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Who Invented American Football and When?

While various ancestral versions of football were being played in the 1860s, Yale graduate Walter Camp is credited as “the father of American Football” during the 1880s. He implemented the rule that only eleven players would be allowed on the field at one time along with the four-down system. Eddie Cochems and St. Louis University also deserve credit for their work to make the forward pass a serious offensive weapon in 1906. 

Watching football in my childhood, I never considered how football reached these seemingly arbitrary rules. Why four downs? Why eleven players? It just served as gospel, the perfect number of players and downs. Discovering Walter Camp’s work and the years of tweaking and experimenting that went into crafting the sport I love only makes me appreciate the game more.

In this article, we’ll look at the odd hybrid sport that preceded football and the wide range of rules that a handful of east coast colleges experimented with to end up with the game we love. 

Key Takeaways

  • The first official “football” game was played in 1869, but would not be recognizable as football as we know it today
  • Yale graduate Walter Camp worked with a rules committee in the 1880s to implement rules that the game still uses today including allowing just eleven men on the field
  • Camps work along with the invention of the forward pass in the early 1900s set the foundation for modern football

A Football/Soccer/Rugby Hybrid

Modern football fans would find little in common between the sport they love and its ancestral predecessor. The original game didn’t have many of the fundamental aspects of the game that make it so recognizable today. There were no quarterbacks and no four-down system while the forward pass wouldn’t come into use until the early 20th century.

Instead, colleges on the east coast played a brand of football inspired by English-style football and rugby with a ball that wasn’t quite round but wasn’t a distinctive football shape either. The first “official” intercollegiate game was played on November 6th, 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers.

Long before the NCAA, individual colleges had their own unique interpretation of this new game, and many times teams would take the field with slightly different rules. Harvard and Yale for example played a brand they referred to as, “Boston Football,” but both eventually agreed that the rugby-influenced game played by other colleges was more enjoyable. [1]


Walter Camp, Father of American Football

A Yale student from 1876-1881 who played halfback along with serving as the head coach, Walter Camp was also the leader of the new Intercollegiate Football Association, a new rules committee intent on smoothing out the rougher aspects of this new game.

Camp and his committee made several big changes to the game that are still utilized today. Previously, the game had used a “scrum” like rugby has to determine possession at the beginning of the game. The four-down system was also implemented. If a team failed to gain a predetermined number of yards in four plays, they would lose possession.

Teams being limited to eleven players per side and the invention of the quarterback position are also credited to Camp and the Intercollegiate Football Association. Camp wasn’t just an innovator, but a great coach as well, leading Yale to a 67-2 record. [2]

The Forward Pass

Along with Camp’s work, the other big early football innovation was the forward pass. Football’s already had laces to stitch the leather together, and the unique shape made the laces vital for throwing accurate passes. Credit for this discovery goes to Eddie Cochems, the head coach of St. Louis University who quickly uncovered this huge advantage when the forward pass was first made legal at the collegiate level in 1906. [3]

St. Louis went undefeated that first season with their innovative passing attack, and the final foundations of the sport we know and love today were set in place.


Unlike James Naismith and his peach baskets, the “invention” of football is not as binary as it was for basketball. Instead, we see decades of trial and error as the game steadily evolved from a soccer/rugby hybrid to modern football. But Walter Camp deserves the bulk of the credit in my opinion for the invention of the four-down system, a rule that didn’t exist in any other sport to determine possession. 

There’s been no shortage of innovations throughout the years, from the multi-receiver sets, to shotgun formations, punts, and two-point conversion strategies. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your lifetime? Let us know in the comments below.


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