Walter Camp Transforms Rugby to Gridiron

Walter Chauncey Camp, deservedly, earned the sobriquet “Father of American Football.”  Without Camp’s changing the rules of rugby, and his doggedness in lobbying the Rules Committee of the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) to vote for his radical proposals, today, there would not be:

  • The NFL;
  • The Super Bowl;
  • The College Football Playoff National Championship;
  • College football autumnal rivalries, including “The Game” (Harvard vs. Yale), “The Big Game” (California vs. Stanford), or “The Iron Bowl” (Alabama vs, Auburn); and,
  • Countless other sports events and sports products generated from a hundred plus years of American football.

            Instead, had rugby union continued to be played in America from the 1880s up to the present, there might have been a newspaper headline in 1987 that read: “USA WINS FIRST RUGBY WORLD CUP. JOHN ELWAY AND LAURENCE TAYLOR STAR FOR EAGLES.”

            What might have been?

Camp, athlete and reformer

            Camp enjoyed an outstanding multi-sport athletic career, first at Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven. and then at Yale. In high school, he was a standout at track, swimming, baseball, and soccer football. At Yale, he played rugby (Captain), baseball as both pitcher and catcher, ran hurdles at track, played tennis, and rowed for his class.

            Noted sports historian, Parke H. Davis, Princeton 1889, the accredited expert on the early years of gridiron football, said Camp, “…was resourceful, courageous, thinking continually in terms of football, swiftly solving new situations and indominable.” By excelling at many diverse sports Camp was imbued with a keen sensibility of how each one should be played, and reformed.  

            Camp shared the consensus that touchdowns (tries) should also be counted as scores. In effect, rugby teams would battle up and down the field tackling and scrummaging with force and power to reach the opposition’s goal line, only to have that effort deemed meaningless because the following kick, the conversion producing the “goal”,  failed.

            What aggravated Camp also were those rugby rulings that negated outstanding plays. One personal example occurred when, in the final moments of a Harvard match, he drop kicked just as the whistle sounded. No points were awarded for this successful kick because the Rugby Football Union (RFU) stated that games ended at the whistle.

            Camp’s initial attempts to reduce players from 15 to 11 did not succeed at the IFA meetings in 1878 and 1879. It was a mark of his determination to bring up this reform again in 1880 when Yale committee members outnumbered Princeton and Harvard representatives. The Yale motion passed, and this ground-breaking vote marked the first rules modification that would move rugby union in America away from the firmly established RFU rules. Once Camp realized he could alter player numbers, he continued year-after-year with a series of other adjustments, including, a fixed line of scrimmage replacing the scrum. This change would, in turn, initiate three downs to make five yards and retain ball possession.

            Each successive Camp-led IFA meeting in the 1880s chipped away at formal rugby rules. The uniforms and the oval balls remained the same, but smaller field size, player reduction, scoring adjustments in 1883, and, especially, the new concept of a set scrimmage, created two different football sports.

Final Note

            Walter Camp, almost singlehandedly, succeeded in the transformation of rugby football as played in the UK to a variation that would one day be known in the USA as gridiron football. For anyone considering a Walter Camp college paper or a historical article, his papers exist in profusion at Yale’s Sterling Library. Let it know ahead of time the reason for the visit and allow an entire day to go over the vast archives.

            Camp wrote extensively about gridiron football, football rules, his All-American football selections and also occasional rugby pieces.  For example:

            1. The Game and Laws of American Football – Outing – October, 1886
            2. The Foot-Ball Season of 1886 – Outing – January 1887
            3. Football – Outing –January, 1888
            4. The American Game of Football – Harper’s Weekly – November 10, 1888
            5. Hints to Football Captains – Outing – January, 1889

            For an accurate comparison of rugby and football, the statements long ago of John Heisman hold true. Heisman for whom the Heisman Trophy is named, started playing football at Brown in 1887 and finished at Penn in 1891. He was a successful football coach at many colleges. He wrote:

“Rugby is game for the players, football is game for the coaches.”

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