What is Football?
American football is a team sport played on a rectangular grass or turf field. Each team has 11 players on the field at one time, and each team’s main objective is to try to score points by kicking the ball through upright goal posts (field goal) or by getting the ball into the opponent’s end zone (touchdown).
On offense, players move the ball down the field with strategic runs and passes. On defense, players try to block, tackle their opponents, or intercept the ball with the hopes of stopping them from advancing to the end zone or scoring. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.
Football is sometimes called gridiron football to distinguish it from soccer, with the name deriving from the vertical painted yard lines on the field.
When Was Football Invented?
An early version of football was played in the United States beginning in the 19th century. However, the rules were still quite similar to rugby at first. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the rules of football were adjusted to make it a uniquely American sport.
Who Invented Football?
Walter Camp is known as the “Father of American Football.” Camp was one of the most important leaders in establishing the rules of football as we know them today through his work with the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA).
The Basic History of Football
In the mid-1800s, gridiron football was developed in the United States.
This game incorporated elements from two popular English sports: soccer (also known as association football) and rugby. It was played frequently at colleges, particularly in the Northeast region of the United States.
The first official college football game was held on November 6, 1869 in a matchup between Princeton and Rutgers. However, the sport wasn’t like the American football known today. Players couldn’t pick up the ball; instead, they would kick it or swipe at it with their hands to move it down the field. Because of this, there were more players on the field, and injuries were common. At the time, the sport was sometimes known as “mob football” due to its chaotic and somewhat violent nature.
Adjustments to the Rules
The Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) was established in 1873. Many colleges used different guidelines when playing football, so there was a need for a universal rulebook. Walter Camp joined the IFA in the 1880s and made significant progress on standardizing the rules of the game. He had played football while an undergraduate and medical student at Yale from 1876 to 1881. Upon becoming a member of the rules board of the IFA, he defined some key elements of the game that are still used today, including:
Football games featured much more consistent gameplay after this point. However, it was still quite brutal on the players.
In 1904, the Chicago Tribute reported that there had been 159 serious injuries and 18 deaths among football players in prep school that year. Some colleges even dropped football from their athletics program and switched back to rugby. Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke out against the violent nature of the game. Though he was a huge proponent of football, he recognized the need for some rule changes. In response, the intercollegiate conference made changes to some rules of the game, including:
- Legalizing the forward pass
- Creating a neutral zone between the offense and defense
- Doubling the distance of the first down to 10 yards
- Eliminating dangerous scrums
- Shortening the matches
Substantial protective gear was still many years away, however. Helmets were not required for college players until 1939. The NFL began requiring them in 1943.
The game continued to grow in popularity for the remainder of the 19th century.
A major turning point came on November 12, 1892 when William “Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first official professional football player. He was paid $500 to play in a match for the Allegheny Athletic Association.
In September 1895, the first professional game was played between the Latrobe Athletic Association and the Jeannette Athletic Club. The Latrobe Athletic Association later went on to have the first fully professional team when they paid all of their players for the entire 1897 season.
In the early 20th century, more professional teams sprang up, many of which were funded by an athletic association. The first pro league, the National Football League (not the same as today’s NFL), was created in 1902 with three teams from Pennsylvania. It only lasted one season.
The first two decades of the century found professional football struggling due to players changing teams frequently in response to higher pay offers. In addition, some pro players were still enrolled in college. A number of teams met up to solve these issues by regulating the rules.
In 1920, they formed the American Professional Football Association (APFA). The original teams included were:
- Akron Pros
- Buffalo All-Americans
- Canton Bulldogs
- Chicago Tigers
- Cleveland Indians
- Columbus Panhandles
- Dayton Triangles
- Decatur Staleys
- Detroit Heralds
- Hammond Pros
- Muncie Flyers
- Racine Cardinals
- Rochester Jeffersons
- Rock Island Independents
Two years later, the group changed its name to the National Football League (NFL), which is the same professional league currently operating in the U.S.
In 1932, the NFL held its first playoff game after the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans tied for the best record at the end of the regular season. The Bears won the game, and the popular matchup inspired the league to create two divisions for the following season in 1933, with the winners scheduled to meet in an annual NFL Championship Game. Beginning in 1936, the NFL held an annual draft for new players.
The game continued to grow in popularity in the ensuing decades. Some games were televised, helping to encourage new fans to follow the sport. In 1959, a new pro league called the American Football League (AFL) was formed. During its first season in 1960, the AFL included eight teams:
- Dallas Texans
- Houston Oilers
- Boston Patriots
- Buffalo Bills
- New York Titans
- Oakland Raiders
- Denver Broncos
- Los Angeles Chargers
On January 15 1967, the winners of each league faced off for the AFL-NFL World Championship. This would be the first of an annual game known as the Super Bowl. The championship trophy would later be named the Lombardi trophy after Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Packers when they won the first ever Super Bowl.
The NFL and AFL officially merged in 1970. Though some other pro leagues have been established both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, the NFL is by far the most popular football league in the world and gridiron football remains a distinctly American sport.
