Are You Ready for Some Football?

With Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco this year (okay in Santa Clara) some sports-loving designers may be wondering just how the game was designed. Who thought up the dimensions of the field, the shape of the ball, the rules? Turns out, like the automobile, the airplane or motion pictures, football was invented by a lot of people over a very long period of time.

The Concept
As with most sports, you can go back as far as you wish for the origins of football. The Ancient Greeks played a game called episkyros which involved teams of players kicking and throwing a ball to drive their opponents over a line behind them. The Greeks gave the game to the Romans who brought their version of it to ancient Britain where it evolved over the centuries into rugby. American universities picked up a form of rugby in the 19th century and—what else?—made it more violent. In 1869 Rutgers University met Princeton University to play a rough game with 25 players on each team. The object was to kick the ball through the opponent’s goal, but throwing the ball or running with it was prohibited. This is generally regarded as the first instance of intercollegiate “American football”—not that it bore much resemblance to the game we play today. Rutgers won 6 to 4.

The Field
Rugby gave American football its fundamental structure and also the shape and layout of its field. Sometimes called “the paddock,” the rugby field was surfaced always with grass, a tradition that transferred to the American game (until 1966 when Astro Turf debuted to cries of outrage in Houston). The phrase “home field advantage” originally referred to the familiarity of the home team with how the ball would behave on local grass compared to the visiting team’s inferior scrub. Another significant change arrived in 1967 with the “slingshot goal posts,” which replaced the vertical goals and connecting horizontal with the elevated apparatus all football stadiums use today. The slingshot goal came about as a safety feature after decades of players running or lurching or diving for a touchdown crashed into the vertical posts, some sustaining serious injuries.

The Ball
At first it was round. According to Smithsonian Magazine the elongated shape and oddly-bouncing orientation of the football was an accident caused by improper inflation. During games in the 1800’s the soccer-like round ball leaked air through the course of play and had to be periodically blown up like a balloon—not with a pump but by a succession of presumably already winded players. The resulting dirigible was, as Tom Brady might claim, not deliberate but a consequence of rough handling. Eventually, it did become deliberate and with the addition to the rulebook of the forward pass in 1905 (up to then only laterals were legal) the football was manufactured to spiral beautifully through the air.

The Rules
Walter Camp usually gets credit for inventing the modern rules of football.  A medical student at Yale who never got around to practicing medicine, Camp played the game, coached teams at Yale and Stanford, wrote books about it and was an important contributor to a series of rule-establishing committees that met in the late 1800s. It was Camp’s idea to reduce the number of players on the field from 15 to 11 and to apply different point values to different types of scoring. His original system gave greater value to a field goal (5 points) than to a touchdown (4 points)—but it all got sorted out in 1912. Camp’s greatest contributions—the innovations that shaped the game as we know it—were the line of scrimmage, the snap from Center to Quarterback and the series of downs required to advance the ball. Before these rules each play began with a free-for-all scrum for possession of the ball. Camp’s structured advance changed the game from a contest of brute strength to one of strategy—albeit in deployment of brute strength.

The Teams
Cheeseheads, Raider Nation and tailgate parties notwithstanding, football began as an Ivy League sport. The first great rivalries were between Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia. Around the turn of the century pro teams began popping up in various cities—some were sponsored by the town’s baseball teams—and in 1920 the American Professional Football Association (later known as the NFL) was born. Remember the Detroit Heralds? The Columbus Panhandles? The Rochester Jeffersons? The first still-surviving team to join the league was the Green Bay Packers in 1921. They were quickly followed by the Decatur Staleys who moved that same year from central to northern Illinois and became the Chicago Bears. By comparison the teams competing in this year’s Super Bowl are young—the Denver Broncos began playing in 1960 and the Carolina Panthers in 1995.

The Super Bowl
Despite occasional excursions to Michigan or New Jersey, the Super Bowl has generally favored sunshine. Of the 50 Super Bowls so far 15 have been in Florida, 12 in California, 10 in Louisiana, 3 in Texas, 3 in Arizona and the remaining 7 in various snow-prone states. Super Bowl I kicked off at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 15, 1967. The Green Bay Packers met the Kansas City Chiefs—and stomped them 35 to 10. Packers Quarterback Bart Starr was named MVP; the winning Coach was Vince Lombardi. This being the very first Super Bowl it was not yet the hype juggernaut the event would later become. The Star Spangled Banner was sung, not by a pop star, but by the UCLA Choir (accompanied by two university marching bands). New Orleans jazz trumpeter Al Hirt provided the half-time entertainment. 300 pigeons were released and 10,000 balloons. Not bad for 1967, but a far cry from Katy Perry arriving on the back of a giant robotic lion.