Football Creativity: America's Favorite Sport

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American Football


American football, known in the United States as football, is a sport played by two teams of eleven players on a rectangular field 120 yards long by 53.3 yards wide with goalposts at each end. The offense attempts to advance an oval ball[2] down the field by running with or passing it. They must advance it at least ten yards in four downs to receive a new set of four downs and continue the drive; if not, they turn over the ball to the opposing team. Points are scored by advancing the ball into the end zone for a touchdown, kicking the ball through the opponent's goalposts for a field goal or by the defense tackling the ball carrier in the offense's end zone for a safety.

American football evolved from rugby and association football. The first game was played on November 6, 1869. A set of rule changes drawn up from 1880 onward by Walter Camp established the snap, eleven-player teams and downs. Later rule changes legalized the forward pass, created the neutral zone and specified the width of the football.

American football is the most popular sport in the United States and the National Football League's championship game, the Super Bowl, is among the most-watched sporting events in the world.

Early history

American football evolved from the sport of rugby football.[3] The first football game was played on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. The game was played between two teams of 25 players each, used a round ball, and resembled a combination of rugby and soccer in its rules. The ball could not be picked up or carried, but it could be kicked or batted with the feet, hands, head or sides.[4][5]

Collegiate play continued for several years in which matches were played using the rules of the host school. Representatives of Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers met on October 19, 1873 to create a standard set of rules. Teams were set at 20 players each, and fields of 400 by 250 feet were specified. Harvard abstained from the conference, as they favored a rugby-style game that allowed running with the ball.

An 1875 Harvard-Yale game played under rugby-style rules was observed by two impressed Princeton athletes. These players introduced the sport to Princeton, a feat the Professional Football Researchers Association compared to "selling refrigerators to Eskimos."[5] Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Columbia then agreed to intercollegiate play using a form of rugby union rules with a modified scoring system.[6] These schools formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, although Yale did not join until 1879. Yale player Walter Camp, now regarded as the "Father of American Football,"[7] passed rule changes in 1880 that reduced the team size from 15 to 11 players and instituted the snap to replace the chaotic and inconsistent scrum.[6]

Evolution of the game

The introduction of the snap resulted in unexpected strategy changes. Previously, the strategy had been to punt if a scrum resulted in bad field position. A group of Princeton players realized that, as the snap was uncontested, they now could hold the ball indefinitely to prevent their opponent from scoring. In 1881, both contestants in a Yale-Princeton game used this strategy to maintain their undefeated records. Each team held the ball, gaining no yardage, for an entire half. This "block game" proved extremely unpopular with spectators and fans.

A rule change was necessary to prevent this, and a reversion to the scrum was considered until Camp passed a rule in 1882 that stated that a team would have three downs, or tackles, to advance the ball five yards. Failure to do so would forfeit control of the ball to the other team. This change made American football a separate sport from rugby, and the resulting five-yard lines added to the field made it resemble a gridiron in appearance. Other major rules changes included a reduction of the field size, to 110 yards long by 53.3 yards wide, and the adoption of a scoring system that awarded four points for a touchdown, two for a safety and a goal following a touchdown, and five for a goal from field. The last major remnant of rugby was removed in 1888, when tackling below the waist was legalized.[6]

Football remained a violent sport despite these innovations. Dangerous mass-formations like the flying wedge resulted in serious injuries or even death.[8] A 1905 peak of 19 fatalities nationwide resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt's threat to abolish the game unless major changes were made.[9] Sixty-two schools met in New York City to discuss rule changes on December 28, 1905. These proceedings resulted in the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, later named the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).[10]

The legal forward pass was introduced in 1906 after its suggestion by John Heisman, although its impact was limited due to the restrictions placed on its use. Further 1906 rules changes included the reduction of the time of play from 70 to 60 minutes and the increase of the distance requirement for a first down to 10 yards over three downs. Additionally, the neutral zone was created along the width of the football.[11] Field goals were lowered to three points in 1909[12] and touchdowns raised to six points in 1912.[12] The field was also reduced to 100 yards long, but two 10-yard-long end zones were created, and teams were given four downs instead of three to advance the ball 10 yards.[13] The roughing-the-passer penalty was implemented in 1914, and eligible players were first allowed to catch the ball anywhere on the field in 1918.[14]

The professional era

The first instance of professional play in football was on November 12, 1892, when William "Pudge" Heffelfinger was paid $500 to play a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association in a match against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. This is the first recorded instance of an player being paid to participate in a game of American football, although many athletic clubs in the 1880s offered to help players attain employment, gave out trophies or watches that players would pawn for money, or paid double in expense money. Football at the time had a strict sense of amateurism, and direct payment to players was frowned upon, if not outright illegal.[15]

Professional play became common, and with it came rising salaries, unpredictable player movement, and the illegal use of amateur collegiate players in professional games. The National Football League, a group of professional teams that was originally established in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, aimed to solve these problems. This new league's stated goals included an end to bidding wars over players, prevention of the use of college players, and abolition of the practice of paying players to leave another team.[16] The NFL by 1922 had established itself as the premier professional football league.[17]

The dominant form of football at the time was played at the collegiate level, but the upstart NFL received a boost to its legitimacy in 1925 when an NFL team, the Pottsville Maroons, defeated a team of Notre Dame all-stars in an exhibition game.[18] A greater emphasis on the passing game helped professional football to further distinguish itself from the college game during the late 1930s.[16] Football in general became increasingly popular following the 1958 NFL Championship game, a match between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants that is still referred to as the "Greatest Game Ever Played." The game, a 23-17 overtime victory by the Colts, was seen by millions of television viewers and had a major impact on the popularity of the sport. This helped football to become the most popular sport in the United States by the mid-1960s.[19]

A rival, the American Football League (AFL), arose in 1960 and challenged the NFL's dominance. The AFL began in relative obscurity but survived for several years due to a television contract with the ABC network. Competition for players heated up in 1965, when the AFL New York Jets signed rookie Joe Namath to a then-record USD $437,000 contract. A five-year, $40 million dollar NBC television contract followed, which helped to sustain the young league. The bidding war for players ended in 1966, when the two leagues agreed on a merger that would take full effect in 1970. This agreement provided for a common draft that would take place each year, and it instituted an annual championship game to be played between the champions of each league. That game began play in 1966 and came to be known as the Super Bowl.[20]

College football maintained a tradition of postseason bowl games. Each bowl game would be associated with a particular conference, and earning a spot in a bowl game was the reward for winning a conference. This arrangement was profitable, but it tended to prevent the two top-ranked teams from meeting in a true national championship game, as they would normally be committed to the bowl games of their respective conferences. Several systems have been used since 1992 to determine a national champion of college football. The first was the Bowl Coalition, in place from 1992-94. This was replaced in 1995 by the Bowl Alliance, which gave way in 1997 to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).[21] The BCS arrangement has been controversial, and will be replaced in 2014 by a four-team playoff system.[22]

American football is today the most popular sport in the United States. In a 2013 poll conducted by Harris Interactive, professional and college football were the first and third most popular sports, and 45% of participants ranked some form of the game as their favorite sport.[23] The Super Bowl is the most popular single-day sporting event in the United States[20] and is among the biggest club sporting events in the world.[24]



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