History of the NFL

The Beginnings of American Football

The birth date of football in the United States is generally regarded by football historians as November 6, 1869, when teams from Rutgers and Princeton Universities met for the first intercollegiate football game. In those early games, there were 20 players to a team and football still more closely resembled rugby than modern football.

The game of football has a history of constant rule changes. Rule changes have been implemented to bolster the excitement of the game of football and to increase the game's safety.

In 1873, representatives from Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale Universities met in New York City to formulate the first intercollegiate football rules for the increasingly popular game. These four teams established the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) and set 15 as the number of players allowed on each team.

Walter Camp, the coach at Yale and a dissenter from the IFA over his desire for an eleven man team, helped begin the final step in the evolution from rugby-style play to the modern game of American football. The IFA’s rules committee, led by Camp, soon cut the number of players from fifteen to eleven, and also instituted the size of the playing field, at one hundred ten yards. In 1882 Camp also introduced the system of downs. After first allowing three attempts to advance the ball five yards, in 1906 the distance was changed to ten yards. The fourth down was added in 1912.

Within a decade, concern over the increasing brutality of the game led to its ban by some colleges. Nearly 180 players had suffered serious injuries, and eighteen deaths had been reported from the brutal mass plays that had become common practice. So in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called upon Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to help save the sport from demise.

At a meeting between the schools, reform was agreed upon, and at a second meeting, attended by more than sixty other schools, the group appointed a seven member Rules Committee and set up what would later become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.

From this committee came the legalization of the forward pass, which resulted in a redesign of the ball and a more open style of play on the field. The rough mass plays, which once caused so many serious injuries, were prohibited by the committee. Also prohibited was the locking of arms by teammates in an effort to clear the way for their ball carriers. The length of the game was shortened, from seventy to sixty minutes, and the neutral zone, which separates the teams by the length of the ball before each play begins, was also established.

Important Chronological changes in the evolution of the game:


Rutgers and Princeton played a college soccer football game, the first ever, November 6. The game used modified London Football Association rules. During the next seven years, rugby gained favor with the major eastern schools over soccer, and modern football began to develop from rugby.


At the Massasoit convention, the first rules for American football were written. Walter Camp, who would become known as the father of American football, first became involved with the game.


In an era in which football was a major attraction of local athletic clubs, an intense competition between two Pittsburgh-area clubs, the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC), led to the making of the first professional football player. Former Yale All-America guard William (Pudge) Heffelfinger was paid $500 by the AAA to play in a game against the PAC, becoming the first person to be paid to play football, November 12. The AAA won the game 4-0 when Heffelfinger picked up a PAC fumble and ran 35 yards for a touchdown.


The Pittsburgh Athletic Club signed one of its players, probably halfback Grant Dibert, to the first known pro football contract, which covered all of the PAC's games for the year.


John Brallier became the first football player to openly turn pro, accepting $10 and expenses to play for the Latrobe YMCA against the Jeannette Athletic Club.


The Allegheny Athletic Association team fielded the first completely professional team for its abbreviated two-game season.


The Latrobe Athletic Association football team went entirely professional, becoming the first team to play a full season with only professionals.


A touchdown was changed from four points to five.


Chris O'Brien formed a neighborhood team, which played under the name the Morgan Athletic Club, on the south side ofChicago. The team later became known as the Normals, then the Racine (for a street in Chicago) Cardinals, the Chicago Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Phoenix Cardinals, and, in 1994, the Arizona Cardinals. The team remains the oldest continuing operation in pro football.


William C. Temple took over the team payments for the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club, becoming the first known individual club owner.


Baseball's Philadelphia Athletics, managed by Connie Mack, and the Philadelphia Phillies formed professional football teams, joining the Pittsburgh Stars in the first attempt at a pro football league, named the National Football League. The Athletics won the first night football game ever played, 39-0 over Kanaweola AC at ElmiraNew York, November 21. All three teams claimed the pro championship for the year, but the league president, Dave Berry, named the Stars the champions. Pitcher Rube Waddell was with the Athletics, and pitcher Christy Mathewson a fullback for Pittsburgh. The first World Series of pro football, actually a five-team tournament, was played among a team made up of players from both the Athletics and the Phillies, but simply named New York; the New York Knickerbockers; the Syracuse AC; the Warlow AC; and the Orange (New Jersey) AC at New York's original Madison Square Garden. New York and Syracuse played the first indoor football game before 3,000, December 28.Syracuse, with Glen (Pop) Warner at guard, won 6-0 and went on to win the tournament.


