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How Did American Football Get Its Name When It’s Played With Hands?

The name football can be traced back to the earliest form of the game when it was first played in the 1860s. At the time, the rules encouraged teams to focus more on kicking the ball to each other to move down the field while passing or running through the goal was not allowed. As the game evolved away from its two primary inspirations, soccer and rugby, the name continued to stick even as kicking became less and less important as it progressed.

For a long time, I thought the name “football” was hilarious. Why does the name of our sport center around the short skinny guys that are only on the field for a handful of plays every game? Why not something more physical and emblematic of the game like “tackleball?” Understanding the history adds a lot of clarity to the persistence of the name.

In this article, we’ll look at the sports that inspired the birth of football along with a look back at the first “official” game ever played and how far we’ve come from 25 players on both sides of the field with positions like, “bulldogs” and “sleepers.”

Key Takeaways

  • Football gets its name from its earliest version that focused a lot more on kicking than passing to move the ball
  • The two primary inspirations for football were soccer and rugby, two sports that rely heavily on kicking. 
  • It wasn’t until the late 1800s and early 1900s that such rules as, “eleven men on the field,” and the forward pass began to evolve the sport into something we’d recognize today.

The Origin of American Football

The foundation for the sport we love today was laid in the 1860s when colleges such as Yale and Princeton began playing a primitive form of football. Over the next 20 years, the rules were tweaked and modified during these intercollegiate contests until Yale graduate Walter Camp and a committee established many of the rules we can recognize today. This includes such modifications as needing to gain a predetermined number of yards in four downs and limiting teams to eleven men on the field. [1]

But the rules of these early forms of football were heavily influenced by other popular sports of the time, most notably soccer and rugby, two sports where kicking the ball is a much bigger part of the game. Rugby was even more kicking-centric in the 1800s than it is today while soccer has always been a sport where kicking reigns supreme. Since these were the biggest influences on the new sport, the name “football” stuck.

The First Football Game

The first official intercollegiate game ever played took place in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers in New Jersey. Instead of endzones, fields had a goal post at each end where players had to either kick or bat the ball through in order to score a point. Carrying or throwing the ball wasn’t allowed.

Each team had 25 players spread across the entire field with three basic positions, sleepers, fielders, and bulldogs. This early version relied a lot more on kicking between the 25 players and borrowed heavily from soccer for many of its early strategies. But it was more physical than soccer, drawing from rugby with the offensive team “blocking” defenders to keep them away from the ball.

There was no time limit for the first game. The teams decided to play until they’d combined for ten points with every “goal” worth one. For protection, the teams wore leather helmets, a practice that would continue into the 1940s. [2]

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While football went through a wide range of changes since its inception in the 1860s, the name has persisted even as kicking has become a less and less important part of the game. In the modern day, I’d argue that kicking matters less now than ever with teams opting to “go for it” on fourth down more often and even attempt two point conversions in situations where teams used to kick without a second thought.

If we agree that the name “football” is now outdated, what should we change it to? Share your proposals for a re-branded name in the comments below.


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