessor Rugby became popular in England in the mid-1800’s. It’s believed that American, Australian, and Canadian Football all evolved from Rugby. So, read on to find the story behind football.

How College Football Started

Using rules that were loosely based on soccer and rugby, the first American College Football game was played in1869 with a match between Rutgers and Princeton. Some rule changes were initiated in the 1880s by a notable College player named Walter Camp. These new rules truly changed the game into American Football we are familiar with today. Camp is considered the father of modern-day football. While the forward pass had been attempted as early as 1876, the play wasn’t legalized until 1906. It was then that the first legal forward pass was thrown.

The first College Football fields were called Gridirons because of the line pattern that was drawn on the field. From the start of College Football, the game was played in two 45-minute halves. Originally, the only way to score was to bat or kick the ball into your opponent’s goal. This received a score of one point, so early College Football game scores looked more like baseball game scores. At the start, gridirons were 140 yards long and 70 yards wide.

History of college football and NFL

Standardization of Football Rules

In 1873, three colleges including Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale met to create a standardized set of rules for playing College Football. Harvard decided not to attend the rules meeting because they disagreed with the changes. So, they continued playing by their own rules. The term touchdown comes from a rugby rule where a player touches the ball down past the goal line. This gave the team an opportunity to kick a goal. At this point, there were no end zones. If the team missed, the touchdown was not awarded.

In 1876 a new set of rules was adopted by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia that more closely resembled the game that is played today. Yale held out its participation in the new Intercollegiate Football Association until 1879. They objected to the number of players the new rules allowed on a team. By 1980, teams could field 11 players and have 25 players total on the sidelines. Early rules called for teams to advance the ball five yards in three downs to get a first down.

College Early Scoring Rules

The points were substantially different than today’s game with four points for a touchdown, two points for points after a touchdown, two points for safeties, and five points for field goals. In 1981, the gridiron was reduced in size to 120 yards long (including end zones) by 53 ½ yards wide. At this time, there were just two officials to judge a game.

During the late 1880’s blocking or “interference” as it was known in Rugby, was legalized. Team members could now block for the player running with the ball. Interference or blocking remains illegal in the Rugby rules. Blocking led to the creation of unique formations like the flying V where players would interlock their arms and travel down the field as one unit mowing over their opponents. As you’ll find out below, this style of blocking had a dramatic impact on the game.

Finalized Scoring System for College Football

By 1912, the scoring points were finalized with 6 points for a touchdown and a kicking point after conversion was worth 1 point. A running or passing conversion was worth 2 points, and a safety was also worth 2 points. The roughing the passer penalty was initiated in 1914 and by 1918 receivers were allowed to catch the ball anywhere on the field. Previously “catching zones” limited the areas where receivers could catch the ball.

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Establishment of College Football Conferences

College Football continued to grow and different sections of the country were organized into conferences including the American Athletic Conference, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten (now with 14 teams), Conference USA, Independents (FSB), Mid-American, Mountain West, Pac 12, Southeastern, Sun Belt, and more.

Conference play would eventually lead to the creation of Bowl Games that pitted Division winners against each other. While Soccer is called football everywhere but the United States and it is the most popular sport in the world, Football in America (the kind we watch on Saturdays and Sundays) is the most popular sport in the United States.

The Year College Football Almost Died

As the popularity of College Football grew, so did the violence of the sport. The newly legalized blocking styles meant that teams would meet in violent crashes that often cause life-altering injuries or even death. In 1905, 19 players (23 by some accounts) were killed playing College Football and President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to eliminate the game entirely unless some changes were made.

In December of that year, 62 colleges met to determine how the rules had to change to make the game safer. This meeting led to the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the institution of the forward pass in 1906. Interlocking arm blocking was prohibited, the number of players required on the line of scrimmage was changed to seven, and a neutral zone was established between the two teams at the time of the snap. These changes led to a dramatic reduction in injuries and deaths and the College Football game survived.

Protective Equipment Through the Years

While the changes to the rules of football helped reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in the game. The addition of protective equipment also lowered injuries and helped keep players safe. Until 1893, there were no helmets, this was the source of some of the most serious injuries. It is said that the first use of helmets was in the 1893 Army-Navy game. But the helmet wasn’t rules requirement until 1939.

