The origin of American Football

American Football is one of the most popular sports on the planet but like many of its contemporaries, was arguably created by accident, rather than design.

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American football is a unique sport which can be a baffling spectacle for those unfamiliar with its idiosyncratic rules, but the Super Bowl is one of the most watched events on the planet’s sporting calendar.

Like many sports, it seems to have happened by accident and it is not surprising its origins can be traced to both rugby and football, exported from England.

There was a game played in Ancient Greece called Episkyros, which shared many characteristics but that just seems to have been a coincidence.

Walter writes the rules

The mass ‘football’ matches between English towns in the middle of the 18th century, which were eventually banned, were popular among some early Stateside settlers and variations of those free-for-alls were popular at universities such as Princeton and Harvard.

However, the basic rules of the sport were formed by the man regarded as the Father of American Football, Walter Camp, who was a sports coach at Yale University.

He came up with the essential elements of what we see today, introducing the line of scrimmage and the notion that you had a certain number of downs to attain a required distance.

But what made it different from rugby and gave it a unique element was the legalisation of the forward pass, as well as blocking.

College football took the lead but players were paid for the first time in 1892 and the American Professional Football Association was formed in 1920, before changing its name to the National Football League, or NFL, two years later, with most of the teams growing up in the industrial towns of the Midwest.

A key year

Even though most of the focus would be on the college game until the middle of the 20th century, there were big developments in the professional ranks with the 1932 NFL playoff match being regarded as a landmark event.

It wasn’t only that it was so snowy and cold in Chicago that the Bears’ game against the Portsmouth Spartans was moved inside and played on a shortened pitch, it was the first time that hash marks were used to aid the officials in yardage decisions.

Forward passes were allowed from behind the line of scrimmage too and it heralded a time of firsts. Tapering was put on the ball, the Heisman Trophy was awarded to the best player in the college game, the NFL draft was introduced, the first college all-star game took place and the sport was televised for the first time.

Rival factions

The foundations had been laid but new developments then came when the American Football League was formed in opposition to the NFL in 1960.

That was the point when the professional game took prominence in the national consciousness and the sport as we now know it was formed when the two merged in 1966.

The Green Bay Packers from the NFL then beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl the following January and American Football never looked back.

A vastly experienced journalist, Ian has worked the beat on a number of local newspapers and covers a number of different sports for the Racing Post
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