Introduction – The Lost Century of American Football

American football was born in the 19th century—generations before television and decades before radio—when the only sources of sports information were articles and illustrations printed in newspapers and magazines. This volume is a time capsule of those published reports from the dawn of the game. They are our sole access to the rise of America’s most popular sport. Without these accounts the inventive spirit and athletic vitality of football’s formative century would be lost in history.

In 1800, “football” referred to a disorganized mass melee of kicking and brawling, and the word was commonly used as a literary metaphor for anything being incessantly kicked around or argued about. By 1900, “football” had evolved into a highly-specialized, fully modern American sport that anyone today would recognize. This collection follows the development as it was reported in the media at the time.

Click here to see Quotations from the book and the Index.

The book is organized into eleven chronological sections.

Section 1 (Mobs & Metaphors, 1801-1869) covers the unruly era before the first intercollegiate game. Several excerpts contain metaphorical allusions to football in relation to issues of the day—politics, religion, taxes, Wall Street, citizenship, slavery, the Civil War—and are included for historical context. The role of athletics in America and the modern concept of “manliness” evolved during this period.

Section 2 (The Games Begin, 1869-1879) starts with the first intercollegiate football game, which was more akin to soccer than modern football. During this decade students from Eastern colleges organized their own teams and formed associations to establish common rules. The players were in charge of the game—without coaches and independent of the colleges they represented—and were motivated purely by the desire to compete against each other. They did not envision that thousands of spectators would care to watch them play and their pastime would generate tremendous revenue. They followed an English rugby rulebook and played with an English rugby ball. One of the best players of the late-1870s was teenager Walter Camp, captain of the Yale team.

Section 3 (From Chaos to Camp, 1880-1884) reveals the primary impetus for the evolution of rugby into a distinct American sport: the scoreless boring “block games” of 1880 and 1881. Fundamental new rules were established under the primary influence of Walter Camp. Changes included a line of scrimmage to separate the amorphous mass of players, the concept of yards-to-gain on consecutive downs to retain the ball, a scoring system that rewarded points for touchdowns and safeties in addition to kicked goals, the specialization of player positions, the central role of the quarterback, blocking ahead of a ball-carrier, and 5-yard stripes on the field. After graduation from Yale, Camp continued to assist his old team, becoming the first football coach before the job title existed. He is the root of every coaching tree.

Section 4 (An American Sport Emerges, 1885-1890) reflects an era of tremendous expansion as football attracted an avid following and teams were formed at colleges nationwide. The sport formerly known as “American Rugby” was becoming known as “American Football.” Intense school football rivalries supplanted violent intramural hazing rituals. The most important games were held on Thanksgiving Day. Enthusiastic crowds, colorful pageantry, organized cheers, costumed mascots and traffic jams were part of the new social event of the season. By the end of the decade, when he was 30 years old, Camp was already known as “the father of American football.” Several articles in this collection verify his paternity. Camp’s friend, Caspar Whitney, began selecting an All-American football team in Harper’s Weekly in 1890. Whitney was a prolific sportswriter whose influential column, “Amateur Sport,” is excerpted prominently in this volume. Whitney later became the President of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Section 5 (Camp in Command, 1891) is dominated by Walter Camp’s articles in Harper’s Weekly and Outing magazine. Camp’s former players were hired as college coaches in every region of the country, spreading the Eastern brand of American football. This section includes reports of the first Army-Navy game, the first indoor game, and an early plea for a return to the traditional game of “Association football,” now known as “soccer.”

Section 6 (Coast-to-Coast, 1892) examines a turning-point in the science of football. The “flying wedge” mass momentum play was invented by Lorin Deland, a middle-aged military historian with no football experience who became Harvard’s head coach. His example inspired elaborate new plays and strategies, affirmed the wisdom of a coaching system, and offered opportunities for non-players in the football brain trust. In the South and West, the first big games established enduring rivalries between college teams. The cultural perception of football was shaped by sensationalized reports of rowdy behavior by drunken fans, rampant gambling, ticket scalping, transportation problems, and the hoopla surrounding the game. Multiple newspaper reports from important games portray the high level of public interest and saturation of coverage tethered only by the limitations of communication technology. The Boston Daily Globe tapped into the media future by telegraphing constant updates from games in New York and writing the play-by-play on a large bulletin board outside their office. Large crowds gathered to watch real-time descriptions of games being played 200 miles away.

Section 7 (Growing Pains, 1893) delves into unresolved bureaucratic matters regarding institutional control of college athletics, recruitment of players, eligibility requirements, amateur status, and the growth of professionalism. The forerunner of pro football was played by Athletic Club teams in many cities. Former college players often played under aliases and were lured from one team to another based on financial inducements. A written professional football contract exists for William “Pudge” Heffelfinger in 1892, although reports of pay-for-play were widespread years earlier. Pro football was not considered respectable until the 1920s, so Heffelfinger and others routinely denied their involvement, thereby denying themselves what would now be a proud historical legacy. At small schools across the country mass momentum plays were deployed with deadly force by undertrained and inexperienced players trying to emulate the tactics of major college teams, resulting in catastrophic injuries and deaths. The year marked the onset of the worst economic period in American history prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The “Panic of 1893,” caused by malfeasance in the financial sector, resulted in six consecutive years of double-digit unemployment. During this period, while major league baseball was in the throes of a player revolt, public interest in college football soared.