The helmet slowly evolved from a crude leather “hat” that didn’t even cover the entire head to a padded, more substantial model. The plastic helmet didn’t come about until the 1940’s when the sporting goods company Riddell patented the design. This innovation led to different colored helmets and the ability to put a team’s logo on the helmet. The helmets continue to evolve with the advancement of padding and other concussion reducing measures.

Protective equipment for football image

Introduction of the Face Mask

Prior to the introduction of the helmet, a nose guard or nose armor was patented in1892 to protect the nose and teeth. Not everyone wore or even favored the new advancement, but it did protect players from the most common injury of the day, broken noses. These nose guards could be worn with or without a helmet.

This facial protection led the development of the face mask which began to be mass-produced on helmets in 1953. It started with a single bar across the front of the helmet and grew into the grid-like face masks we see today. As the popularity of the face mask grew, the necessity of creating a penalty for grabbing the face mask became apparent.

A Princeton student is credited with creating shoulder pads, in the late 1800s. The pads were made of leather and wool and were sewn directly into a player’s uniform as opposed to being worn separately. The pads we know today, worn under the uniform, were designed in the early 1900s and still made from leather with padding. The mass-produced plastic shoulder pads showed up in the 1960s.

Padding in the pants dates back to the late 1880s. Sewn directly into the pants to protect the thighs or shins, these pads have remained relatively unchanged, with the exception of now being made from plastic, since the early days of football.

How Professional Football Got Started

Professional Football’s beginnings start all the way back on November 12th, 1892. A gentleman named William “Pudge” Hefflefinger’s was given a $500 contract to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburg Athletic Club. Thus, Professional Football was born.

The game standard at the time was not to pay players and instead have them “volunteer” their time to play the game. However, there were no specific rules about paying someone to play. A cash receipt from the Allegheny Athletic Association clearly shows a payment of $500 to Pudge Hefflefinger. This receipt is on display on the Professional Football Hall of Fame web site. It is considered the “birth certificate” of Professional Football.

Player Compensation for Pro Football

During these very early years of Professional Football, Athletic Clubs and Associations found clever and unique ways to compensate their players. In some cases, a team would find a job for a player. The job would have flexible hours allowing the player to be paid for his “job” but still have amateur status when playing football. Other times a team would award trophies or watches to players for playing a game. The player could then pawn these prizes and keep the money. The Amateur Athletic Union tried to keep on top of these practices, but every time they changed the rules, the teams figured out a way to get around them.

The 1892 game was a hallmark because it was the first time a player was openly paid by a team (Allegheny Athletic Association) and with proof of payment. But the Pittsburg Athletic Club was squeaky clean either.

William Kirchner: Player and Coach

Their best player, a man named William Kirchner, was considered a professional coach because his pay increased during football season. But, his workload went down at his real “job.” With pay for play out in the open, players began getting season-long contracts in 1893 and receive bonuses for playing for City and Club Teams. Also, in the 1892 game, with extensive betting and before allowing his team to take the field, the Pittsburg Athletic coach demanded that the game be played as an exhibition with no betting. Allegheny agreed and the game was played. Touchdowns were worth only 4 points in those days and Allegheny won the game 4 to 0 after a touchdown from Heffelfinger.

But some teams continued paying “double expenses” as a way to compensate players and still allow them to be called amateurs. Something had to change. In 1897, the Latrobe Athletic Association became the first team to employ nothing but professional paid football players for their entire season. It would be 23 years before a viable professional football league is formed.

Pro Football Scoring Changes

In 1898 the touchdown was changed to 5 points. In 1902, the very first attempt to form a professional football league was attempted. The league was called the National Football League but only lasted two years. In 1904 the field goal was reduced from 5 to 4 points and in 1909 again decreased to 3 points. To make the game more excited, a touchdown was increased to 6 points in 1912.

By 1920, Professional Football needed to make some changes because they were plagued by players jumping from team to team, teams using college players that were still in school, and rising salaries. A league was formed including the Cleveland Indians, Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Tringles, and Akron Pros. The league was named the American Professional Football Conference.

The NFL is Formed

In 1922, the league changed its name from the American Professional Football Conference to the National Football league. The Chicago Staleys became the Chicago Bears and the league had grown to 18 teams. In 1927, in an effort to make the league more popular, the number of teams was cut from 22 to 12 and all the way down to 10 in 1928. By 1932, the struggling NFL had dropped to just 8 Teams.

