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American Football: 25 Historical Facts (Origins, Stats, Super Bowl,…)

Baseball was given the name “American Pastime,” but football has rapidly become one of the most popular sports in the country. You would be hard-pressed to find any group of people without at least one football fanatic. 

The Super Bowl is so popular that many have suggested that the day after should be a national holiday. Even with its huge fanbase, though, there are many things about the sport that most people do not know.

What are a few historical facts about American Football?

  • The forward pass was not legal for the first 40 years that football was played.
  • Helmets were not required until 1943.
  • The NFL had 46 seasons where it crowned a champion before the Superbowl came into existence.
  • The first female officiant in the NFL was Sarah Thomas in 2015.

These are just a few of our favorite facts. Here are the full 25 historical facts about American football that will make you the smartest football fan in the room:

1. First Intercollegiate Football Game: Rutgers vs. Princeton

What is widely considered the first intercollegiate football game ever was played on November 6th, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton. The game the two played, although having elements of football as we know it today, was not the sport that we know. 

This game was played similar to soccer and borrowed rules from the London Football Association. The goal was to kick the ball into the opponent’s goal. Rosters of 25 men to a side tried to bat the ball with hands, feet, heads, and sides, but could not carry or throw it.

Rutgers won 6-4. But don’t worry, Princeton fans, the teams played again the following week, with Princeton winning 8-0.

2. The Boston Game: Was it Football?

Some people argue that the Rutgers/Princeton game was not actually the beginning of American Football. The game is believed to be a form of soccer, basically. In 1873, they formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, but some schools were not interested in joining.

Harvard wanted to play the game more physically than the IFA would allow and refused to join the new league. Instead, Harvard ended up playing against a Canadian school, McGill University, that played a game closer to rugby. Harvard brought what became known as “The Boston Game” back to the states.

The first intercollegiate Boston Game was played in 1875 between Harvard and Yale. The game started to take off from there.

3. Walter Camp: Father of American Football

Walter Camp is called the “Father of American Football.” As an undergraduate and medical student at Yale, Camp influenced many rule changes that bridged the gap from the Rutgers/Princeton game and The Boston Game to what we know as American football today.

As a member of the rules board on the IFA, Camp instituted…

  • No more opening scrum: Rugby starts with a mass of humanity piling up around the ball. Camp had this removed from the American version.
  • Downs: It was Camp who came up with the idea that a team would lose possession of the ball if they did not move a certain distance up the field in a certain number of downs.
  • 11 Man Teams: Camp cut the number of people on the field from 25 to the number we know today, 11.
  • The Quarterback: It was Camp who developed the position; although it did not look much like we know it today, passing was still illegal.
  • The Line Of Scrimmage: The game was much more open and free-flowing, like rugby, until Camp instituted this idea.
  • Offensive-Sign Calling: Camp developed this system more as a captain of the Yale team than as a rules board member, but it was still an innovation that brought the game closer to what we know today.
  • The Scoring Scale: The original scoring scale was one point for each time the ball was put in the opponent’s endzone, and a dropkick was completed, but Camp came up with the idea of 6 points for getting it in the endzone and one point for the completed dropkick.

4. William Pudge Heffelfinger: The First Pro

William Heffelfinger is the first known professional football player. 

In the years after the Civil War, it became popular for athletic clubs in various cities to put together teams in different sports and play against other athletic clubs. Football was one of the most popular sports for the clubs to play. All players in these games were supposed to be amateurs, but there were many tactics used to get the best players to play for your club. 

Some teams promised players jobs; others awarded watches and trophies that would end up getting hocked. Some clubs even started offering double expenses to players to come to play. All of these practices were denounced.

All of these led to William Heffelfinger being paid 500 dollars to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Although rumors spread that Heffelfinger was paid, nothing was proven. Almost 80 years later, the Pro Football Hall Of Fame removed all doubt when they put a AAA expense report on display that removed all doubt.

