Early History of American Football

American football originated in the 1800s, and its popularity has exploded since the beginning of the twenty-first century. According to "USA Today," the most viewed football game was the 2012 Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, setting a record 111.3 million viewers. Though baseball has the distinction of being called the national pastime, football has reached a lofty status in the heart and minds of many American sports fans.


According to the Professional Football Researchers Association, American football found its first home on college campuses in the early 1800s before there were organized rules or sanctioning bodies to regulate teams. More often than not, the games were violent diversions from the rigors of college life. The rowdiness of the games caused some campuses to ban them. The Boston-based Oneida Football Club was formed in 1862. Members took their favorite parts of rugby and soccer to form what became known as the Boston Game.

College Football

The first college football game took place on November 6, 1869 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers defeated Princeton 6-4 in a game that featured 25 players on each side, no referees and a round ball. Walter Camp is credited with bringing collegiate football into the modern age. In 1880, Camp, a former Yale player, introduced regulations that included 11 players per side. In 1882, he added a rule stating that teams must advance the ball 5 yards in three plays. About 250 colleges had teams by the turn of the century.

Pro Football

On November 12, 1892 the Allegheny Athletic Association football team took on the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in a football game. William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, a member of the Allegheny squad, was paid $500 to play in the game. This signaled the beginning of professional football. Heffelfinger’s new status as a paid player led to other athletic organizations to reach into their budgets in order to ensure that they got the best players.


In 1902, three teams formed the first incarnation of the National Football League. As the number of professional football teams increased, organizers saw the need for a formal governing body to regulate issues like player salaries, players moving from one team to another and teams using college players. The modern NFL, or National Football League, evolved from the American Professional Football Association, formed in 1920; the APFA changed its name to the National Football League in 1922.

About the Author

Based in Geneva, N.Y., Greg McNall has been a sports writer since 1998. In 2003 he received an award for Distinguished Sports Writing from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. McNall has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y.