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The History Of American Football


The NFL has been viewed as one of the most profitable, and entertaining, sports businesses in the world. The NFL itself took in more than 13 billion dollars in 2016 alone and has shown steady increases in their profit margins annually.

This is a direct result of the popularity of the sport, but where it did all begin? Did it start in some dusty field in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin? Was the birth of American football a fluke or something that happened by pure happenstance or was it destiny?

Tracing The History Of Football

Early American football can trace its beginnings back to early versions of association football and rugby, both of which have their own origin story, and varieties, in Britain. As with most sports, college is where they all begin. The November 6, 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton is hailed as the first college football game, although it was nothing like the game we know today. All of that changed when the great Walter Camp, a renown rugby player from Yale University, made some notable changes to the rules of football, for instance, the legalization of blocking, down and distance rules and the all-important, line of scrimmage.

The Birth Of American Football

Athletic clubs became extremely popular towards the end, and after, the Civil War. These clubs sponsored events and activities that put one club and its members up against another. The sport became so popular that intense rivalries started, such as the one between the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) and the Pittsburg Athletic Club (PAC).

November 12, 1892 is a day that is engraved in the minds and hearts of sports fanatics. On that day, the Allegheny Athletic Association defeated the Pittsburg Athletic club in a game of football. The game was not some momentous event that was years in the making. It was just a regular game between two traveling clubs. However, during that game, something happened that changed the course of football forever. William Heffelfinger was paid $500 to participate in the game and as such became the first player to be paid to play football. While the PAC could feel that something illegal was going on, it took more than 80 years for proof to come out that that AAA had paid Heffelfinger to play for them.

Football Became More Organized And Official

During World War 1, it was hard for clubs and teams to find athletic males to play for them locally, so they began recruiting players from other states. This quickly became something that all teams and clubs felt needed to be handled more efficiently, and regulated, to keep things fair. This leads to the creation of the American Profession Football Association in 1920. The APFA, which was founded in Canton, Ohio, had 14 teams.

These teams included:

  • Canton Bulldogs
  • Cleveland Tigers
  • Akron Professionals
  • Dayton Triangles
  • Rock Island Independents
  • Rochester Jeffersons
  • Muncie Flyers
  • Chicago Cardinals
  • Decatur Staleys
  • Chicago Tigers
  • Buffalo All-Americans
  • Detroit Heralds
  • Columbus Panhandlers
  • Hammond Pros

The first APFA president was none other than Jim Thorpe, who played for and coached the Canton Bulldogs in the 1910’s. He was considered the most prevalent and highest paid player during the beginning era of football.

Two years after the formation of the APFA, the league changed its name to the National Football League (NFL). However, it wasn’t until the 1932 playoff game between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans, that football entered into the modern era. This shift into the modern era was a circumstance of mother nature as the game had to be moved indoors (the first time since 1902) due to extreme temperatures in Chicago at the time.

After the 1932 playoff game, changes began to come more quickly, for example, the AP Poll was brought into the league in 1934, the Heisman Trophy Award creation in 1935, the first annual NFL draft in 1936 and the first televised game broadcasted in 1939. The first college All-Star game was played in 1934 and was considered the shot in the are NFL needed to rapidly grow into the sports entertainment juggernaut that it is now.

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Even with the increased talent pool generated by the college All-Star games, football was still moving forward, just not as fast as the league would have liked. Then something incredible happened. The Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23 to 17 in sudden death overtime and has forever been known has the greatest game ever played. This single game pulled in new fans and viewers from around the country, which sparked the rapid surge in American Football’s popularity. In 1929, the American Football League was founded and in 1960 began playing games of their own. These teams consisted of the:

  • Boston Patriots
  • Houston Oilers
  • Buffalo Bills
  • New York Titans
  • Denver Broncos
  • Dallas Texans
  • Los Angeles Charges
  • Minnesota Vikings (Expansion team added in 1960)

Pressure for the leagues to merge was mounting and on June 8th, 1966 the leagues announced that they would begin the process of merging. The merge was completed and became official in 1970, which consisted one elongated schedule with 2 conferences. This merger brought about the birth of the New Orleans Saints in 1967, the Cincinnati Bengals towards the end of 1968, as well as both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks in 1976.

The merger also leads to a common draft, which eliminated the risk of teams drafting players and having the stolen by the others in high priced bidding was, which was the case when the Jets signed Crimson Tide legend and Future NFL Hall Of Famer and legend, Joe Namath.

Since the merger more teams have been added to the NFL and constant moves have been, as teams jump from one city to another. However, with all of the changes in the NFL, it is a well-oiled machine that doesn’t seem to have any type of end in sight. Which is great news for football fans around the world.