15 Facts About Football’s Early Days

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alessandro0770/iStock via Getty Images / alessandro0770/iStock via Getty Images

Though what we today call the NFL wasn't formed until August 20, 1920, the roots of American-style football date back well over a century. Take a look at some surprising facts about the gridiron’s humble beginnings.

1. Canada helped shape the rules of American football. 

In May 1874, an Ivy League school was set to face off against players from a Canadian university in two games of rugby. The first match was played under conventional rugby rules; the second was held under some Canadian-directed tweaks, including use of an oval instead of round ball, making tackles, and keeping track of downs. American coach Walter Camp later wrote an official list of regulations, and schools began adopting the rules of American football.

2. Football's oval ball was an accident. 

There was no master design theory behind the unique oblong shape of the football. When two rival schools had faced off for an 1869 game, repeated attempts to properly inflate the ball failed. Fed up, the players simply played with the oddly inflated object. The shape would be refined over the coming decades, with a major facelift in 1906 to accommodate the introduction of the forward pass.

3. The first professional football player was paid $500 per game.

Football was treated largely as an amateur contest until November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) took on the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. The AAA bucked the rules of fair play and paid a player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, $500 to join their team. Previously, desired players would be given awards, jobs, or other perks to avoid being paid outright. With Heffelfinger’s wages, the game began to morph into a professional pursuit.

4. Football was extremely dangerous back in the day. 

Eager to prove their toughness to their fathers and grandfathers—many of whom had fought in the Civil War—the young men who played football at the turn of the 20th century accepted a high level of risk. Bodies and heads collided with regularity, but helmets weren’t yet a part of the game. In 1905, 18 players died as a result of injuries sustained on the field. 

5. Football was intended to train future soldiers.

Many universities treated football as a metaphor for war, believing students who could endure the punishing physicality of a game would be psychologically prepared for any future conflicts that might enlist them. Some coaches even used military-inspired drills during training camps.

6. Football players could switch teams in a split second.

Early pro ballers didn’t have ironclad contracts preventing them from jumping ship to another team and a better offer. As a result, many players moved from one organization to another. In 1920, team leaders formed the American Professional Football Conference to try and mitigate these issues.

7. Not everyone played football in school. 

Pro teams found talent wherever they could. One standout, Johnny McNally, had played the game only briefly before being kicked out of college. He signed up for a pro team and spent 15 years in the business.

8. Football teams got protective equipment from wherever they could.

Before professional equipment makers emerged, players insulated themselves against damage with whatever they had available. One player admitted to taping thick magazines around his shins to prevent them from being damaged from someone else’s cleats, while other players sewed pillows together to create some of the first primitive shoulder pads.

9. Teddy Roosevelt saved the game of football. 

With football being condemned in the media for being too brutal, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in. In 1905, he summoned representatives from major colleges and pleaded with them to add safety measures that would reduce the number of injuries to players. It took until 1906 before they listened, with intercollegiate authorities abolishing mass formations that could crush players and lead to more serious injury.

10. College football was bigger than professional baseball.

American fans were so enamored with the rough play of football in universities that crowds typically tripled in size when compared to the national pastime of baseball: In 1905, tens of thousands would be in attendance for the former, while a baseball game might see 3000 in the stands.

11. Football players often resorted to trickery.

With only loose regulations in place at the turn of the century, coaches liked to use any advantage they could. One legendary coach had his players wear elastic jerseys that could contain a football after a huddle. When they broke up, the opposing team didn’t know which man had the ball.

12. Football coaches thought the forward pass was for wimps.

In an effort to dampen the dangers of the game, schools instituted the forward pass in 1906. Coaches, who believed it made the game too protective of players, sometimes refused to incorporate it into their strategies. It wasn’t until a few teams began winning games by completing passes that the idea of throwing the ball got some traction.

13. The earliest football was a pig bladder.

Before football became more regimented in the late 19th century, players of the earliest games needed something that could retain inflation. Solution: a pig’s bladder, which could hold air without leaking. This early technology gave way to rubber in the 1870s.

14. Football players wore literal nose guards.

Before proper headgear and other equipment was mandatory, players experimented with making their own facial shields. In 1899, a college player looking to protect his already-damaged nose crafted a wire mesh protective guard held in place with a rubber band. It worked well—for him. The mesh caused gashes and injury to players he collided with. Later variations of the “nose mask” included a leather pad.

15. Football players played dirty. 

With few universal rules to the game, teams could sometimes come up with outlandish ways of trying to secure victory. In an 1893 game between rival schools, the home team players showed up on the field with full-body, oiled leather suits: the slick surface would make it extremely difficult for the opposing players to get a grip on them. (The oil-less squad still prevailed, 6-0.)

This story has been updated for 2020.