Skip to main content
No. 2400:
Early American Football

Today, we play football. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Outside the US, the word football applies to what we call soccer or Rugby. Those games came close to their modern forms in 19th-century Britain. Meanwhile, here in America, a different form of football quickly began evolving away from Rugby. An 1887 Century Magazine article shows how that worked:

It's titled The American game of Foot-Ball (that's two words). It tells about the popularity of this new game in schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. It says that southern colleges show little interest. No hint that Harvard and Yale will one day lag far behind foot-ball powers like Alabama and Georgia Tech. Nor is there any suspicion that football will go professional only five years later -- and that college football will one day be bent by having to serve as the minor leagues for professional teams.

Now, everything in the article refers back to Rugby. The author is impressed with how we've improved the Rugby method of putting the ball in play -- the scrum. Foot-ball uses the more logical method of lining two teams up, facing one another across a scrimmage line.

The teams have been trimmed from fifteen to eleven players. Foot-ball touch-downs count only four points. The forward pass is not yet allowed. Advancing the ball depends strongly on lateral passing -- something we see little of in today's games. 

As in Rugby, early foot-ball players used no protective gear. So the rules of physical contact were stricter than they are now. No tackling below the waist or above the shoulders. The game is rough, says the author, but he believes it's as safe as any other outdoor sport -- as long as it's played by people with proper training and conditioning. Two foot-ball players died the year before; but in small colleges where players were poorly-prepared. 

A fair tackle in 1887      A fair tackle today
Left: A fair tackle (above the waist) in 1887. Right: A fair tackle in the 21st century.

The writer sees the game in moral terms. Here are means for turning boys into men. Self-control is of the essence -- no place for anger on the football field. Furthermore, football is, and I quote, "one of the most scientific games in its 'team playing,' or management of the entire side as one body." 

The game does not demand great wealth to play. Rowing requires the purchase of a skull and oars, and polo requires a pony. But any lad can improve himself playing this game. 

The writer sees foot-ball's kinship to war. (And it still reminds you and me of Napoleonic armies arrayed against one another -- each seeking to claim the other's territory.) Yet if England's wars were won on the playing fields of Eton, he sees something else here. Foot-ball can build character, as the recent Civil War did -- but without the carnage. He's thinking, not of war, but of peace.

Breaking through the line

Breaking through the line today
Breaking through the "Rush Line" (as scrimmage was called) in 1887 and today. 

I'm about to groan. Then I realize: we really did pass the latter 19th century in peace. Maybe the writer was on to something. I wonder if universities could once again create intercollegiate football leagues for students. An interesting concept -- I wonder what could be made to work in this day and age.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

A. Johnston, The American Game of Football. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine,Vol XXXIV, No. 5, September, 1887, pp. 888-898. (All drawings from this source. All photos by John Lienhard)

See also the Wikipedia articles on American Football and Rugby.

The audio outro is "You Gotta be a Football Hero" courtesy of the Hoffman Estates High School Marching band. My thanks to Keith Hollingsworth, UH Mech. Engr. Dept., for his counsel.

American football