The Ascendance of Gridiron Football (1883-1905)

By Allyn Freeman

The two decades after the International Football Association’s rugby rules changes, gridiron football witnessed two parallel events that would significantly impact its future. The first was that the new five yards to retain possession produced a style of play that often caused serious injuries to the players. Secondly, the sport gained widespread acceptance as the official national intercollegiate football game via expansion to all regions of America.

Michigan had been the sole Midwest college to play rugby, touring the east in 1881, meeting Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. After 1883, almost every college climbed on the gridiron bandwagon, creating teams before the turn of the century in 1900.

Gridiron: Brutal and Violent

Walter Camp’s revolutionary changes in the rules of rugby substituted a line of scrimmage for the scrum with three downs to make five-yards. The result saw a demarcated battle line – offense against defense – to contest territory. In freeflowing rugby, yards had no meaning and tackling could be flexible with no need for the smashed into, heads on stop.

Teams realized that after the snap back of the ball by the center, the offense needed blocking to prevent the defense’s penetration. The blocking innovation, also called “interference,” included interlocking arms to create a dangerous flying wedge, which escalated bone on bone contact.

This early gridiron football became a violent game marked by vicious play. The sport’s brutality came to a head in the 1894 Harvard-Yale match when incapacitating injuries sent four players permanently off the field. The contest, known as the “Hampden Park Bloodbath,” resulted in the suspension of the series until 1897.

Future football protection – helmet, face guard, shoulder pads, hip pads, and thick canvas pants – were years away from being available for player safety. For decades until the 1920s, football featured game play without helmets, players’ heads remaining exposed and uncovered like rugby.

Football’s National Expansion

Gridiron succeeded where rugby had not, generating universal acceptance in regions other than New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. From 1883 onward, year-after-year, colleges started to play the game. Once schools in the same geographic region formed teams, conferences soon followed. One of the first was the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association founded in 1894 with seven schools, joined by eleven other southern institutions in 1895. The NCAA began in 1906.

After 1883, football teams formed at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Minnesota. Notre Dame (Indiana) began play in 1899, and were known for years as “The Catholics” before switching to the Fighting Irish.

The new sport’s appeal stemmed from gridiron’s never-before-seen newness; the birth of a differently contested, made-in-America contact sport. What baseball had taken from the sport of rounders, so gridiron drew from rugby rules, adding homegrown variations on the English import. The invented line positions (center, guard, tackle, end) and the newly defined backs (quarter, half full) added to the concept of inventiveness.

High schools play the new sport
High schools also adopted gridiron. Many would play the rivalry on Thanksgiving Day, a tradition that continues to the present. In fact, the oldest high school game in New York between Fordham Prep and Xavier (1883) is called “The Turkey Bowl.”

New England Oldest High School Football Rivalries by State

State    Teams                                                 Date

Mass.   Wellesley vs. Needham                      1882

Maine  Corey vs. Gardiner                             1892

Vt.       St. Johnsbury vs. Lyndon                   1894

Conn,  Norwich vs. New London                  1875

NH      Dover vs. Spaulding                           1908

RI        Westerly vs. Stonington (CT)             1911

Final note      

Within a few years into the mid 1880s, rugby was all but forgotten. Gridiron spread from coast to coast, unanimously accepted as a new sport to be called American football.

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