Introduction – The First Decade of College Football

This time capsule from the first decade of college football contains over 300 newspaper articles, commencing with the first intercollegiate game in 1869.

These eyewitness reports introduced football to the American public.

The writers, all born before the Civil War, could not have envisioned that this rowdy game would become an American institution, a multi-billion dollar industry, and an enduring passion for millions of fans for succeeding generations.

Before 1869, intramural football-type games had been played informally for decades at various colleges, according to their local rules. Several articles refer to annual class contests between Freshmen and Sophomores, often involving hundreds of students at a time, and linked to hazing rituals, such as the infamous “cane rush.”

Football rules varied among the colleges and evolved significantly during this decade, as reflected in the many disputes over the size of the field, the number of players on a team, and the style of play.

The first college football associations were formed in the 1870s, as the American game began to branch off from English Rugby and Association Football (soccer) into a distinctive cultural sport. Many people called the game “American Rugby,” as it was played with a rugby ball, and the most widely-accepted rules were those of rugby.

Walter Camp, who entered Yale in 1876, was a standout player in his teens, long before he became known as “The Father of American Football.” His skill as a player is described in several articles (see the Index), as well as his role as a referee and staunch advocate of the 11-man team.

The first rules established the goal post crossbar height at ten feet, with uprights 18 feet 6 inches apart, the same as they are today. The goalpost is our oldest intact relic of the original game.

Points were not awarded for safeties, so overmatched teams could retreat behind their goal line to down the ball without penalty, allowing them a “punt-out.” There was no system of downs with yards to gain. Teams most commonly consisted of 11 or 15 or 20 players.

Multiple-point scoring values did not exist until the 1880s. A kick over the goalpost crossbar counted as one point, the same as a touchdown. In most cases, touching the ball down across the opponent’s goal line merely provided the opportunity for a convenient free kick. If the kick was not converted, no point was awarded for the touchdown.

Games were played in 45-minute periods, referred to as “three-quarters,” or divided into “innings” which ended when a goal was scored. Teams could play any number of innings upon mutual agreement.

Thousands of spectators thronged to the games, creating a sideshow. The coaches mentioned in the articles are the horse-drawn variety. The game was new and rapidly evolving so there were no experts or veterans to act as coaches. Players taught each other how to play. The team captain was the primary voice.

Articles include: the first night football game played under artificial light in England; play-by-play of a game in Chicago transmitted by telegraph to fans in Michigan; a petition over the right of working boys to play football in Central Park; women as both players and spectators; football as a Thanksgiving Day tradition; and many reports of injuries.

The primary sources reveal the evolving craft of sports writing and the development of football jargon. By the end of the decade, the writing reflected a tone of reportage that continues to this day.

The articles are organized chronologically and span 25 states:
California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.

Click here to see the Table of Contents and Index.

The First Decade of College Football is available on Amazon and Kindle.