Walter Camp: The Father of American Football

     Intercollegiate sports were chaotic in the 1800s. Many of the games played were relatively new, such as tennis and baseball. Colleges and universities were slowly beginning to fund athletic programs and to form conferences and leagues in which to compete against one another. Accordingly, this time period was marked by ongoing disputes over format and scoring, as well as, necessary rule changes to address the many deaths in the contact sports.
     The Northeastern schools – that would eventually become the Ivy League – were at the forefront of intercollegiate athletics during this time, and possibly the most contentious evolution of sport came as those universities slowly morphed rugby into gridiron football – American football. In particular, Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia wanted to have more clearly defined rules of the rugby-style game they were playing against one another. To that end, they convened in 1876 to set some ground rules.
     At first this brand new Intercollegiate Football Association basically stuck to England’s Rugby Union Code with some small changes like awarding some points for a touchdown – instead of only awarding points on the kick afterwards (at that time the object of the game was to score points by kicking a goal either after a touchdown or from the field during the course of play).  This version of rugby was generally 15 players a side on a 140 yard field, and back then Princeton dominated the half dozen or so schools that competed in the sport. It is in this setting that Walter Chauncey Camp entered Yale as an undergraduate in 1876.
     Camp was an all around athlete excelling in track and field events, baseball, tennis, and swimming. Not only was he rapidly added to the Yale football team at the position of halfback, but he quickly became captain and player-coach. His contemporaries and coaches considered him one of the premiere football players of that time. Beyond being a great player and having a keen mind for coaching, Camp was deeply invested in developing and defining the game. His innovations and ongoing impact on the sport earned him the title: Father of American Football.
     Even while he was still a player he was active in the Intercollegiate Football Association – at first as a representative of Yale and then continuing on as one of their members until his death in 1925. He began in the late 1870s lobbying to have the player number reduced to 11 per side, which he eventually saw adopted in 1880. He pressed for further changes in the 1880s most notably creating the scrimmage and the quarterback with one stroke.
     As football followed the rugby leads, the ball changed possession rapidly and with little strategy most of the time. Frustrated by this, Camp invented the idea of the scrimmage. The possessing team would now start a “down” from the line of scrimmage. By controlling the possession and creating a scrimmage, the game not only slowed a little bit but also allowed for an entire new system of attack – and defense. As they moved from kicking the ball backwards from the line of scrimmage to handing the ball off behind the line to the increasingly important quarterback, strategies developed for how many players on the line, how many fullbacks or halfbacks and where to place them, and eventually even the evolution of the forward pass. (On this point, Walter Camp was originally opposed, but he did finally accept the forward pass.)
     Of course, the system of scrimmage and downs required great revision. Initially the new scrimmage rules allowed teams to effectively stall, holding the ball once they took the lead. This was boring for players and fans alike, and by 1882 they had devised the down system whereby possession would go to the opposing team if a certain mark – initially 5 yards, later changed to 10 yards – hadn’t been reached in three (later changed to four) downs. This is when gridiron football was truly seen as lines marked off every five yards of the field.
     Also during the 1880s the Intercollegiate Football Association began tinkering with the scoring rules. In 1882 there was a strange system of 4 touchdowns equalling a goal (kick through the uprights) from the field and 2 safeties equalling one touchdown… It was messy. In 1883 Camp prompted the points be changed to: 5 for goal from the field; 4 for goal after touchdown; 2 for touchdown and 1 for safety. This was quickly revised months later to: 5 for goal from the field; 4 for touchdown; 2 for goal after a touchdown and 2 for safety. It wouldn’t be until 1912 that our modern scoring system with 6 points for a touchdown was accepted.
     Other significant changes occurred during the late 1800s. The field was shortened from 140 yards to 110, and it’s width shrank from 70 yards to 53 1/3. The time of game was set to two 45 minute halves with a 15 minute break. The officials were actually paid (only one referee and one umpire per game back then), and they were authorized the use of whistles. Additionally Camp lobbied – successfully – to eliminate the flying wedge play that had been responsible for numerous deaths during games.
     Interestingly,  and possibly a contradictory change from a safety standpoint, in 1888 tackling below the waist was legalized. This actually created several changes to the game itself. Now the line of scrimmage pulled in – for it was necessary to form up a secure wall of protection for the quarterbacks, halfbacks and running backs from these brutal blows. This would actually clog up the game again until more forward passing began and thus open field running returned to the game.
     Walter Camp was at the center of all these changes. Those he didn’t directly create, he certainly contributed to nonetheless. Even while working as a businessman and establishing himself as a model citizen in his Connecticut hometown, he wrote hundreds of articles and over 25 books on sports and football. Camp was a lifelong member of the Intercollegiate Football Association and on its Rules Committee. He also aided the United States Armed Forces and gained notoriety with Walter Camp’s Daily Dozen – a series of 12 exercises to be completed in 8-10 minutes each morning.
     Walter Camp, the Father of American Football, edited every American Football rule book published in his lifetime. He was well respected by all within the sport – from collegiate to the American Football Association to the National Football League. Camp has been credited with bringing “an almost mythical atmosphere of manliness and heroism to the game not previously known in American team sports.” He continued his work perfecting the rules of football right up until his death, where at age 65 Walter Camp died of a heart attack while attending the 1925 meeting of the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee.

Author: T D Dixon

Raised in the Deep South, T Dixon went on to medical school and then to the United States Army and is a combat veteran of the Iraq War. She has had a varied life working as everything from a tutor to a trash collector to a waitress in addition to her work in medicine and surgery. Currently, Dixon is focusing on her writing and public speaking and on applying her skills to help various nonprofit organizations, volunteering with Mission Continues, Wounded Warrior Project, Team RWB, Habitat for Humanity and Team Rubicon - most recently helping with Southern California wildfire cleanup. An avid traveler and explorer she enjoys a wide variety of activities from kayaking, hiking and obstacle course racing to theater shows, museums and quilt making. Dixon and her faithful service dog, Pax, make their home in Los Angeles, CA.

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