The small Oxfordshire village of Leafield may seem like an unlikely starting point for an NFL story, but the career of kicker John Smith was never anything but unconventional.   Born in 1949, Smith would be one of the most successful ever imports into the NFL and be involved in 2 of its most memorable moments.

During Smith’s youth he was a talented cricketer and rugby player, but it was soccer that he truly excelled at.  At the age of 16 he was offered an apprenticeship with Swindon Town, but decided to concentrate on his education and go to college.  It seems unlikely that this is a career decision that many teenagers make nowadays – professional sport with the chance to earn millions every year or an HND in Media Studies?

Back in the sixties, soccer wasn’t the financial behemoth it is today, so Smith went to Southampton College.  He carried on playing soccer for the next few years at Wealdstone and Winchester City, as well as making numerous appearances for Swindon reserves and pursuing a career as a teacher.   He was on the verge of joining QPR for a trial, when he was contacted by an agent from the New England Patriots.

They were looking for a new kicker and had decided to expand their search outside of the US.  They wanted him to come over for a one week trial.  Smith said yes, the Patriots liked the look of Smith, they offered him a 3 year contract for $18,000 a year, Smith said yes.  This was roughly double the salary for a professional soccer player in the English First Division.  In the space of a week, Smith had gone from being a teacher and a part-time footballer to being an NFL player!  Not that Smith had any great understanding of his role “I thought that was a fortune, just to kick a football”.

Smith  - England's Number 1

Smith – England’s Number 1

Not surprisingly, there were a few teething problems for an Oxfordshire native playing American Football.  For a start, he had never seen a game before he made his debut in the 1973 preseason.  He had no idea what downs were and he certainly wasn’t expecting to line up against a bunch of padded up monsters shouting abuse at him.  His initial kick off barely reached the 20 yard line and he was a bundle of nerves throughout the game.  The Patriots cut Smith before the regular season began, but 12 months later they gave Smith a second chance and this time he was ready.

Despite these initial problems, Smith was a massive hit in New England.  In his first season, he was the second ranked kicker in the NFL and his unusual background was making him a hit off the pitch.  He appeared in adverts for Weetabix and a Boston Department Store and was also a star attraction for his fellow Pats.  The novelty value of having a Brit on the team meant that Smith was regularly asked to perform songs during nights out and serenade the team with Beatles hits.

In all, Smith played 10 seasons for New England, leading the league in kicking in 1979 and 1980, he was widely regarded as one of the best kickers in the NFL and was elected to the Patriots all decade team for the 1970s.  However, Smith is most remembered by NFL fans for his role in 2 of the stranger occurrences in NFL history…


The Death of John Lennon

December the 8th 1980 was a sad day in history.  It was the day that John Lennon was shot dead by Mark Chapman in New York.  Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono wanted the death to remain a secret until she had informed their son Sean.  However, an ABC New reporter also happened to be receiving treatment at the same hospital and word quickly reached station executives who decided that the news needed to be broadcast straight away.

It just so happened that at the precise moment, John Smith was trotting on to the Orange Bowl field to attempt a last second game winning Field Goal against the Miami Dolphins.  In those pre social networking days, nobody was aware of Lennon’s fate until commentators Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell decided to break the news just as Smith was lining up his kick.  “An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead … on … arrival.  Hard to go back to the game after that news flash.”  Given the circumstances, it was a remarkably good piece of commentary and fully encapsulated the severity of the situation.

John Lennon in an NFL commentary booth!

John Lennon in an NFL commentary booth!

Oblivious to this bombshell, Smith watched in frustration as his Offensive line disintegrated and his kick was blocked.  Miami went on to win 16-13 in Overtime, whilst the crowd and players were still unaware of the events in New York.  It wasn’t until Smith entered the locker room and found that the waiting reporters were more interested in John Lennon than a blocked kick, that he released what had happened.

So for millions of Americans, the answer to the question “what were you doing when John Lennon died?” is “I was watching John Smith missing a Field Goal!”