The Franklin (Pa.) Athletic Club won the second and last World Series of pro football over the Oreos AC of Asbury Park, New Jersey; the Watertown Red and Blacks; and the Orange AC. Pro football was popularized in Ohio when the Massillon Tigers, a strong amateur team, hired four Pittsburgh pros to play in the season-ending game against Akron. At the same time, pro football declined in the Pittsburgh area, and the emphasis on the pro game moved west from Pennsylvania to Ohio.


A field goal was changed from five points to four. Ohio had at least seven pro teams, with Massillon winning the Ohio Independent Championship, that is, the pro title. Talk surfaced about forming a state-wide league to end spiraling salaries brought about by constant bidding for players and to write universal rules for the game. The feeble attempt to start the league failed. Halfback Charles Follis signed a contract with the Shelby (Ohio) AC, making him the first known black pro football player.


The Canton AC, later to become known as the Bulldogs, became a professional team. Massillon again won the Ohio League championship.


The forward pass was legalized. The first authenticated pass completion in a pro game came on October 27, when George (Peggy) Parratt of Massillon threw a completion to Dan (Bullet) Riley in a victory over a combined Benwood-Moundsville team. Arch-rivals Canton and Massillon, the two best pro teams in America, played twice, with Canton winning the first game butMassillon winning the second and the Ohio League championship. A betting scandal and the financial disaster wrought upon the two clubs by paying huge salaries caused a temporary decline in interest in pro football in the two cities and, somewhat, throughout Ohio.


A field goal dropped from four points to three.

The development of professional American Football

The first professional league was not established until 1910. Between 1910 and 1912, the administration of professional leagues was disorganized to say the least. Players had little incentive to remain loyal to a single team, and often acted as 'freelance' athletes, selling their services to a team temporarily before moving quickly to another club.

By 1920, it was decided that it would be in the best interests of the sport to develop a body that would oversee a major football league and bring some organization to the game. It was with this intention that delegates from major teams came together at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile Dealership in Canton, Ohio, to discuss the future of the sport. They formed the American Professional Football Association, renamed the National Football League (NFL) by 1922. The representatives drafted a constitution and made a number of important decisions, including a motion that would reduce the constant movement of players and encourage team loyalty. Jim Thorpe, who had found fame as an athlete and as a football and baseball player, was the first person to be elected President of the new organization.

The NFL flourished in the remainder of the 20th Century, and American Football became increasingly popular, even stepping outside of the shadow of baseball in the years following World War II. This massive increase in popularity owed a lot to technological developments, most notably in 1939, when the game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles made history as the first to be broadcast on television. Indeed, although over six hundred NFL players had fought for their country and twenty-one had been killed, the sport recovered quickly from the disruption imposed by the War, and an increasing number of Americans began to enjoy games, as more families began to purchase television sets.

In 1946 the All-American Football Conference began play. Their team locations had a wider span of the Country than the NFL. Their owners had deeper pockets as well. The Cleveland Browns dominated this League winning all 4 Championships. Like challengers before and after, this League couldn’t outlast the NFL. In 1950 they merged with the NFL with only the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco San Francisco 49ers and the original Baltimore Colts (no relation to the current Colts) being integrated into the league.

However, in 1959, the sport faced one of its greatest challenges yet. Frustrated by the NFL, Lamar Hunt resolved to create a serious rival to the NFL; the American Football League. The 1960s were dominated by squabbles between the rival leagues over players and television rights. The AFL even took their grievances into the court room, claiming that the NFL were unfairly dominating television coverage and players. The court eventually ruled in favor of the NFL, but it was becoming increasingly clear to players, coaches and fans that something would have to be done to curb the belligerence that was beginning to pervade the sport.

In 1966, senior figures from both leagues agreed that the AFL and NFL should merge in time for the beginning of the 1970 season, thus eliminating arguments about players, sponsorship and air time. Since 1970, therefore, one major football league, still known as the NFL, has existed in the United States. The league is divided into the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference, the champions of which meet each year in the eagerly anticipated Super Bowl. The fact that NFL games are closely followed by American Football fans across the world to this day reflects the successful compromise between the AFL and the NFL.

The NFL has expanded to 32 teams and are currently divided as the AFC North, AFC South, AFC East, AFC West and the NFC North, NFC South, NFC East and NFC West.

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