How Did Football Get its Name? A Complete History Lesson

Running back in blue tries to run past a defender in white and gold.

In football, most plays involve running or passing instead of kicking. There is far less use of the feet in American football compared to international forms of football (soccer). For this reason, the sport also has unique set of rules and scoring to ensure games run smoothly.

So, how did football get its name?

While American football doesn’t involve much kicking, the sport got its name from influences in two other football sports: rugby and soccer. Both of these sports eventually made their way to America and through a combination of them, the game of American football that we know today was born.

That’s a brief summarization of how American football got its name but there’s much more history involved than that. Throughout this article, we’ll go into further detail on the origination of the name, when the first game was played, and much more.

Why Is American Football Called Football?

American football is called “Football” because of its origins in two popular British sports, Rugby Football (“rugby,” for short) and Association Football (better known as “soccer”). For American football, we see more similarities to rugby than to soccer.

When you think about rugby, the sport doesn’t involve much kicking and neither does American football. So why use the name “football” at all?

For rugby, you have to go back hundreds of years. Until the early 1800s, Rugby involved more kicking than it does today; however, it was still known as “rugby football” as it formed into a more ground-oriented sport.

A rule change in 1823 allowed teams to cross the goal line by running with the ball.

Today, you can see the many similarities between modern rugby and American football. In both sports, a team must score by crossing the goal line.

Also, in both sports, each team has a limited number of attempts to score. In American football, you have “downs” that reset after 10+ yds.

In rugby, you have “tackles” (your team must advance the ball to the goal line before being tackled six times). Both sports also allow for passing to teammates and kicking (punting) to change possession.

The influence of soccer was more evident in the early years of American football, especially in the first game ever played.

First Football Game Ever Played

A football sitting on a patch of grass.

The first known American football game was an 1869 contest between Princeton and Rutgers, two prominent New Jersey universities. This game wasn’t much like the modern sport of American football; it was a crude combination of rugby and soccer. Here’s how it played out:

The objective was to get the ball into the other team’s goal. Two grounded posts marked the goal, similar to a soccer goal. Players could kick or bat the ball with any part of their body, but they couldn’t carry or throw it.

Each team had 25 players split into three positions, dispersed all over the field:

  • Two “sleepers” stood near the opponent’s goal, ready to attack if they found the ball in scoring range.
  • 11 “fielders” were scattered throughout the backfield (the team’s own half of the field) as a defensive unit
  • 12 “bulldogs” in the opponent’s half of the field, constantly on the attack to set up scores.

Every score earned one point. The teams opted to play until they combined for 10 points. Rutgers defeated Princeton, 6-4, and American football was born.

The first football games resembled soccer in several ways. Teams used formations across the entire field. Players kicked the ball to one another as their primary form of passing. Also, like soccer, every score counted for one point.

The rugby background came into play, too. While spacing and ball movement mirrored those of soccer, the first football games featured physical elements that define rugby.

As the defending team pushed their opponents to force their way to the ball, the offensive team kept possession by blocking. The first football games even featured leather helmets, a staple of American football until the 1940s.

American football has changed drastically since the inaugural game. In 1869, there was no passing or carrying. There were no first downs nor touchdowns.

Seven years passed before college football established a set of rules. According to the NCAA, “The first college football rules were written Nov. 23, 1876… by representatives from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.”

In 1892, two Pennsylvania squads played the first-ever professional football game. Players in the Allegheny Athletic Association earned anywhere from $10 to $500 for one game.

Nearly three decades later, the National Football League played its inaugural season in 1920.

American football has evolved greatly since its early days. The sport requires just 11 players on each team, but the positions, strategy, scoring, and set of rules are more complex. NFL players also now earn millions of dollars each year.

How Big Is an American Football?

An American football isn’t the conventional round ball used in other sports. The ball is a prolate spheroid. A standard NFL football meets the following dimensions:

  • 11”-11.25” long
  • Long circumference (a circle that touches both tips of the ball) of 28”-28.5”
  • Short circumference (circle around the center – or widest part of the ball) of 21”-21.25”

NFL footballs are made from leather, which explains the nickname “pigskin.” The size, shape, and makeup of a football make it optimal for gripping and throwing, though the odd shape makes for unpredictable bounces on fumbles and kick returns.

So, how does a football compare in size to balls used in other popular sports?

Length-wise, a football is one of the largest. At 11”, the football’s end-to-end length exceeds the diameters of basketballs (9.4”) and soccer balls (8.5”-8.8”).

In width, the football is smaller than a volleyball (>8”) but larger than a softball (3.8”).

If you’re shopping for a regulation-size football, you should look for an Official Size 9. Other football sizes range from 5 to 8 for youth leagues.

How Big Is an American Football Field?

Two football fields with lights side-by-side.

Including end zones, an American football field is 120 yds long and 53 1/3 yds wide. The end zones are 10 yds in width and span from sideline to sideline.

The field between the end zones spans 100 yds. Fields are slightly smaller than soccer fields, which are a minimum of 131 x 87 yds. On a football field, every five yards is a yard line that spans from one sideline to the other, parallel to the goal lines.

Each 10-yard segment is marked numerically: a 50-yard line in the middle of the field with 10, 20, 30, and 40 marked on each half of the field. The lower the yard line, the closer you are to that side’s goal line. The higher the yard line, the closer you are to midfield.

The field dimensions and yard lines for American fields are uniform for high school, collegiate, and professional play. There are, however, two important differences:

  • Hash marks: Two rows of hash marks run from goal line to goal line, crossing each of the yard lines between. When a play is over, the ball is set on or between the hash marks for the upcoming snap – the exact location depends on what side and what yard line the previous play ended. This area ensures that each snap takes place near the center of the field. In high school, the hash marks are 53’ 4” apart. In college, they’re 40’ apart. In the NFL, the distance is a mere 18’ 6”.
  • Goalposts: At the back of each end zone is a goal that has a crossbar 10’ off the ground, with upright posts that are 20’ tall. The uprights are perpendicular to the ground and begin at each end of the crossbar. In high school play, the crossbar is 23’ 4” wide. In college and professional leagues, the crossbar is 18’ 6” wide.

Why Is American Football Called Gridiron?

The name “Gridiron” comes from the appearance of an American football field. Early football fields were designed in a checkerboard pattern that resembled a grid. Even after the field designs changed to yard lines and hash marks, the pattern still resembled that of the popular grilling tool.

“Gridiron Football” is a term that encompasses American football and Canadian football.

American football has quite the history, and all it took to get started was 50 people, a ball, and some creativity. Now it’s the most popular sport in the United States.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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