5. Teddy Roosevelt’s Influence

The ex-president may be one of the most important fans in the history of the sport. At the turn of the century, the longevity of the sport was in danger. The sport was considered extraordinarily brutal, and rightfully so. In the year 1904, 18 football deaths occurred. After 19 more deaths in 1905, many schools dropped the sport.

Harvard was discussing dropping it as well, which would have been a death knell for the sport when their most famous alum at the time stepped in. Teddy Roosevelt, a huge fan of the sport, convinced the school to keep the sport and brokered the changing of some rules to make the game safer. Many credit this intervention as saving American Football from extinction.

6. Legality of the Forward Pass

American Football may revolve around the passing game today, but that was not always the case. For much of the sport’s history, you won by running the ball. The forward pass was not legal for the first 40 years of the sport. It was made legal in 1906 in an attempt to open the game up and prevent the many deaths that were occurring due to the sport.

7. The First Huddle

Today, everyone who has ever played a minute of American football, even if it was in a neighbor’s years, has taken part in a huddle. The first huddle, though, was used by quarterback Paul Hubbard in the 1890s. Hubbard created the strategy because he was deaf, and he feared that the opposing team would be able to interpret his signs. 

8. Evolution of the Football

The ball used in the Rutgers/Princeton game was essentially a soccer ball. The Boston Game used a rugby ball. It was this shape and size that made the forward pass difficult to complete. A rugby-style ball was used until 1912, when rule changes created an oversized version of the ball we use today.  

In 1935, the dimensions of the modern ball were established. A regulation football has a short axis between 21 ¼ in and 21 ½ in and a long axis of 28 into 28 ½ in. It is 11in to 11 ¼ in long. It is filled at 12.5 to 13.5 psi.

Some will notice that even though college and professional footballs are the same sizes, there is one major difference. College balls have a white stripe on either end of the ball. This supposedly makes the ball easier to see when it is thrown.

9. The American Professional Football Association

The American Professional Football Association (APFA) was the first professional football league. It was started in 1920 when World War I led to a shortage of players. Teams needed to recruit out of state, and a need arose for there to be some sort of governing body. 

The league was founded in Canton, Ohio. The original teams included:

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

The APFA seasons were 11 games long. The first champion was the Akron Professionals. The league changed its name a few times over the next few years until settling on the National Football League in 1922.

10. Red Grange: The First Superstar

Red Grange was football’s first true superstar. He is most known as a halfback for the Chicago Bears. What makes Grange particularly interesting is that he was one of the first athletes to sign endorsements. He was also one of the first athletes to parlay his on-the-field achievements into an acting career. 

11. Helmet Requirements

As much as concussions and head injuries are big topics of discussion in American football today, helmets were not required until 1943, 23 years after the league started, and 74 years after the Rutgers/Princeton game.

12. All-American Football Conference

The All-American Football Conference was formed in 1944 as a rival to the NFL. The league became wildly popular, outdrawing the NFL in attendance in all of the major markets. But, the league only lasted for four years. Although the large markets drew great crowds, the disparity between the best and worst teams gave the league little foundation for success. 

The Cleveland Brown easily won all four championships. When the league folded, three teams, including today’s San Francisco Forty-Niners and Baltimore Ravens (originally the Cleveland Browns), moved to the NFL.

13. 1948 Cleveland Browns

While almost any NFL fan can tell you that the 1972 Miami Dolphins had a perfect season going 14-0 during the season and then winning all three of their playoff games, including that year’s Super Bowl, not many can tell you that the 1948 Cleveland Browns completed the same feat. 

While Cleveland was able to go 14-0 during the regular season and win all of their playoff games, the NFL does not acknowledge the AAFC record books, so the Cleveland Browns history season goes mostly unnoticed. 

14. AFL

The American Football League was created in 1960 by a group of owners who were refused NFL franchises. The league ran for ten years until it merged with the NFL. The league played a more offensive style of football that became popular enough to rival the bigger, more entrenched NFL. 

The league’s popularity was helped by its deals with ABC and then NBC, which broadcasted games for the league nationwide.

