A Brief History of 170+ Years of American Football


Before we explore the history of the American Football League (AFL), our beloved Houston Oilers, the AFL’s merger with the National Football League (NFL), and the modern game of football, we should look deeper into the past to better understand the game that we love.

The sport now known as football really began in the mid-19th Century as a weird, uniquely American cross between the European games of soccer and rugby.

The game developed in the New England states among the Ivy League schools of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and others.

At first, the game had very few rules and was more of a mosh pit of college boys beating, kicking, scratching, pushing, and throttling to score goals.

Teams didn’t even agree on a set of rules for a long time, but one of the few rules they did agree upon was that manslaughter and murder were not valid ways to move the ball! At first, each college and prep school had its own rules and would agree just prior to the start of each game on how to play and score.

In early versions of the game, players were not allowed to pick the ball up to run with it. Instead, they were required to kick it or sweep it down the field with their hands.

This chaotic, violent sport came to be called “Mob Foot-ball” and was so violent that several colleges banned it.

In 1855, the “Boston Game” version of the sport developed, which used a rounded ball in play.

This led to the formation of regulated intercollegiate play.

Walter Camp during his playing career at Yale

One pioneering figure in the sport’s history was Walter Camp, who became known as “The Father of American Football.”

Camp played for Yale in the 1870s and lobbied for 15 years to assimilate a set of coherent rules upon which each club could agree. With the eventual widespread acceptance of these rules, the game of football emerged in a recognizable form.

During this time, rules instituted a line of scrimmage, down and distance rules, the quarterback position, 11-man teams, and a scoring scale similar to today’s game.

Walter Camp during his coaching years

Nevertheless, injuries were so widespread and severe that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had played football in his youth, threatened the ban the game.

Hoping to open up the game and reduce many of the injuries, the forward pass would be first permitted in 1906.

Perhaps surprisingly, two remnants of those early days of the sport remain in today’s game.

The oldest existing team is the Arizona Cardinals, which began in 1898 as the Morgan Athletic Club. They joined the NFL in 1920 as a charter member.
Only the Cardinals and the Chicago Bears franchises remain from the original NFL charter formed in the 1920s.

The NFL rapidly gained fans throughout the 1920s to 1950s, but the league refused to allow expansion franchises. Team owners wanted to grow revenue and not share it with others.

As a result, several new professional leagues attempted to compete with the NFL, though all failed quickly until 1960.

The first American Football League (also known as the Grange League) was founded in 1926. This league of nine teams lasted just one year in competition against the NFL.

The second incarnation of the AFL survived for two seasons, from 1936 to 1937, while the third AFL attempt also lasted two seasons, from 1940 to 1941.Finally, in 1960, the fourth AFL iteration managed to catch on, and it successfully competed against and eventually merged with the NFL.

This fourth AFL spawned the Houston Oilers franchise and the modern game of professional football!

Up next: Bud Adams and the Formation of the American Football League of 1960

Ed Wetterman is a native Houstonian and lifelong Oiler fan/historian. He is a teacher, genealogist, game creator, and writer who lived and died on Sundays with the Oilers. Ed has created many games such as “East Texas University: Degrees of Horror” and written short stories such as “HellFighter,” published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Football has always been one of his greatest passions. He experienced the highs and the lows of being an Oiler fan, and like many others, he was crushed when the Oilers left Houston. Writing for Miss Ya Blue! gives him an outlet for his Columbia Blue love.

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