On this date in 1873, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers universities met to draft the first code of American football rules. Longtime readers will know that I do not like using “American” as an adjective referring to the United States, but I’ll let my rule slide here because “American football” is a well-understood term. This meeting of university representatives to draft the rules that eventually led to the current game cannot be considered the main event in the history of the game, but it was a milestone. Fair warning: I don’t like the game at all. Two rules that were developed later and are hallmarks of the game – blocking and the forward pass – completely ruin the game for me. The idea that some players have no other role than to block players on the other team means that they rarely, if ever, touch the ball, and this rule seems completely ludicrous to me. It puts an emphasis on brute force and raw strength over skill in ball handling which is limited to only a small number of players. I like football games where every player has the ability, and need, to touch the ball during the game, and in which interfering with a player who is not in possession of the ball is not allowed. The forward pass does not sit well with me either. In all the classic English ball sports lingering around the goal or making forward passes to players ahead of defenders was always considered unsporting and is now illegal (the offside rule).
Forms of traditional football have been played throughout Europe and beyond since antiquity. Many of these involved handling of the ball, and scrummage-like formations. Several of the oldest examples of football-like games include the Greek game of Episkyros and the Roman game of Harpastum. Over time many countries across the world have also developed their own national football-like games. For example, New Zealand had Ki-o-rahi, Australia marn grook, Japan kemari, China cuju, Georgia lelo burti, the Scottish Borders Jeddart Ba’ and Cornwall Cornish hurling, Central Italy Calcio Fiorentino, South Wales cnapan, East Anglia Campball and Ireland had caid, which was an ancestor of Gaelic football.
Archaic forms of football in England, typically classified as mob football, were played between neighboring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag a ball of some sort by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder. These antiquated games went into sharp decline in the 19th century when the Highway Act 1835 was passed banning the playing of football on public highways. What arose instead were football games at various public (i.e. private) boarding schools, notably Rugby. Football was adopted by these public schools as a way of encouraging competitiveness and keeping boys fit. Each school drafted its own rules, which varied widely between different schools and were changed over time with each new intake of pupils. Two schools of thought developed regarding rules. Some schools favored a game in which the ball could be carried (as at Rugby, Marlborough and Cheltenham), while others preferred a game where kicking and dribbling the ball was promoted (as at Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Charterhouse). The division into these two camps was partly the result of circumstances in which the games were played. For example, Charterhouse and Westminster at the time had restricted playing areas; the boys were confined to playing their ball game within the school cloisters, making it difficult for them to adopt rough and tumble running games. Out of this diversity of games and rules evolved a number of games both in England and abroad. I’ve dealt with several here:
Let’s now turn to American football which evolved in the United States from a Rugby-style of football. Early football games in the United States appear to have had much in common with the traditional mob football played in England. The games remained largely unorganized until the 19th century, when intramural games of football began to be played on college campuses. Each school played its own variety of football. Princeton University students played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. A Harvard tradition known as “Bloody Monday” began in 1827, which consisted of a mass ballgame between the freshman and sophomore classes. In 1860, both the town police and the college authorities agreed the Bloody Monday had to go. The Harvard students responded by going into mourning for a mock figure called “Football Fightum,” for whom they conducted funeral rites. The authorities held firm and it was a dozen years before football was once again played at Harvard. Dartmouth played its own version called “Old division football,” the rules of which were first published in 1871, though the game dates to at least the 1830s. All of these games, and others, shared certain common features. They remained largely “mob” style games, with huge numbers of players attempting to advance the ball into a goal area, often by any means necessary. Rules were simple, violence and injury were common. The violence of these mob-style games led to widespread protests and a decision to abandon them. Yale, under pressure from the city of New Haven, banned the play of all forms of football in 1860.
