United States football stems from a combination of rugby and and association football (or what Americans call soccer.) Rugby can trace its roots though history all the way back to ancient Greece, where they have found documents recording similar gameplay dating back as far as 388 BC. From there it moved to ancient Rome, where the Roman politician Cicero (106–42 BC) describes the case of a man who was killed whilst having a shave when a ball was kicked into a barber’s shop. Association football, or soccer, can trace lineage back to the Chinese competitive game of Cuju (translated as “kick ball”) that was around to before the Han Dynasty, but during the Han Dynasty is when rules were implemented and games became standardized and formed the roots that would develop into soccer as we know it today.
These two games merged and diverged from the games that inspired it, adapting over hundreds of years from ancient games to medieval football to college ball at the end of the 19th century, and a lot of that is due to Walter Camp, the man known to some as the “Father of American Football”. A Yale and Hopkins School grad, he helped institute the line of scrimmage, down-and-distance rules, and legalized interference, along with many other changes. But these three rule changes helped shape modern football more than almost anything else.
Football has long been a sport with two sides. An ancient warrior game of swiftness, skill, and might combined. But it is also one of the more modern, adaptable sports in the world. In the modern world, most professional and collegiate sports are rigid, with rules that barely change over centuries. Football, however, is constantly innovating. The rules always change, the equipment changes, modern technology is always first adapted to be a part of the game of football before it is anywhere else.
Since the beginning, the sport has been incredibly violent. From groups of villagers playing against one another in medieval towns to college games, the game has always been as much about brute force as it has been about skill. In the 1894 Harvard-Yale game known as “the Hampden Park Blood Bath” where four players were cripplingly injured which suspended the game at both schools for three years, to the Army-Navy game in 1894 that caused the games to be suspended for four years for similar reasons. In the year 1905 there were 19 fatalities from the sport of football in the United States, which led to Theodore Roosevelt threatening to make the game illegal and ban it if drastic safety changes were not made, and made quickly. This led to the formation of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) who met to retool the sport and the rules to encourage less dangerous gameplay. As a result of the 1905–1906 reform that came from these meetings, mass formation plays became illegal and forward passes legal. Bradbury Robinson, playing for visionary coach Eddie Cochems at St. Louis University, threw the first legal pass in a September 5, 1906, game against Carroll College at Waukesha, effectively putting the meta rules of the game into the place we know them at today.
From school rivalries to ancient Romans, football has deep and emotional ties to much of the world. Though a large majority of the game is played in America, it is a sport watched world-wide. One you’ve been bitten by the gridiron bug, there’s no going back.