Baseball may be the national pastime, but football is America’s sport. From Sunday games to Monday night football, preseason to the playoffs, football is big business. Today, millions of fans tune in to see superstars like Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees battle it out. But football and the NFL come from much more humble, older beginnings.
How long has football been around?
To everyone in the world except Americans, football means soccer. This is interesting because football in its earliest form originated in Britain as a hybrid between soccer and rugby some time in the mid-1800s. There wasn’t any kind of unified rule book back then. How you played the game depended on who you played it with.
It wasn’t until this hybrid game crossed the Atlantic that it became a more formal sport. According to Britannica, Yale University med student Walter Camp played the altered form of rugby in 1880 and later coached the Yale team. Camp became a national sports figure after he codified a set of rules, which included the line of scrimmage and set of downs.
The beginnings of pro football
With a newly defined set of rules, the game of football was born, propelled by competitive collegiate play around campuses in the Eastern United States. One of Walter Camp’s Yale players, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, is considered the first pro football player in history, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1892, Heffelfinger, a ferocious yet gentle giant at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, was offered $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the team’s bitter rival Pittsburgh.
With the emergence of non-collegiate clubs and paid athletes, football made the leap from collegiate activity to the sport of the working man. In the period between 1900 and 1930, football spread across the country with a series of major milestones.
The early 20th century marked an era of rapid expansion, including the NFL’s founding in 1920. Early attempts to form a unified league, most notably in New York and Pennsylvania, floundered. Finally, the Ohio league brought 10 ball clubs together in what eventually became the modern NFL.
Legendary player Jim Thorpe served as its first president. The Chicago Bears, then known as the Decatur Staleys, and the Arizona Cardinals, then the Chicago Cardinals, were charter members of the fledgling organization. Green Bay joined in 1921.
Up until 1932, the team with the best record at season’s end received the title of champion. That year, the Bears and Portsmouth Spartans ended the season with a tied record, thus the playoffs were born. In subsequent years, the playoffs resembled what modern-day fans know. Another modern tradition, the NFL draft, saw it’s first iteration in 1936.
Football in the modern era
The league continued to grow in popularity until 1960. Then, a group of investors, led by Texas businessman Lamar Hunt, created the rival AFL football league. Over the past 30 years, many groups had tried and failed to start an NFL alternative. But this was the first time anyone was successful.
Investors flush with Texas oil money used their assets to attract rising collegiate stars like Joe Namath, making the AFL and its teams instantly recognizable.
By the mid-’60s the AFL proved to be a viable alternative. It began eating away at the older league’s profits. In 1966, Hunt and Dallas owner Tex Schramm held a clandestine meeting where they worked out the details of an AFL-NFL merger that became a reality in 1970.
In the last 50 years, the rebranded NFL continues to grow. Multiple expansion teams have been added, first in the ’70s and again in the ’90s. Since its humble beginnings, football has become America’s sport. And the Superbowl has become the most-watched TV event of the year.
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