Original football similar to Rugby

Published 10:04 am Monday, March 26, 2007

My old friend and officiating colleague Andy Pressgrove has loaned me a very interesting book. Titled “The Anatomy of a Game” and written by David M. Nelson, it tells the story of college football, from its earliest moments, from the view of the rules of the game.

Nelson was the long-time Secretary-Editor for the NCAA Football Rules Committee, and served in that capacity longer than even the legendary Walter Camp. Nelson, who also was the Athletic Director (and former head football coach) at the University of Delaware, died in 1991.

Most football fans understand that the game of American football dates from a game in 1869 between students at Rutgers and Princeton. Not many would recognize many similarities between that game and the game we all know today. That original game was much like the English game of Rugby, except that there appeared to be no written rules.

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The teams playing a game seemed to make up the rules for that day between them.

Rugby seems to have evolved from soccer, which had been played in much the same form as now since Roman times or before. It is written that a young man at Rugby School in England, during a game of soccer, decided he needed to score before the “five o’clock bell” so he just took off running to his opponent’s goal. Though many were outraged, he evidently started something new.

Rutgers, Princeton, Yale and Harvard played football in 1869 and 1870, but the game was dropped in 1871. Thereafter, meetings were held to try to enact a uniform code, or set of rules.

Some of the original rules were the field (or “ground”) was to be 400 feet long and 250 feet wide; there would be 20 players on each side; and a player could not run with the ball or pick it up unless he was pursued by an opponent.

The penalty for that violation was that he had to throw the ball up perpendicularly and it couldn’t be touched until it hit the ground. It seems I remember something much like that from Australian Rules Football, or “footie.” There was no tripping allowed, and a player could not push or hold an opponent.

Interestingly, all of the early rules-makers were students and players. Among the first of those was Walter Camp, who played at Yale for seven seasons, all of that time (and through 1925) serving on the Rules Committee. Much more in future columns.

And, That’s Official.

Al Graning is a former SEC official and former Natchez resident. He can be reached by e-mail at AlanWard39157@aol.com.