A lot of people know Walter Camp as “the Father of American Football.” Not many people, though, know that Camp was a Yale man (like me) and a fine rugby player (unlike me).
Camp was an exceptionally gifted athlete of the first order. He played on every varsity sports team at Yale, including hurdles, rowing, swimming, and tennis. He was the captain of both the baseball and football teams.
But he was more than a jock. He attended Yale Medical School, worked his way up to the chairmanship of the New Haven Clock Company, moonlighted as a sports writer, coached university teams, and served on numerous civic committees including the rules committees governing collegiate football.
His first passion was rugby. Back in his early school years, the 1870s, rugby was the premier game that elite American universities played among themselves.
It was all about kicking in those days. A “try” meant that after the attacking team crossed the line and touched the ball down – for which they received no points – they could have a “try” at goal, worth one point. Many of those early collegiate games were decided by 1-0 scores, even if attacking teams had scored three or four of what today are known as tries.
According to the Professional Football Researchers Association, Camp became frustrated with what he considered to be the haphazard and chaotic nature of the game. He was a highly organized, methodical person, and to his mind there was insufficient room for tactics and predictable ball possession in the game as it then was.
He also became peeved at the nature of scoring. During one game, for example, his presumably game-winning kick sailed through the uprights but was disallowed because the final whistle had blown while the ball was in mid-air. Other dramatic tries of his resulted in no scoring because the kicks were missed and no points were awarded for crossing the line.
Camp didn’t just grumble. He pondered ways to address the problems he saw, and began vocally advocating change. While he was a still junior undergrad student at Yale, he became involved in the meetings of football’s governing council. He ended up serving on the council, amazingly, for almost five decades, from 1878-1925.
There had been arguments for years in America about how many players a rugby team should have – 15 or 11. Camp’s push for a more open, 11-side game eventually triumphed at an intercollegiate football convention in 1880. That step was the tangible beginning of the evolution in the game toward new American football.
With respect to another change, the Professional Football Researchers Association notes, “Certainly Camp wasn’t the only one to see the vast improvement which could be obtained by establishing a method of putting the ball in play which would give to one side its undisturbed possession, thereby permitting a strategic and tactical preparation to advance it, but he was the one who figured out how to bring it off.”
Thus were born the scrimmage, the snap-back, and the position of quarterback. The American version of rugby was no longer like its English ancestor, but it was not yet full-on American football as we now know it. Camp still had more work to do.
Tweaks were made one by one to address impediments to the kind of premeditated, tactical, exciting (but less mob-like) game that Camp and others wished to see. One of the more important innovations was made in response to the infamous “Block Game” between Princeton (my alma mater) and Yale (my law school).
When the two met in 1881 they were both undefeated. For one half, one team held onto the ball. The next half, the other team did the same. No one scored. Spectators were outraged. Taunts and epithets were hurled. Reform was demanded.
The problem of course was that at the time there was no minimum yardage required for a team to gain new “downs.” Camp’s answer was to suggest that a team should be required to carry the ball forward at least five yards in three attempts, “or they must give the ball to the opponent at the spot of the fourth down.”
Camp’s suggestion was adopted as a rule on 12 October 1882, and that step is widely regarded as marking the actual birth of modern American football.
To make all the necessary measuring easier, fields were marked off with lines every five yards. This, of course, made the field look like a gridiron (the metal grate used for grilling). The term has stuck as a synonym for our game of football.
In all, Camp is credited with many – if not most – of the major innovations that make American football what it is today: the forward pass, safeties, the snap-back from center, the system of downs, the points system, and the introduction of the now-standard offensive deployment of players (a seven-man offensive line and a four-man backfield consisting of a quarterback, two halfbacks, and a fullback).
He also came up with the notion of annually naming the best amateur player in the country at each position – a practice that continues to this day and has been adopted in numerous other sports. Camp himself coined the term “All-American” to refer to the best of the best named to the mythical “All-American Team.” From what I can tell, Camp personally selected the All-Americans each year from the practice’s inception in 1889 until the 1920’s.
Rugby, of course, has evolved as well. It is certainly a more exciting and physical game than when Camp played it in the 1800s. Thankfully, a 1-0 score is not only unimaginable these days but impossible, with a proper try worth five points and a conversion worth two more.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, rugby is still played – exceptionally well – at Princeton, Yale, and many other schools, universities, and clubs around the United States. Fortunately, we can enjoy both cousin sports for their own particular strengths and thrills.
Thanks to Walter Camp – a man of great insight, foresight, tenacity, and mana – for enriching American culture and making the world a better, more interesting, and more dynamic place.
I’ll end today with three questions. Easy stuff for catholic sports lovers. Weigh in if you know the answers without googling.
1. Which nation has won the most American Football World Cups?
2. Has American Football ever been played in the Olympics?
3. When and where will the next American Football World Cup be held?