Amazingly, Cosell had actually interviewed Lennon 6 years previously as part of a segment for Monday Night Football.  According to Lennon, the NFL made “rock concerts look like tea parties”.


The Snowplow Game

Two years later, Smith was at the centre of a much more amusing part of NFL folklore.  Once again, it was during a Dolphins-Pats encounter.  Although significantly this game was in New England.  Significant, because the New England climate was somewhat cooler than that in Miami.  The night before the game, the temperature was minus 26 degrees and the game itself was played shortly after a heavy snowstorm.

Predictably enough, the game was a midfield war of attrition as both sides struggled to move the ball.  The plan had been for a snowplow to clear the field sporadically between plays, but more snow meant this was a futile task.  Eventually, deep into the 4th quarter, New England found their way inside the Dolphins 20. Sensing a chance to grab 3 potentially match winning points, Pats coach Ron Meyer frantically asked snowplow operator Mark Henderson to clear the area of the pitch where the kick would be placed.



Henderson, who was a convicted burglar on day release, played his role beautifully. He started off driving straight across the field, before curving off into an arc that coincided with where Pats holder Mark Cavanaugh would be situated.  Suddenly a nigh on impossible conversion looked decidedly easier.  It still required a tricky 33 yard kick from Smith, who after all was still stepping through snow in attempting the kick, but the Brit nailed his attempt and ran off celebrating wildly.

Miami coach Don Shula was also acting wildly, although his actions were slightly less celebratory.  He went ballistic and spent a lengthy amount of time ranting at officials.  “I really was bewildered about what was happening out there on the field in front of my eyes.   The magnitude of it never really set in until after he had lined up to kick the field goal.”  Miami actually had a chance to equalize in last minute, but without the aid of a snowplow, Shula elected to not attempt a Field Goal, but the Dolphins 4th down effort failed and the Pats ran out the clock.  Shula took his protests to the NFL Commissioner, who decided to ban snowplows for the following season, but the damage had been done.

Following his retirement, Smith moved back to the UK to work as a pundit on Channel 4’s NFL coverage (more of that in later articles!), before returning to the States in 1988 and opening the John Smith Sports Centre for young soccer players.  The centre was a massive success and is now run by his daughter Felicity.

There have been plenty of other overseas players who have tried to make it in the NFL, but few have had quite as colourful a career as Smith.  The Snowplow Game is still talked about today and is one of the most memorable incidents in NFL history.  It’s certainly the most memorable moment to feature a kicker from Leafield!


Posted by: Simon Day | March 6, 2013

Part 5: Coffee and Violence in London

The Tea Bowl had been a roaring success, but was intended to be the only US-Canadian encounter on the football field; however Canadian officer General Stuart was goaded into a rematch by an American General.  Unbeknown to Stuart at the time, the American side was getting a significant upgrade thanks to the US 29th Blue Division – A unit containing many experienced players, including Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Sgt Tommy Thompson.  To add to the Canadians problems, by the time the rematch came round most of their team were no longer based in the UK and they fielded a significantly weaker team, despite the presence of 2 former Toronto Argonauts players.

Sgt Thompson

Sgt Thompson

And how do you follow the Tea Bowl?  With the Coffee Bowl of course!  Once again White City was the venue, this time a remarkable 50,000 turned up on a cold March afternoon to watch the Americans exact revenge on their Canadian counterparts.  As expected, Thompson was the difference maker and he led the Americans to a comfortable 16-0 victory, although the headlines went to running back Col Johnny Bayne who scored 3 touchdowns, 2 of them from Thompson passes.

Remarkably, given that there was a war going on, a match report appeared in the Montreal Gazette the following day.  The report provides a fascinating look at the terminology and language used in American Football at that time.  Bayne is described as a “line smasher”, a touchdown a “major” and a PAT a “placement”.