15. Championships Before The Super Bowl

Most football fans could tell you exactly how many Super Bowls there have been, but that wouldn’t be the correct number of NFL championships. The NFL had 46 seasons where it named a champion before the first Super Bowl.

From 1920 to 1932, the champion was decided by who had the best record at the end of the season. In 1933, the NFL switched to a playoff system that determined a champion with a championship game.

Both noted rivals to the NFL, the AAFC and the AFL ran playoff systems ending in a championship game similar to the NFL.

16. The Greatest Game Ever Played

The popularity of football in America is widely considered to have sprung from what is now called The Greatest Game Ever Played. 

The 26th NFL Championship Game, held in December of 1958 between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, was played in front of a national audience in Yankee Stadium. NBC broadcast what ended up being the first NFL championship game to go into sudden-death overtime.

The Colts, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, beat the Giants, staffed with 11 future Hall of Famers, 23-17.

17. Football Stadium Orientation

All NFL football stadiums are constructed with the end zones running from North to South. The obvious reason being, so the sun does not affect gameplay.

18. The First Super Bowl

In 1966, the upstart AFL agreed to merge with the NFL and, in the process, create a championship game between the two leagues crowning one American football champion. The first championship matchup between the two leagues was held in January of 1967. NFL’s Green Bay Packers beat the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.

The first two games between the two leagues were called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. It wasn’t until the third year of the agreement that the name Super Bowl was attached to the game.

19. Instant Replay

If “The Greatest Game Ever” sparked national popularity in American Football, it was the development of instant replay that made it grow. Although football games had been televised for years, it wasn’t until replay allowed fans at home to dissect each play and fill the long periods of inaction between snaps that the sport took off. 

Instant replay became standard in sports broadcasting in the mid-’60s, just in time for the creation of the Super Bowl.

20. Nerf Football

The famous ball that can be used inside was actually invented by a Minnesota kicker, furthering the idea that kickers don’t have much to do during the game. Fred Cox was trying to come up with a kicking game for kids to play at home. 

Parker Brothers wasn’t crazy about the game but snagged the idea on how to make the ball. Cox received royalty checks until the day he died.

21. The Packers G

You’ve seen the big white G on the side of the Green Bay Packers helmet. Stories have been circulated that the G was put there to represent the greatness of the team. Although many people believe this to be true, this is a perfect example of Occam’s Razor. The G stands for Green Bay.

22. 11 Minutes of Action

Although most football games last three hours, the football is usually only in play for 11 minutes. 60% of television air time during the game is spent watching players on the line of scrimmage, huddling, or just walking around between plays. 58% of the broadcast is devoted to replay. 

23. Female Participation

Football, like most professional sports, has been historically thought of as a man’s sport. But that has changed dramatically in recent years. In 2015, Sarah Thomas became the first full-time female official in the NFL. 

She is also the first female officiant for a major college game and the first woman to officiate a bowl game. She finished her series of firsts in 2019 when she became the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game.

A year after Sarah Thomas joined the league, Kathryn Smith became the first female to hold a full-time NFL coaching position. She was hired for the 2016-2017 season by the Buffalo Bills as a Special Teams Quality Control Coach. 

24. Super Bowl Tickets

Many fans across the world dream of going to see a Super Bowl. Some even put it on their bucket list, no matter what two teams are playing. But the chances of checking that event off your list are very low. 

The tickets are spread out between each NFL team, with a higher percentage going to the teams playing, and corporate sponsors. Of the tickets not going to corporations, most go-to players and their families, leaving a few tickets to be raffled off to season ticket holders. If you happen to win the raffle, you will have to pay face value.

25. Super Bowl and Food

Super Bowl Sunday is one of the days that the most pizzas, chicken wings, and guacamole are ordered in the United States. The big game is quickly trying to overtake Thanksgiving as the day Americans enjoy eating the most. 

I know this isn’t a historical American football fact, but people need to know to understand the importance of this event.