Section 8 (The Brutal Season, 1894) details the high-profile debate over the brutality of the game as critics sought to ban intercollegiate football. There had always been an undercurrent of opposition to the violent sport, but a slew of sensationalized newspaper reports inspired many to propose its elimination. Led by Walter Camp and Princeton Professor Woodrow Wilson, the future U.S. President, defenders of football argued that the game needed stricter controls but should not be abandoned. In response to the outcry, referees were given more authority to rule on unnecessary roughness and mass momentum plays were restricted by a rule that required offensive linemen to be stationary on the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. Revised kicking rules produced an unanticipated and exciting new element: the kick return. Despite the enhanced focus on player behavior, the most high-profile games of the year devolved into unsportsmanlike violence and several players were severely injured. Undersized Frank Hinkey of Yale, a four-time All-American, was the most dominant and vicious player of the era. In this climate, the Army-Navy game was abruptly canceled and the rivalry did not resume until 1899.

Section 9 (East Meets West, 1894-95) may explain why the Eastern game deteriorated during this season. Walter Camp was on the West Coast, coaching Stanford to victory in the Big Game against the University of California, coached by Tom McClung, the former Yale player and future Treasurer of the United States. Camp headed back East just as another of his former players, Amos Alonzo Stagg, brought his University of Chicago squad to California for the first intersectional matchup. The tour included well-attended games in San Francisco and Los Angeles on Christmas and New Year’s Day, setting the stage for the Rose Bowl game, which began in 1902.

Section 10 (A Modern Sport, 1895-1899) marks the apex of American football in the era before the forward pass. Many newspapers and magazines covered sports in detail and published action photographs in addition to artistic renderings. The direct snap to the kicker led to specialization of the kicking game. Photos of two Southern teams feature two of the most famous names in football: Auburn coach, John Heisman, who is unidentified in the Harper’s Weekly caption, shown standing beside his team; and Georgia coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. Several illustrations in this section have been obtained from old scrapbooks and lack precise publication details.

Section 11 (The Game of the Century, 1900) establishes the sophistication of the game at the culmination of the century. The players wore pads, cleats, helmets, mouth guards and nose shields. A distinctive feature of the game was the importance and difficulty of kicking, a highly specialized skill required of players who were also the running backs and defensive backs, and setting the stage for the adoption of special teams decades later. Many modifications have been made since 1900, most notably, the forward pass in 1906 and the platoon system in the mid-20th century, but they merely altered a game whose architecture and character remain intact.

Many of America’s finest illustrators were drawn to football and their action-filled images introduced the new sport to millions of people. Winslow Homer depicted football scenes before and during the Civil War. Frederic Remington’s detailed woodcuts portray a player’s perspective—he was Camp’s teammate at Yale, known for making a pre-game visit to a slaughterhouse to bloody his uniform. Before he created the iconic Gibson girl that defined an era, Charles Dana Gibson penned dynamic football action. The roster includes A.B. Frost, W.T. Smedley, I.R. Wiles, T. De Thulstrup, and C.S. Reinhart.

Nineteenth century sports evolved in a restrictive cultural climate. The vast majority of writers and artists in this volume were white men who lived in a social structure that regarded Anglo Saxon men to be inherently superior beings. Indicative of the era, several written passages are disrespectful to minorities, dismissive of foreign cultures, and condescending toward women.

The African-American football experience was not prominently covered in the press. “Negro college” teams began competing against each other in 1892, the same year as the first major college match-ups in the South and West, but these games were not reported in the sources in this collection. The most widely published illustrations of black Americans playing football were cartoons in which the game was a prop for insulting racial caricatures, and are not included in this volume. Racially insensitive terminology has been retained.

Two great individual athletes were mentioned in national publications: Harvard captain William H. Lewis, the first black All-American, and George Flippin of the University of Nebraska. In 1892, the University of Missouri chose to forfeit their game with Nebraska rather than take the field against a black player. Lewis authored one of the articles in this volume in 1896 and is featured in several photographs (see Index). He later became the first African-American member of the American Bar Association and the first African-American Assistant U.S. Attorney General. For cultural reference, in the 1880s, major league baseball owners drew a color line that remained intact for 60 years until broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial segregation in the Separate but Equal case, which was unanimously overturned 58 years later in 1954. Major college football teams in the South remained segregated until the late-1960s, and the University of Alabama integrated their team in 1971, after 80 football seasons.

The Native American representation in this volume also reflects the bias of the time. Three centuries of Indian Wars ended at Wounded Knee in 1890. In 1893, the students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania began intercollegiate competition and soon formed one of the strongest football teams in the country, led by Glenn “Pop” Warner. The Carlisle-California game of 1899 was considered a barometer of the best teams of the East and West. The accompanying articles and illustrations depict the stereotypical Indian warrior associated with football, bearing a hatchet and feathered headdress, a symbol adopted by many teams and culturally offensive to many Native Americans.

Women were prized spectators at football games and are mentioned in many articles, although often with a sexist tone. American women were second-class citizens, legally and financially subservient to their husbands, lacking independent means of transportation, bound in corsets and other restrictive fashions, and expected to perform all traditional household chores and child-rearing duties. The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920, the same week the NFL was formed.

Despite the disturbing social undercurrents, the modern American sports that took form during the 19th century became proving grounds for racial equality and gender rights in the 20th century, and are enjoyed by millions of men and women today.


Ohio State–Michigan
Texas–Texas A&M
Oregon–Oregon State
Pittsburgh–Penn State
Georgia–Georgia Tech
Notre Dame–Michigan
Utah–Utah State
Louisiana State–Mississippi
Clemson–South Carolina
Iowa–Iowa State
Virginia–Virginia Tech
Arizona–Arizona State

The Lost Century of Sports Collection preserves America’s rich sporting heritage. The images in this volume were scanned from the original publications. Datelines specify the sources. Several articles were published without headlines. Headlines from daily newspapers are formatted in boxes. Headlines unrelated to sports are minimized. Additional information about games, players, coaches, writers, and illustrators can be found online.

Click here to see Quotations from the book and the Index.

The Lost Century of American Football is available on Amazon.