Thanks to the success of the Tea and Coffee Bowls, there were many more American Football games played in the UK during the Second World War.  One such occasion was the November 12th 1944 encounter between the US Army and US Navy.  Amongst the massive crowd of 60,000 was a British journalist Vivien Batchelor.  Her report of the game has recently been discovered in Springfield USA, and provides an insight into how Brits viewed American Football at that time.

The most striking aspect of the game for Batchelor was the violence on show.  “The only thing that moves play towards the goalposts seems to be the instinct of self-preservation of the man with the ball. He runs as far as he can before he is maimed or killed by the other players”.  Clearly, compared to the Corinthian nature of rugby, American Football was an altogether more dangerous sport.

References to the physicality of the sport are littered throughout the report, garnished with some poetic licence.  Take the following extract; you can forgive the hyperbole, as it seems as if Batchelor is secretly enjoying the spectacle:  “A free fight seemed to be going on in the centre of the stadium.  Twenty-two enormous young men in crash helmets were locked in deadly struggle for an oval football.”

As for the actual objectives of the game, Batchelor had a brave stab at explaining how the game worked:  “The object of the game seems to be to pass the ball to some unfortunate player and run as far as he can, before he is maimed or killed by the other players.”

More ambitiously, she has a go at explaining play calling:  “Before each ‘try,’ the team which has the ball goes into huddle while the captain decides who shall be the victim to receive the ball and the subsequent assaults.  It’s clear that the violent nature of the game is overriding her thoughts.  The same can be said for her thoughts on tackling assault your opponent any way at all except by ‘clipping’ the back of his legs.  That, an American beside me solemnly explained, is liable to break them.  The favoured method of attack yesterday seemed to be 1) Springing like a tiger at the man’s throat, or, 2) Just shoving so that sheer weight bore him down.”

Away from the violence, Batchelor was intrigued by the fashion on show.  The players’ uniforms were described as such: “They wore spiked-cleated (is the word Americans use) shoes, strange ginger shorts which cling closely to the thighs and end abruptly just below the knee, and padded jerseys, red and white for the Navy, navy blue for the Army.”  If that description seemed underwhelming, she was far more impressed with the referees, “splendid in white plus fours and striped shirts.”

One American Football tradition evident at White City that day was cheerleading.  Before the game, “Girl cheerleaders from the services pranced in front of the crowd waving megaphones, inciting yells like “A-R-M-Y, Army,” or “N-A-V-Y, Navy”.  Whilst at half time the crowd were treated to an appearance by Ruby Newell.  “Ruby who” you say.  Well, back then Miss Newell was quite a catch, having just been “voted the prettiest girl in the U.S. Women’s Forces”.

Ruby Newell  - Phwoar!!!

Ruby Newell – Phwoar!!!

All in all Batchelor seemed to have had a great day out, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence on show.   The Army won the game 20-0, although Batchelor’s report makes it pretty much impossible to ascertain what happened.   The key difference between the sides appeared to be the weight difference:  “As the average weight of the Army was about 16 stone (224 pounds), one felt sorry for the Navy, whose top weight was a mere 13 stone (182 pounds).”  If only the NFL Network would adopt a similar style of coverage!

Finally, I’ve managed to find around 7 minutes of Pathe video footage from one of the games played at White City during the War.  There’s no sound, but it’s still well worth a look and adds some flavour to the above.  Enjoy!

That’s it for World War 2 Football in the UK.  Next Time I’ll be moving on a few years to look at the first Brit to play in the NFL…

Posted by: Simon Day | February 27, 2013

Part 4: WWII – Tea Time in London

The 1910 exploits of the USS Idaho and co didn’t ignite an American Football craze in the UK.  In fact, the sport was pretty much forgotten about for almost 30 years.

This isn’t a sentence I use regularly but…luckily, the Second World War happened in 1939.  Lucky because it meant US troops were once again in the UK and once again were playing American Football.  This time there were 3 million of them scattered around the country, plus a further 500,000 Canadian troops.  It wasn’t just American Football that was being played this time.   In 1943, the London International Baseball League was formed and featured a combination of US, Canadian and British military teams.  Soon afterwards, the RACF and Army Athletics Finals attracted a crowd of 32,000.