Like professional football, college football continued to expand in the early 20th century. The popularity of the first Rose Bowl on January 1, 1923 led other regions to create their own bowl games. The Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Cotton Bowl all made their debuts in the 1930s.
On October 8, 1921, the first college football game was broadcast on the radio. On September 30, 1939, a college football matchup was broadcast on television for the first time. These milestones, along with the growing popularity of the championship bowl matchups, contributed to a growing commercialization of college football.
Football continued to become an integral part of the college experience on many campuses, and students and alumni developed deep ties to their teams. Increased TV coverage has helped the sport to grow in popularity in recent decades, and college football is often a featured televised sport on Saturdays during the fall season. Regional rivalries attract a lot of attention as do the bowl games at the end of the year.
The Basic Rules & Gameplay of Football
What Is the Objective of Football?
The objective of the game is to score points with a field goal or touchdown. The ball can be thrown or carried down the field by the offense. The team on defense tries to block or intercept passes or tackle the player running down the field with the ball. The defense can also attempt to strip the ball carrier of the football, forcing a turnover.
The only way for a play to end is to tackle the ball carrier to the ground, score a touchdown, run out of bounds, or cause a pass incompletion.
The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.
What Are the Basic Rules of Football?
- Team size – Each team has 11 players on the field at a time. Substitutions are permitted between downs, and coaches often use this to their advantage to execute particular plays.
- Game periods – College and professional football games are played in four 15-minute quarters for a total time of 60 minutes.
- Overtime: When the score is tied at the end of four quarters, the game goes into overtime. Rules for overtime vary based on the league, with a sudden death model used for pro games.
- Time outs: Each team gets three timeouts per half. Additional timeouts are allotted if the game goes into overtime.
- Scoring – There are four ways to score in a football game:
- Touchdown: A team crosses their opponent’s goal line while in possession of the ball or catches the ball in the opponent’s end zone. A touchdown is worth six points.
- Extra point: After scoring a touchpoint, a team gets one opportunity to score additional points. They can earn one point for kicking the ball through the goal posts or two points, also known as a two-point conversion, for taking the ball into the end zone again.
- Field goal: The ball is kicked through the goal posts. This is usually done on a fourth down if the team decides not to attempt a touchdown. A field goal is worth three points.
- Safety: The defensive team is awarded a safety if they tackle an offensive player holding the ball in his own end zone. A safety is worth two points.
- Downs– The team on offense is required to move the ball ahead by 10 yards in order to retain possession. They get four chances to do so, and each chance is called a down. Each down ends when the player with the ball is tackled, the ball touches the ground as an incompletion, or the ball carrier goes out of bounds.
- If the offensive team succeeds in moving ahead 10 yards within four downs, they get to start over with another first down. They must again move the ball 10 yards down the field within four downs to maintain possession. The name of each down is called: first down, second down, third down, fourth down.
- If the offensive team fails to move ahead 10 yards within four downs, they must surrender possession to the other team. Most teams punt the ball to the defending team on the fourth down.
- Plays – Teams use a variety plays while on offense in order to try to move the ball down the field or attempt a touchdown. On defense, plays are used to try to stop the opponent from moving the ball forward. A play requires specific movements for each player on the team and is typically called by either the coach or the quarterback.
- Fumble – A fumble occurs when an offensive player holding the ball drops it before the play is called dead. The fumble may be recovered by a player on either team.
- Penalties & Fouls – There are a number of fouls that can be called in football, many of which involve illegal contact between players. The penalty for most fouls is a loss of 5, 10, or 15 yards.
Some of the most common fouls include:
- Holding: A player illegally grabs, pulls on, or tackles an opponent who is not holding the ball.
- False start: A player moves from their set position before the snap.
- Pass interference: A defensive player makes contact with an opponent before the ball is caught that impedes their ability to catch the pass.
- Unnecessary roughness: A player makes rough contact with one who is ruled defenseless, such as a player that just threw a pass or ran out of bounds.
- Officiating – A crew of three or more people officiates each football game. In college and professional games, there are typically seven officials. A head referee makes most of the calls on the field and acts as the leader for the team of officials.
The Roster of a Football Team
Each team has 11 players on the field at a time. On offense, the positions are:
On defense, the positions are:
There are also special teams consisting of players that come in only for specific types of plays. Some of the special teams positions include:
- Long snapper
- Kick returner
The Basic Equipment in Football
A leather football must have an ovoid shape and be 11 to 11 ¼ inches long and 21 to 21 ¼ inches in circumference at the center.
Players must wear a short-sleeve jersey and pants along with variety of protective equipment, including:
- Helmet with a face mask, chin strap, and mouth guard
- Pads for the shoulders, arms, elbows, rubs, hips, thighs, and knees
A gridiron football field features grass or artificial turf. It measures 160 feet wide and 120 yards long, including the two 10-yard end zones. The measurements are clearly marked every 10 yards down the field, with smaller hashmarks indicating individual yards.
Goal posts are positioned at the center of each end line. The crossbar is 10 feet high with vertical uprights at either end. Pads are place around the bottom of each goal post to prevent injuries.