The Evolution of Soccer to Rugby to Football

On this blog I infrequently voice my fantasy of traveling in a time tunnel to Georgia as it was 36,000 years ago.  Here, I establish a secure homestead and enjoy living off the land in a wilderness untouched by man.  I bring as many modern conveniences back in time with me as possible because I’m not a masochist who believes in unnecessary suffering.  In fact I’ve even proposed bringing a few voluptuous models with me  (it’s just a fantasy afterall). As long as I had a sturdy house, electrical power, plentiful food and alcohol, and a naked woman’s backside in my vicinity; there would not be much about this modern world that I would miss.  I could look out the window and see a saber-tooth or a bear and be entertained to my satisfaction, though I’d bring a library of books, music cds, and dvds with me.  About the only thing from this modern world I would miss that I couldn’t bring back with me would be college football–easily the most exciting spectator sport ever invented.

Modern American football evolved from an ancient sport that may have originated thousands of years ago.  I wouldn’t be surprised if stone-aged tribes kicked and batted the inflated bladder of a wild boar around.  It seems natural that some playful participant would have suggested a friendly test of each tribe’s strength.  Could his tribe push the object past the other tribe?  There is no evidence of this, probably because football-like games predate written history.  The Romans played a game called harpastum.  From the ancient descriptions harpastum seems very similar to rugby, and the Romans copied this game from one played by the Greeks.  Who did the Greeks learn the game from?

The first written record of the word, “football,” dates to 1180 in England.  The English royalty outlawed “football” and “handball” between 1314-1667.  These early ordinances already differentiated games that included rules favoring advancing the ball with the foot vs. those favoring carrying the ball.  Whole towns played against each other in these brutal contests and I doubt the laws were enforceable–officials couldn’t imprison the entire town.

By the 19th century schoolboys often played soccer at recess.  According to legend, William Ellis, a student attending Rugby in 1823, had had enough of scoreless ties.  Before the bell rang ending recess, he picked up the ball and ran it into the goal.  This account is probably a myth, though the game as played in Rugby did change during this time period to one that allowed carrying the ball.  In reality rules varied depending on local preferences with some schools or regions favoring more handling of the ball, while others allowed less.  Handling the ball in soccer wasn’t completely outlawed until 1863.  Those favoring what’s known as rugby today didn’t codify their rules until 1871.

In the early 19th century America’s school kids played a game mostly resembling soccer, but the rules they used did allow some handling of the ball.  Players were allowed to bat the ball, and if they caught it, they were allowed a free kick on goal, not unlike modern Australian rules football.  Canadians introduced rugby to the United States in 1871, and it quickly became much more popular than soccer.  However, Americans thought scrums were a boring part of the game.  In rugby when a player is tackled, both teams have to fight for possession of the ball at the spot of the tackle.   The ball can stay hidden in the pile of men for a long time and the flow of the game is interrupted.  Walter Camp, a player/coach at Yale University, proposed changing the rule so that the team retained possession of the ball after the tackle.  Following this rule change, teams with the lead and the ball simply took a knee, necessitating another rule change also invented by Walter Camp.  Teams were given 3 downs to make 5 yards.  This rule lasted from 1880-1912 when it was changed to 4 downs to make 10 yards.  Canadian football still uses the 3 downs innovation, but they have to make 10 yards.  Walter Camp also invented the rule that the quarterback takes the snap from the center and hands off the ball to another player.  In the early days the center rolled the ball back with his heel.  But in 1891 the between-the-legs snap was invented.

Image result for rugby scrum

Rugby scrum.  Americans thought scrums were a boring part of the game so they invented the new line of scrimmage instead: the downed player’s team retains possession. This rule change caused the 2 sports to diverge.

Artist’s depiction of an early American football game.  Before the legalization of the forward pass and other rule changes that opened up the game, these contests were far more dangerous than modern day football.

Early American football was an even more dangerous sport than it is today.  Before the forward pass was legalized, the best strategy was to carry the ball straight ahead using masses of blockers lined up in a v-formation or otherwise bunched together.  All of the blockers would converge on 1 point of the defensive line, so that 4 or 5 players were slamming into 1 defender.  Even outside runs were a little used strategy because the concept of hashmarks hadn’t been established yet, and if the ball carier was forced out of bounds, the center had to snap the ball from the sidelines, greatly constricting the offense.  Early football was a defensive game with teams often punting on first down.  Field goals had a greater point value than touchdowns.  The team with the better kicker usually won because the better punter set his team up for more field goals or dropkicks by changing field position.  Field goals were reduced from 4 points to 3 points in 1909, and touchdowns were increased to 6 points in 1912, finally making touchdowns more valuable.

The high numbers of deaths in the early years of football led to rule changes to open up the game.  In 1906 lineman were no longer allowed to lineup in bunched formations, and the forward pass was legalized, despite the opposition of Walter Camp who coached powerful teams, specializing in mass momentum plays.  Nevertheless, teams didn’t often use the pass because a) the quarterback had to be 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage before he threw a pass and he was not allowed to run with the ball, b) a team lost possession if the pass was incomplete, c) it was illegal to pass the ball over the goal line, and d) the ball was made for kicking not throwing.  In 1912 the rule was changed so that an incomplete pass did not result in a turnover.  Some teams began to pass the ball more often after this, but the passing game didn’t really get going until 1933 when the ball was changed to better suit throwing it rather than kicking it.  Other restrictive rules were eliminated in 1933 as well.  Hashmarks were also introduced in this year, encouraging teams to call outside runs more often.

Audible signals predate the huddle.  The huddle was invented by a team of deaf football players  in 1892 but was not widely used until 1921.  Before this, teams lined up rapidly and called the plays at the line of scrimmage–much like modern day no huddle offenses.  Here’s a link to the earliest footage of a college football game.  It’s the 1903 game between Yale and Princeton, filmed by Thomas Edison https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uERnf4jHe7s.

In the early days football, like soccer, only allowed 3 substitutions and once a player left the game, he could not return.  Players had to play offense and defense, and helmets were optional until 1939.  From 1941-1952 college teams were allowed unlimited substitutions.  The rule changed back to one platoon until 1964 when unlimited substitutions were once again allowed.  The NFL legalized unlimited substitutions in 1950.  Modern day substitution allows for more specialization.   Modern players are bigger, stronger, and faster, but these old school players must have had the edge in stamina.

I like college football more than pro.  In the NFL it is theoretically possible that a team with a 7-9 record could make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.  This diminishes the value of each game, making them less exciting.  In college football 1 or 2 losses can be fatal to a team’s national championship hopes.  But even if this happens, rivalry games are still important and stoke more interest than late season NFL games which often have uninteresting matchups such as a 2-11 team going up against an 8-5 team or worse yet a 3-10 vs a 4-9.

The Georgia Bulldogs are my favorite team.  Todd Gurley is my favorite active player.

gurley-soars-oklahoma-drill

Todd Gurley leaping for a touchdown.  Beating Georgia Tech never gets old.

Reference:

Revsine, Dave

The Opening Kickoff

Lyons Press 2014

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3 Responses to “The Evolution of Soccer to Rugby to Football”

  1. Robert Roy Says:

    Great blog! I love your insights on evolution and island biogeography.
    BTW, you are quite right that Canadian football is 3 downs rather than 4, but it is 10 yards to make a 1st down, same as American ball.

  2. Paul Harbridge Says:

    As I’m sure several Canadians have commented, in Canadian football, teams have 3 downs to make 10 yards, not 5 as you stated.
    Thanks for the great history.

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