Tracing ​American Football's Rugby Roots
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sporting history

Tracing ​American Football's Rugby Roots

If there is one thing that American football and rugby fans both hate, it's when comparisons are drawn between the two sports. Nevertheless, these games are cut from the same cloth and still hold many similarities in the 21st century.
03 February 2017, 1:33pm

If there is one thing that American football and rugby fans both hate, it is when comparisons are drawn between the two sports. Nevertheless, that is exactly what I'm about to do.

In the UK, early adopters of gridiron have for years had to live with taunts of, "Isn't it just rugby with pads?" Meanwhile, rugby fans have traditionally looked down on the American code with a smug bemusement at the game's slow pace and technicolour gaudiness. It's all been very much, "My dad could beat up your dad."

The unfortunate truth for both sets of fans, however, is that the two games are siblings. Like all forms of football, each went down its own path early in life to develop distinct personalities, but at their core they both come from the same place. This will be especially obvious this weekend as the NFL season culminates with Super Bowl LI and the European international rugby season begins anew with the 2017 Six Nations. With the two sports playing major events on the same day, it's a rare chance to drop the hostilities and appreciate how intertwined they really are.

The two sports undoubtedly owe a lot to each other. In fact, without one another – along with trains, British schoolboys, some Canadian university students, an American president, and an abundance of maimings – neither might exist today at all.

As with any good American sports story, we begin in fifteenth century England. All variations of football – from gridiron to association, rugby to Aussie rules, Canadian to Gaelic – evolved from the massive medieval games that formed the interesting bits of school history lessons. These were essentially mob games where entire villages would turn out to kick seven bells out of each other under the pretence of getting an inflated pigs bladder into a rudimentary goal, and the only real rule was that murder was frowned upon.

A charmingly violent game of street football at Kingston upon Thames, London // via

By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, popular opinion had turned against mob sports. They were far too violent for rapidly refining tastes and, while the games were not explicitly banned, enough legislation was passed controlling where they could be played that holding them became nigh on impossible. Isolated events remained as cultural, rather than sporting, one-offs. But much like other great British pastimes, like chasing cheese wheels down hills, mob football died.

There was one place, though, where acts that outranged the public decency remained alive and well: the British public school system. Until the nineteenth century, you weren't a proper school if you didn't have your own unique brand of playground murder-ball. However, as the United Kingdom became better connected thanks to the rise of the railways, schools wanted to branch out from playing between houses and start to play each other. A complete lack of rules aside from "try to score without decapitating the head boy" made this tough, however, and it became apparent that some standardisation would be needed.

Eton is widely regarded as the forerunner when it came to actually writing down the rules of their mob game. The playground of prime ministers formalised their rules in 1815, and set the standard in trying to control the wild violence of mob sport.

Others soon followed suit, including one in the small town of Rugby. It was here in 1823 that, popular history tells us, a young schoolboy by the name of William Webb Ellis revolutionised sport by having the audacity to pick the ball up and run forward with it, thus birthing the game of rugby. The truth is somewhat muddier – carrying the ball was commonplace in mob games, even if it wasn't done at Rugby – but whatever Webb Ellis did with the ball in his hands, it revolutionised Rugby School's version of football.

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When the rules were formally written up by three students some 20 years later, in 1845, they were a hit. The sport is named after the school, and Rugby Union's World Cup trophy is named after the young lad who dared to dream of a world that included carrying as well as kicking. Rugby football rapidly became one of the most accepted rule sets at home and abroad. From humble beginnings in Warwickshire, it soon spread across the old Empire towards the colonies.

Meanwhile, universities in the fledgling United States were trying to formalise their own mob football rules. Much like their British counterparts, top universities were fed up with their best and brightest crippling each other in the name of fun. In an attempt to build competition and cut down on the amount of people who had to limp to their graduation ceremonies, they got to work.

From 1869, the likes of Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale universities began playing each other at a game based on association football. There were two teams of 25 trying to score goals, and no picking up and carrying of the ball was allowed. Although American football would soon, and radically, deviate from these early codes, there is still one rule on the books which was established in these games: the fair catch rule. Although the fair catch today is more used to stop a poor kick returner from being run over by a few hundred pounds of sprinting muscle, it is still possible to have a free kick from a waved fair catch.