American Football was played at Army Bases throughout the country, but the biggest encounter of that era took place as a result of a chance meeting in a pub!  Major Denis Whitaker, a former quarterback for the Hamilton Tigers and now a member of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry bumped into an American Lieutenant and, as is the way, talk quickly turned to football.   Several drinks later they stumbled upon the idea of having an international match between the Canadian and US armed forces.

Fortunately, Whitaker wasn’t talking to me.  Most of my “great ideas after a few drinks” don’t make it to the next morning.  A couple of years ago, a handful of pints convinced me to announce that I was going to take up crazy golf.  I even cased out the nearest courses, looked up competitions and outlined my plan for (mini) world domination.   However, by the next day, I had completely forgotten about the whole thing and my plans never made it to the first hole.  It was a similar story when I

Whitaker was a far more driven man than me.  He took advantage of the football equipment that had been shipped over to him, contacted a fellow football fan and started to form a team.  He named them the Mustangs and began an “Escape to Victory but not in a POW camp” type hunt for other players in the Forces.  There were a sprinkling of troops with a strong football background and thanks to Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the Chief-of-Staff at Canadian Military Headquarters, they were given 6 weeks off from service to train for the match.decided to learn an instrument, become an Olympian and write a sitcom.

The venue for this prestigious game was the now demolished White City Stadium in London.  Once again, the British media heavily promoted the game, perhaps due to a lack of sporting events taking place at the time.  It was dubbed the “Tea Bowl”, a North American nod to the UK’s favourite tipple…well, in their eyes anyway.  Presumably, if the game had taken place in the present day, it would be called the Weak Lager Bowl.  In honour of this name, the trophy was a specially crafted 8 inch high silver teapot.

teaIn 1944, the term Blitz had a very different meaning to the football tactic we now know.  Back then, the threat of German bombers meant that Spitfires were deployed to cover the skies around the stadium during the game.  Despite the dangerous circumstances, around 30,000 people attended the game on the 13th February 1944.  The game was even broadcast on British radio, with Captain Edward Leather providing commentary.  To assist the bemused British crowd, the matchday programme provided a guide to how the game worked.  More importantly, alcohol was readily available to ward off the cold and help get everyone enthused with the action.

At the time, there were minor differences between how the sport was played in Canada compared to the US.  As such, it was agreed that the first half would be played with American rules and the second half Canadian rules.  The American rules led to a drab and pointless first half.  The second half was an entirely different affair and the Canadians, led by QB Orville Burke, scored 3 touchdowns and claimed a 16-6 victory.  There was even a 40 touchdown reception for Whitaker.   The game was considered a massive success, not just because of the on field action, but also for the camaraderie and friendliness of the occasion.

As for Whitaker, he survived the War and lived until 2001.  Among the possessions found in his house was a certain 8 inch silver teapot.

Next Time:  Tea Bowl 2 – The Sequel (aka the Coffee Bowl)

Posted by: Simon Day | February 18, 2013

Part 3: American Football Comes to the Palace

In the early 20th century, the vast majority of Brits were completely oblivious to the fact that 1000’s of miles away, the gentleman’s sport of Rugby Union had morphed into an even more aggressive sport.  Rugby was thriving in public schools and was the number one winter sport among the elite classes.

American Football’s journey to the UK came courtesy of the USS Idaho and the USS Vermont.  For non sea-faring readers, USS stands, rather imaginatively, for United States Ship.   Both the Idaho and Vermont were American battleships and in November 1910, en route to Brest in France, they, along with other US battleships, docked at Northfleet, Kent.