The game began to return to college campuses by the late 1860s. Yale, Princeton, Rutgers University, and Brown University began playing the popular “kicking” game during this time. In 1867, Princeton used rules based on those of the London Football Association. A “running game,” resembling rugby football, was taken up by the Montreal Football Club in Canada in 1868. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) in a game that was played with a round ball and, used a set of rules suggested by Rutgers captain William J. Leggett, based on the Football Association’s first set of rules. It is still usually regarded as the first game of intercollegiate American football even though it bore no resemblance to the modern game. The game was played at a Rutgers field. Two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed, but there was plenty of physical contact between players. The first team to reach six goals was declared the winner. Rutgers won by a score of six to four. A rematch was played at Princeton a week later under Princeton’s own set of rules (one notable difference was the awarding of a “free kick” to any player who caught the ball on the fly, which was a feature adopted from the Football Association’s rules. The fair catch kick rule has survived through to modern American game). Princeton won that game by a score of 8–0. Columbia joined the series in 1870, and by 1872 several schools were fielding intercollegiate teams, including Yale and Stevens Institute of Technology.
By 1873, the college students playing football had made significant efforts to standardize their fledgling game. Teams had been scaled down from 25 players to 20. The only way to score was still to bat or kick the ball through the opposing team’s goal, and the game was played in two 45 minute halves on fields 140 yards long and 70 yards wide. On October 20, 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City to codify the first set of intercollegiate football rules. Before this meeting, each school had its own set of rules and games were usually played using the home team’s own particular code. At this meeting, a list of rules, based more on the Football Association’s rules than the rules of the recently founded Rugby Football Union, was drawn up for intercollegiate football games.
Harvard refused to attend the rules conference organized by the other schools and continued to play under its own code. While Harvard’s voluntary absence from the meeting made it hard for them to schedule games against other U.S. universities, it agreed to a challenge to play McGill University, from Montreal, in a two-game series. Inasmuch as Rugby football had been transplanted to Canada from England, the McGill team played under a set of rules which allowed a player to pick up the ball and run with it whenever he wished. Another rule, unique to McGill, was to count tries (the act of grounding the football past the opposing team’s goal line — it is also important to note that there was no end zone during this time), as well as goals, in the scoring. In the Rugby rules of the time, a touchdown only provided the chance to try to kick a free goal from the field. There were no points for the touchdown which was, and still is, called in rugby a “try,” that is, a “try at goal.”
Harvard quickly took a liking to the Rugby game, and its use of the try which, until that time, was not used in American football. The try would later evolve into the score known as the touchdown. On June 4, 1875, Harvard faced Tufts University in the first game between two U.S. colleges played under rules similar to the McGill/Harvard contest, which was won by Tufts. The rules included each side fielding 11 men at any given time, the ball was advanced by kicking or carrying it, and tackles of the ball carrier stopped play. Further elated by the excitement of McGill’s version of football, Harvard challenged its closest rival, Yale. The two teams agreed to play under a set of rules called the “Concessionary Rules”, which involved Harvard conceding something to Yale’s soccer and Yale conceding a great deal to Harvard’s rugby. They decided to play with 15 players on each team. On November 13, 1875, Yale and Harvard played each other for the first time ever. Among the 2000 spectators attending the game that day, was the future “father of American football” Walter Camp. Camp, who enrolled at Yale the next year, was torn between an admiration for Harvard’s style of play and the misery of Yale’s defeat (4-0), and became determined to avenge it. Spectators from Princeton, also carried the game back home, where it quickly became the most popular version of football.
Walter Camp is widely considered to be the most important figure in the development of American football. As a youth, he excelled in sports including track athletics, baseball, and association football, and after enrolling at Yale in 1876, he earned varsity honors in every sport the school offered. Following the introduction of rugby-style rules to American football, Camp became a fixture at the Massasoit House conventions where rules were debated and changed. Dissatisfied with what seemed to him to be a disorganized mob, he proposed his first rule change at the first meeting he attended in 1878: a reduction from fifteen players to eleven. The motion was rejected at that time but passed in 1880. The effect was to open up the game and emphasize speed over strength. Camp’s most famous change, the establishment of the line of scrimmage and the snap from center to quarterback, was also passed in 1880. Originally, the snap was executed with the foot of the center. Later changes made it possible to snap the ball with the hands, either through the air or by a direct hand-to-hand pass. Rugby league followed Camp’s example, and in 1906 introduced the play-the-ball rule, which greatly resembled Camp’s early scrimmage and center-snap rules. In 1966, Rugby league introduced a four-tackle rule based on Camp’s early down-and-distance rules.