In the late nineteenth century, one major east-coast college refused to take part in these formative attempts to standardise football. Harvard University preferred to stick to their own rules and refused to join the planning committees that were forging the new game. This did, however, make it tough to find other teams to play against. Eventually, in 1874, they accepted an invitation from McGill University to travel to Canada and play them at the hottest new sport, fresh from Europe: rugby. It was here that, thanks to a simple rule change, American football was conceived.

Harvard play McGill in 1874 // via

The big difference with McGill's rules was that they awarded points for a try. In rugby's early days, a try afforded a team exactly that: the opportunity to kick a field goal. If you missed the kick, then it was a rousing nil points. The McGill rules, however, established the idea of scoring points for the try and then having the chance to kick the conversion for a bonus. It took the Rugby Football Union another 15 years to cotton on to the fact that awarding points for the try made the game more exciting, and the rule was adopted by the home nations in 1890.

Enamoured with the European game, Harvard stopped trying to play by their own rules and adopted the rugby ones. The following year, in 1875, Harvard played Tufts University in the first meeting under these early rules between two American teams. The sport quickly caught on across the U.S., and regular game series were soon scheduled. One of these was between Harvard and Yale; first contested in 1875, it is still a fierce rivalry to this day. Although the game did concede some of Harvard's rugby-style rules to Yale's association ones, in cemented America's move away from association football and towards its own game.

It was also here that Walter Camp, commonly known as the Father of American Football, first caught the bug. An incoming freshman at Yale, he saw potential in the game and set out to become one of the leaders in evolving it. Camp played for Yale and, though his small stature meant he was hardly a legend on the field, his real impact was in the rulemaking conventions. From 1876 until his death in 1925, Camp attended almost every annual rulemaking meeting and, under his stewardship, American football's main deviations from rugby emerged.

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One of the first rule changes, passed in 1880, was the idea of snapping the ball from the line of scrimmage to the quarterback. Two years later, after Camp became dissatisfied with how the new rule slowed the game as teams just tried to retain possession, the downs-and-distance system to progress play was passed. It was from these rules that, when the rugby schism occurred in England at the dawn of the 20th century, rugby league was formed.

After establishing American football's core mechanisms of snaps and downs-and-distance gameplay, he'd add another of the game's key features: blocking. Being able to tangle off the ball is a staple of American football thanks to Camp, whereas in rugby it remains highly illegal. Initially, teams were able to hold hands to block in interlocked wedges – moves straight out of the most brutal playground game of Bulldog – but enough serious injuries saw interlinking blocking banned. With these rules in place, the sport spread from the north-east of the U.S. across the whole country. Rivalries formed as universities raced to found their own American football programmes, taking academic antipathy on to the gridiron.

For all the changes from mob games, though, the sport was still no safer. Serious injuries, even deaths, were common. The 1894 game between Harvard and Yale was nicknamed the "Hampden Park Blood Bath" after four players were crippled. In 1905, a year that saw 19 players die from injuries sustained on the field, the problem was so severe that President Roosevelt summoned representatives of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton and told them to find ways to make the game safer. As a result, American football made its biggest and most definitive break from rugby: legalising the forward pass.

What is now considered to be Super Bowl I took place in 1967 // PA Images

It still took until the nineteen-thirties for the forward pass to be fully realised and utilised in a modern way, but with this rule the final tie to rugby was cut. In the 30 years since Harvard first travelled to Canada to play a game of rugby, a new sport had been born.

Further tweaks have happened, of course, and continue to do so. Outside of motorsport, American football probably has the most fluid rulebook going. Neverthless, changes today are nothing compared to the spell between 1875 and 1905 when rugby was discovered, adopted, and adapted.

When you watch American football today, you can still see its roots in rugby – and I don't just mean the oval ball and goal posts. The two games might have radically diverged on the surface, but even a casual eye can see the deep-lying similarities. A 3-4 defence is set up just like a scrum, with the three big linemen acting like a front row and the taller, leaner, ready-to-tackle linebackers in the role of the back rows and flankers. Having one of your props drop in the line and do a crash ball is no different to when an NFL team puts one of its linemen in the backfield to run the ball in, a la William 'The Fridge' Perry. Any time the ball goes to ground in American football you get a classic ruck, with linemen doing the prop's job of diving in to dislodge the ball and take control. After all, in both sports, it doesn't matter who has the ball at the start – all that matters is who the refs see in control at the end.

The list goes on, which makes it a shame that American football and rugby fans tend to fall out over whose sport is superior. Then again, what else would you expect from two brothers who took such different paths early in life?