On board both ships were members of the US Navy, specifically the Third Division of the Atlantic Fleet.  They were scheduled to spend three weeks in England and in between training exercises they decided to arrange games of American Football.  Initially, the first game was due to be between the Idaho and the USS Michigan, but for unspecified reasons the Michigan team pulled out and Vermont took their place.  And so on the 23rd November 1910 the UKs first ever American Football game took place.

The game would have been played in front a small crowd of US Navy members, but the Daily Mirror found out about the event and decided to sponsor it.  They even provided a trophy and arranged for the Duke of Manchester to present it to the winners.  The Mirror’s intervention meant that around 10,000 were present to watch Idaho triumph 19-0 and receive the Daily Mirror Silver Cup from William Angus Drogo Montagu.  The venue for this landmark game was Crystal Palace – a place that has become synonymous with American Football in the UK and one that will crop up on more than one occasion during the rest of this story.

The Mirror were clearly pleased with the event and decided to sponsor a second game 11 days later between the Idaho and the USS Connecticut.  On this occasion the game was called the American Navy Football Final and was an altogether more serious occasion than the Vermont encounter.   Idaho emerged victorious, this time by the unlikely score line of five points to nil.  Nowadays, a 5-0 score line would require the rather unlikely scenario of a team recording a shutout, whilst scoring a safety and a field goal.  Back in 1910, 5-0 meant the game was decided by a single touchdown.  Extra Points were part of the game in those days, so we can assume that Idaho missed their conversion attempt.

Further games took place over the following few days, with the final encounter being between the USS Georgia and USS Rhode Island at the Stonebridge Sports Ground on the 10th December 1910, in front of 4,000 locals.  Stonebridge Sports Ground is now the home of Ebbsfleet (formerly Gravesend & Northfleet) soccer club.  I recently had the good fortune of spending an afternoon at the ground watching Ebbsfleet strut their stuff.  The ground doesn’t appear to have changed much since that December afternoon 103 years ago.  The stands are rusty, the view isn’t the best and the facilities can kindly be described as dated.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised had the pitch markings from the Georgia-Rhode Island encounter still been visible.

Anyway, Georgia won the game 12-0.  The next day the fleet left for Brest and to all intents and purposes they took American Football with them!

The ultimate fate of the Idaho was that it was sold to Greece in 1914 and eventually sunk by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.  So, if George Lucas is struggling for a plot for a new Indiana Jones film, then he could do worse than having Indy battle the Nazi’s in his hunt for the long-lost Daily Mirror Silver Cup!  And there wouldn’t be a fridge or alien in sight!

Coming Next – World War 2: Coffee, Tea and American Football

Posted by: Simon Day | February 12, 2013

Part 2: Changing States

pop warner

Warner also won numerous awards for his perfectly square head

By the early 20th century, American Football had evolved considerably.   Walter Camp and other administrators had made the game more player and crowd friendly.   In 1892, the wonderfully named William “Podge” Heffelfinger , became the first professional player when he was paid $500 to play a game in Pittsburgh.  Many others followed suit and 3 years later Pop Warner became the first paid coach, earning $34 a week to coach the University of Georgia.

Until I started researching this, I assumed the Warner really had the first name of Pop; so I was highly disappointed to discover he was really called Glenn, and was only called Pop because he was one of the oldest players on his University team.  Disappointing, but also good to know that terrible, uncreative nicknames aren’t just a preserve of modern sport.   Warner earned his $34, by creating a number of innovative plays that have existed to this day, such as the screen pass and the spiral punt.  He also decided it would be a good idea for players to wear pads whilst playing.

In 1920, the game took its biggest leap forward as delegates from the major teams across the USA, got together in Canton, Ohio to try to add some organisation to the sport.  Jim Thorpe became the first president of, what was initially called, the American Professional Football Association.  Thorpe was one of those multi talented sportsmen that seem to have died out since the financial boom in sport.  Prior to becoming the APFA president, Thorpe had played baseball, basketball and american football professionally, and just to prove he wasn’t a three trick pony, he also won Olympic gold in the pentathlon and decathlon.  Not surprisingly, Thorpe struggled to dedicated much time to his APFA role and was replaced a year later by Joseph Carr.

