How Did Football Get Started in America?

Three teen boys playing football and lying on the grass after a tackle

When football first arrived in America, it resembled the rugby-style game played in England. But with rule changes implemented in the late 19th and early 20th century by football star Walter Camp, football evolved into the game enjoyed by millions today. Integral elements of modern football, such as the touchdown, forward pass, downs and distance rules, were not part of the original game.

Early Football Games

The earliest games of football were mostly unorganized college students playing traditional “mob football,” similar to that played in England. Each group had its own set of rules. The underlying theme throughout the game was violence. In fact, its severity caused outrage among local citizens, forcing many cities to ban the game the 1860s. The first official football team formed in 1862 and played what was known as “The Boston Game.” This form of football was spread throughout the 1860s through the help of the press.

College Football Becomes Legitimate

Collegiate football become a legitimate program in 1876, when Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Princeton agreed on a standardized set of rules for the game. Yale refused to join the Intercollegiate Football Association at the meeting due to a disagreement over the number of players each group could field. Walter Camp, known as the father of football, introduced a series of rule changes in 1880, including lowering the number of players on the field, the line of scrimmage and snapping the football to the quarterback, which helped shape the current game of football. These rule changes on the collegiate level transformed the game from a variation of rugby to American football.

The First Professional Football League

The first payment to a professional football player was in 1892. Paying a football player was considered unsportsmanlike; payments to players were kept secret. In 1895, the first fully professional game was played in Pennsylvania. The first National Football League, which has no ties to the modern league, began fielding teams in 1902. The World Series of Football took place in December 1902 at Madison Square Garden, but the series only lasted two seasons.

Youth And High School Football

The earliest occurrence of youth football was in 1929 in Philadelphia. The Junior Football League was formed to keep teenage boys busy in sports, rather than vandalizing a local factory. By 1933, the league included 16 teams and was renamed the Pop Warner Conference after Temple head coach Pop Warner. The National Federation of State High School Associations, formed in 1920 to govern high school sports, established the first official high school football rules in 1932.