Photo from the NFL

In honor of Super Bowl LII, the great American football game of 2018 between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, I, in my typical academically-inclined fashion, sought to learn about the history of American, aka gridiron, football. (Also, as the Patriots will play in this game, I thought I might write post for my football-passionate family members to read the morning before the game.)

A quick note on terminology: In this post, gridiron football and American football refer to the football played in the NFL; and association football, to the game referred to as soccer in the United States. Football refers to the family of team sports that involve a ball being kicked to score a goal.

American football has its roots in rugby football, or just rugby; and association football, called soccer in America and football everywhere else. (Those Americans, always wanting to split from convention.) Accounts of some sort of football game in England date back as far as medieval times with the game mob football, but not until the 19th century did the English first develop a codified game so that public school football teams could compete against one another with a common set of rules [1].

Rugby football (Photo from Belfast Newsletter)

In 1823, according to popular legend, William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, started the rugby branch of football when he, while playing football one day, caught the ball and, rather than abiding by the usual football rules of moving back so that the other players could advance, rushed forward to the opposite goal with the ball in hand [2]. Rugby football and association football split in 1863 [3]. Two sports bodies emerged from this division: the Rugby Football Union and the Football Association, which governed rugby football and association football respectively.

When Englishmen settled in the New World, they brought with them mob football. In the early 1800s, an invitation to play a new game with a Canadian team introduced American colleges to rugby, which American colleges embraced and organized into their own intramural competitions [1]. Tradition calls the November 6, 1869, game between Rutgers University and Princeton University, originally called the College of New Jersey, the first game of intercollegiate American football [4].

Mob football (Image from Verbalists)

Over the years American teams made slight alterations to rugby, but not until the 1880s did it shape into the game known today, starting with the man regarded as the Father of American Football, student Walter Chauncey Camp of Yale University [4]. Major changes implemented between 1875 and 1905 gradually moved the football played in America farther and farther from the rules of rugby. The legalization of the forward pass in the early 20th century to reduce the injuries sustained in the game marked a key turning point in the creation of American football [1]. (President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a son playing football at Harvard, requested such changes to increase safety.)

American football, also called gridiron football[4] for the parallel lines on the field that resemble a cooking gridiron, spread through the Northeast. In 1920, after a meeting of several American football team heads, the National Football League (NFL), originally called the American Professional Football Association, formed, with only 14 teams. (Today the NFL has 32 franchises.)

The gridiron football field (Image from Fotolia)

Other organizations challenged the supremacy of the NFL in the early decades. The American Football League (AFL) assembled in 1960, and presented itself as the NFL’s strongest rival. In 1966,  NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt agreed on a merger of the leagues, scheduled for 1970 [5]. The merger split the NFL into two divisions: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).

During the four years between negotiation and merger, the AFL and NFL played the first Super Bowl. Held on January 15, 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, Super Bowl I did not attract as many spectators as later games would, but it did start the craze that would follow American football games for the rest of sports history.


Here’s to an exciting Super Bowl LII! Who are you cheering this year?

[1] American Football’s Rugby Roots
[2] William Webb-Ellis
[3] History of football
[4] The invention of American football
[5] Super Bowl history