Carr had far more of an administrative background than Thorpe. He had successful formed a and ran a successful baseball team (Panhandle White Soxs), before moving into American Football and founding the Columbus Panhandles, who would be one of the founder members of APFA.  Carr’s development of the Panhandles was based around a strong marketing ethic and the use of various innovations such as advertising the team in newspapers and hiring big name players.  Soon after becoming AFPA president, Carr changed the name of the organisation to the National Football League.  That was just the start of it for Carr and during his 18 year reign he introduced contracts, schedules, franchises and created strong links between the pro game and college football.   In many ways Carr was the key driver behind the formation of the NFL as we know it today.

a 1910 Offensive Line...still better than the Eagles 2012 version!

a 1910 Offensive Line…still better than the Eagles 2012 version!

The NFL grew rapidly and was becoming a behemoth of US sports.  Baseball was the number one sport in America, but Carr wanted to usurp it and take the NFL to the top.  His primary objective was to add stability and strength to franchises, thus building their identity and turnover of franchises, and Carr took steps to addressing this trend.  He sought out rich, successful businessmen to run franchises and provided continuity to the sport.

Perhaps the most famous of these new owners was Tim Mara.  Mara took over the New York Giants for $500 in 1925 and one of his first decisions was to sign…Jim Thorpe.  See, it all makes sense eventually!  The Mara family are still heavily involved with the Giants and are one of the most famous names in America.  Tim’s grandson John is currently the Giants president, whilst his great granddaughters Rooney and Kate are famous actresses.

Thanks to the likes of Mara, the NFL experienced a massive upsurge in popularity and by the late 1940’s the sport had overtaken baseball as America’s number one sport and has arguably retained that status to this very day.


Coming Next:  American Football comes to the UK…in 1910!

Posted by: Simon Day | February 7, 2013

Part 1: From Rugby to Yale

This is the story of a sport travelling from the United States to the United Kingdom.  It’s a story largely based in modern times.  A story of Brits who have crossed the Atlantic and found success in the NFL, a story of the NFL finding a home in this country and the story of how the sport has grown immeasurably in the UK over the last 30 years.

But it starts with the story of sport moving in the opposite direction. …



“Name?”Most people are familiar with the name William Webb Ellis and how, at Rugby School in 1823, he picked up a round ball during a game of football and ran with it.  And thus, rugby was born.  It’s always struck me as a bit of an unlikely story.  For a start, if Webb Ellis had done that at my school, he’d have been met with “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing Webb Ellis”, placed in detention and made to write “Football’s are for kicking” 500 times on a blackboard.  In fact, at my school, dong something good on a sports field usually landed you in trouble.  At the age of 11, in one of my first rugby lessons, I completed a textbook tackle on a boy about twice the weight of me.  As I picked myself up I saw the teacher standing in front of me:


“NO, name?”

“errr  Day” (slightly louder)

At this point the teacher’s face went red and he screamed “NAME?”

Slowly the penny dropped, “Day, Sir” I said apologetically.

All respect for my excellent tackle was gone and I was firmly in the teacher’s bad books.  I was banished to the misery of “D Game”, a place inhabited by children unable to catch a rugby ball or fathom the concept of passing it backwards.  One small schoolboy error on my part and my chances of ever making it as a rugby player were banished forever.

So no, unless Webb Ellis went to a very liberal and forward thinking school, I can’t imagine his creativity will have gone down well with his teacher.  Besides, if he did pick the ball up and run with it, it’s still a pretty big step to get to the sport of rugby from that point.  It’s not as if he got 29 of his friends in on the ruse and carefully explained an 80 minute routine that would convince his teacher that a new sport had been discovered.

