An in-Depth Look at the History of Professional American Football

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Have you ever wondered how the 15 billion dollar industry of professional American football came about? Many of us spend hours upon hours every year following our favorite team. That’s not to mention watching the NCAA division, money spent going to games in person, buying merchandise, and more.

So how did the nation’s favorite sport come about? And what are the key moments in the history of professional football?

Read on as we walk you through how football was born, and how we got to where we are now.

Origins of the Sport

Let’s start with the very beginnings of American football, before it had even become a professional sport. Football has its origins in two sports originating in the United Kingdom: rugby and association football.

In the 19th century, multiple versions of these two games with differing rules and combinations of play existed. However, the term “football” itself was coined as early as 1409, although the exact origins of the word are debated.

A key figure in the origins of football, and how it ultimately diverged from rugby and soccer is Walter Camp. Sometimes referred to as the “Father of American Football”, he was a coach at Yale University. He introduced several major elements of the game.

He was institutional in the inclusion of the forward pass. Along with other coaches, he helped to develop gameplays that took advantage of this new rule.

The First Pro Match

The next stage in the history of football development in the USA comes in 1892. While not momentous at the time, a game in which Allegheny Athletic Association beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club is the first recorded occurrence of a player being openly paid for a game.

That player was William Heffelfinger, who playing for AAA, was paid $500 for taking part. For context, that’s equivalent to approximately $15,000 in today’s money!

American football was not particularly popular back in 1892. While this match marks the first time on record a player was paid, thus making them a professional, it would have been impossible to foresee how the game’s reach would expand.

A document that lists this payment exists and is sometimes referred to as “pro football’s birth certificate”.

College Football

As we look at the history of the NFL, we see very clearly that its origins lie in college football. The first known college football match took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. Following the Civil War, it became standard for colleges to boast sporting teams, one of which was football.

As far back as the 1880s, we can witness the practice of colleges jockeying for talented players to join their schools. While they were not formally paid at this point, they did receive expenses and trophies for their matches.

Football rivalries were particularly intense between southern teams. Notable rivalries include Virginia vs North Carolina, and Georgia vs Auburn.

By the 1930s, there were plenty of regional championships in existence, including the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Sun Bowl.

The Modern Era

So how did we get from predominantly college football to the modern era of the game? By the beginning of the 20th century, football was becoming more popular with the general public. Paying players were considered dishonorable, yet the first completely professional game was played in 1895 in Pennsylvania.

The National Football League – which isn’t the same organization that we know today – began in 1902. Multiple teams claimed to have won the first title, but it was officially awarded to the Pittsburgh Stars.

In 1920, the precursor to the NFL, the American Professional Football Association (APFA), was formed. It originally consisted of 14 teams, but quickly grew to 22 teams in 1921. It later renamed itself the NFL.

By the 1950s, two rival leagues existed, which were the AFL and the NFL.

Creation of the Super Bowl

It was the merging of these football leagues that led to the Super Bowl. First played in 1966, it wasn’t actually named the Super Bowl until 1969.

It is thanks to the merging of the AFL and the NHL that was completed in 1970 that we now have the single-most viewed sporting event every year. In addition to the huge amount of money generated by companies competing for air time during advertisements, it’s also allowed sites such as doc sports to come about, and some of the best football games ever known to take place.

The Super Bowl trophy is named the Vince Lombardi trophy after the first coach to win the Super Bowl, with his team the Green Bay Packers.

Recent Developments

Finally, let’s take a look at some of the latest developments to the game of professional American football. The Hall of Fame was established in 1963 and today there are 346 NFL Hall of Famers. Most recently, Jim Covert and Steve Sabol, amongst others, are the latest to join this exclusive club.

There have been continual changes made to the NFL, including the adoption of the two-point conversion rule, and the expansion to consist of 32 teams, as it does today.

Player conduct has come under the spotlight recently, with commissioner Roger Goodell imposing lengthy suspensions for would-be NFL players who are found to have broken the law.

The latest figure to draw worldwide attention from the NFL is Colin Kaepernick, who became unsigned from any pro team after he protested against police brutality and racism by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

That’s How Professional American Football Came About

Now that we’ve shared the history of football, from its origins in the 19th century to current trends, you should be an expert on how the great game developed. While it’s come a long way since that legendary game between Allegheny and Pittsburgh, the sportsmanship, passion, and excitement remain. 

To learn more about professional American football, or any other sport, make sure you check out the rest of our website!

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