15 Facts About Football’s Early Days

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.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.


Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.


While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.


That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.


Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.