Camp’s new scrimmage rules revolutionized the game, though not always as intended. Princeton, in particular, used scrimmage play to slow the game, making incremental progress towards the end zone during each down. Rather than increase scoring, which had been Camp’s original intent, the rule was exploited to maintain control of the ball for the entire game, resulting in slow, unexciting contests. At the 1882 rules meeting, Camp proposed that a team be required to advance the ball a minimum of five yards within three downs. These down-and-distance rules, combined with the establishment of the line of scrimmage, transformed the game from a variation of rugby football into the distinct sport of American football.
Camp was central to several more significant rule changes that came to define American football. In 1881, the field was reduced in size to its modern dimensions of 120 by 53 1⁄3 yards (109.7 by 48.8 meters). Several times in 1883, Camp tinkered with the scoring rules, finally arriving at four points for a touchdown, two points for kicks after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals. Camp’s innovations in the area of point scoring influenced rugby union’s move to point scoring in 1890. In 1887, game time was set at two halves of 45 minutes each. Also in 1887, two paid officials—a referee and an umpire—were mandated for each game. A year later, the rules were changed to allow tackling below the waist, and in 1889, the officials were given whistles and stopwatches.
The last, and arguably most important innovation, which would at last make American football uniquely “American,” was the legalization of interference, or blocking, a tactic which was highly illegal under the rugby-style rules, and remains so. At first, U.S. players would find creative ways of aiding the runner by pretending to accidentally knock into defenders trying to tackle the runner. When Walter Camp witnessed this tactic being employed against his Yale team, he was at first appalled, but the next year had adopted the blocking tactics for his own team.
So much for history. Here’s one of my favorite monologues by a young (and largely unknown) Andy Griffith – “What it Was, Was Football” – produced in 1953. The rural North Carolina accent alone is priceless, let alone the cheerful innocence of the country bumpkin.
Eating and football are natural twins in the United States. So-called tailgate parties are legendary in most stadium parking lots, where people come hours early and set up picnic and BBQ areas around their cars. The “tailgate” part comes from the old-fashioned use of pickup trucks for transport whose tailgate can be folded down to make a table for preparing and serving food. What I like about the idea of a tailgate party is that it is an outdoor picnic in autumn or winter. Most households in the U.S. see Labor Day (beginning of September) as the end of the picnic and BBQ season and shut up shop until the following Memorial Day in May. But I love cooking and eating outdoors in the colder weather.
October was a great month for outdoor cooking for me because in the northeastern U.S. it is normally a dry month with warm, sunny days and starry nights – perfect for gathering around a roaring fire as light fades. This is the time for pig roasts and big gatherings. One year I held a campfire birthday party for my son (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/badger/ ) where his friends got to roast hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks whilst I cooked up a giant pot of chili over the coals (supplemented with fire-roasted potatoes and apples). It wasn’t elegant, of course, but great fun for everybody. Break the mold – eat outdoors today.
One commercial food was actually created specifically for tailgate parties – Palmetto Cheese, which was developed by Sassy Henry for tailgating at Atlanta Braves games. When Sassy and her husband, Brian, moved to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, they bought the Sea View Inn where the cook, Vertrella Brown, created the original recipe – a spread made from cheddar cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise and spices. Brown’s image can be found on the label of Palmetto Cheese. In 2006, Sassy and Vertrella’s pimento cheese recipe made the leap from the Sea View Inn menu to the first 20 packages put for sale at Independent Seafood in Georgetown, South Carolina. Now it is widely available at major chains in the U.S. and comes in Original, Jalapeño and Bacon. I’m not a fan of pre-made spreads, but it’s your choice. Me? You’ll find me out back at the fire pit.