In 1933 the NFL was reorganized into two divisions with the idea of a season-long championship between the winners of each division. Rules were added to differentiate the game from college. Up until 1933, the NFL had followed college rules. In addition, three new franchises were added to the league, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1936 the first organized draft of college players was held. And in 1939 the first NFL game was broadcast on television. The game that was televised was the second “Pro Bowl” game. With the New York Giants (NFL Champs) playing a team of professional all-stars.

A Series of Firsts in the 1940s

1940 – First National Network Radio Broadcast on the NFL Championship Game

1941 – The NFL installed its first Commissioner

1944 – The first time coaching from the bench is legalized

1946 – The first African Americans are signed to play in the NFL

1947 – The NFL adds a fifth official for the first time.

1948 – The first emblems are painted on the sides of helmets

1949 – For the very first time the NFL has two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season

TV and the NFL

In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams became the first professional team to have all of their games televised. In 1951 the NFL Championship game was televised coast to coast for the first time. Joe Perry became the first running back to record 1,000-yard seasons in consecutive years. To end the decade, in 1959, Lamar Hunt, a Dallas area businessman, and oil tycoon, announced his intention to form a new professional football league. He named it the American Football League (AFL).

The 1960s were an exciting time for change in the NFL. An agreement was reached regarding the two leagues – the NFL and AFL to co-exist. In 1961, the first professional player deliberately moved from one league to the other. Both leagues agreed in 1962 that the grabbing of a face mask would be illegal. Lamar Hunt owned an AFL franchise in Dallas called the Dallas Texans, but by the end of the 1962 season, he decided to move the team from Dallas to Kansas City forming the Kansas City Chiefs.

NFL and AFL Merge

In 1966 the two leagues mutually decided to merge and keep the name NFL but have two divisions, the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. The first NFC – AFC world championship was held in 1967 with the Green Bay Packers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 35 to 10. The AFC got revenge in 1969 when the heavily favored Baltimore Colts lost to the AFL’s “Broadway” Joe Namath and the New York Jets by a score of 16 to 7.

To start out the decade in 1970, the Super Bowl Trophy was renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Player safety became the thrust for rules changes in the 1970s with a growing concern over injuries. The first NFC – AFC Pro Bowl was played in 1971 and in 1973 the Miami Dolphins became the first professional football team to post a perfect season at 17 and 0.

Forming the Conferences for the Merger Video

NFL Player’s Strike

The 1980s and 1990s were two decades of tremendous growth in television viewership in the NFL. The Super Bowl becomes the most-watched live sporting event year in and year out. The first NFL television contract with a Cable network was signed in the 1980’s. In 1982, the NFL suffered through a players’ strike. The Players Association strike lasted for 67 days and shortened the season from 16 games to 8.

NFL Europe

In 1991, the NFL launched the World League of American Football later to be called NFL Europe League, and NFL Europe. The new league never quite caught on, losing money every season and operating from 1991 until 2007.

Youth Football Arm of the NFL: USA Football

The year 2000 saw the NFL and NFL Players Association launch USA Football. USA Football is a youth development organization designed to further the sport of football by encouraging and teaching young players. Attendance at NFL Games continued to rise settings year-long records in several different years. New concussion guidelines and an alliance to coordinate medical support services for former players are created. A fan code of conduct is also initiated.

Today, the NFL continues to place needed emphasis on concussion protocol and the need for focusing on this serious issue. The NFL Pro Bowl adopted a new format but is still considered an afterthought of a game by many fans and players alike. The Los Angeles Rams transferred back to Los Angeles from St. Louis and the San Diego Chargers also transfer to Los Angeles. By 2020, the Oakland Raiders are scheduled to play their games in the brand-new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Pro Football Hall of Fame

The opening of the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 1963 sent a signal to football fans worldwide that professional football would be a game that will stay around for a long time. From its earliest beginnings in the late 1800s to the internationally and unparalleled success it is today, professional football has no equal in sports. So, sit back have an adult beverage, crack open some peanuts, cheer on your favorite team, and watch America’s game. Now, you know the story behind football.

— Tim Moodie

Tim Moodie is a writer, product designer, and inventor who stopped playing football in 8th grade. But that doesn’t stop him from being a huge football fan. Every Saturday, he cheers on his alma mater the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Sundays find him glued to the TV watching the Minnesota Vikings. Like all football fans, he enjoys a well-played game and revels in the history of the sport.

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