Back then, the balls were made of actual pig bladders inserted into a leather case.  Some lucky chap had the job of blowing air into the bladder in order to pump it up into a round shape.  The casing was then stitched together and hey presto there’s your ball.  Obviously, this didn’t lead to a perfectly round ball; instead games were played with something resembling an oversized plum.  There are no records of when the ball stopped being round, however it appears likely that the move to an elongated ball happened soon after the game was first played.  Tom Brown’s Schooldays was written in 1835 and contains a reference to a “new ball you may see lie there, quite by itself in the middle, pointing towards the school goal”.  Clearly, the ball was able to point in 1835, so had developed some sort of “end”.

It seems strange that given the unlikelihood of the Webb Ellis story being true; it has transcended through time and is even the name of the Rugby World Cup trophy.  In reality, it seems that rugby was started at Rugby School around twenty years later and the first rules were laid down by pupils.  However, these rules were adapted by other schools and universities and tinkered with.  This must have made matches pretty controversial and a nightmare for referees.  Amazingly, this difference in rules continued for almost 20 years and as seemed to be the norm with controversial issues in Victorian time, culminated in a letter to the Times.  The letter, from one Edwin Ash, suggested that an “across the board” code of practice be introduced to prevent confusion and controversy.  It seems amazing that it took twenty years for somebody to reach this conclusion.

Luckily, in 1871, Blackheath Club started the Rugby Football Union and with the help of 21 other clubs, some official rules were soon introduced.  There have been countless changes, but these rules from 1871 are essentially the framework of the sport we call Rugby Union today.

By this point a version of the sport had made its way to Canada and was being played in Trinity College Montreal.  Previously ball games had been played in North America, but the rules and logistics of these games were pretty vague.  An event called “Bloody Monday” was played every term by Harvard students from the 1830 on-wards, and appeared to incorporate aspects of both soccer and rugby.  However, “Bloody Monday” wasn’t governed by any strict rules and usually descended into a mass brawl.  So much so, that the event was banned by the school in 1860.

By the late 1860s, a game similar to the Rugby School version of the sport was being played at a number of Canadian colleges.   Harvard, meanwhile, adopted something more similar to soccer and took on the Rutgers in an organised game in 1869.  The game used a round ball, which was advanced by kicks and dribbles.  However, aspects of the game such as forming “flying wedges” around the ball and aggressively stopping opponents getting to the ball were clear departures from the traditional rules of soccer and were movements towards a brand new sport.

 It didn’t take long for Rugby to move across the border and in 1874, Canadian college McGill took on Harvard in 2 games, one using the soccer style rules that Havard had developed since the 1869 encounter with Rutgers and a second encounter using MacGill’s rugby style rules.  Predictably enough, Havard won the first game, however the second ended surprisingly in a 0-0 draw.  Despite this, the Harvard players preferred the MacGill version of the game and using an elongated ball.   So much so that Harvard decided to practice using the MacGills rules and later on that year they beat them in a game of “rugby” 3-0.

Walter Camp

Walter Camp

The following year Harward played Yale using the “MacGill” rules and the year after that the sport we know as American Football began to take shape.  The first rulebook was put together in 1876 by representatives from Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Colombia.   They met in Springfield, Massachusetts at an event known as the Massasoit Convention.  The representatives agreed to meet each year to review the rules and look to develop the game further.  Among the representatives present was a Yale man called Walter Camp.  He would go on to be known as the “Father of Football”.  If you’ve never seen a picture of Camp, then just ask a friend to sketch a picture of a Victorian man, chances are it will closely resemble Mr Camp.

Gradually the committee adapted the rules and moved the sport away from rugby and soccer.  Camp was at the forefront of these changes and introduced many of the rules that are still used today.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Camp had a ridiculously strong record as a head coach, losing just 2 out of 69 games during his 5 years as head coach of Yale Bulldogs.  Presumably, the fact that he had created many of the rules gave him a pretty good advantage.   If Camp had had any sense, he’d have kept the rule changes quiet from opponents.   There’d have been an endless stream of penalties as he’d bring out his rule book after every seemingly legal play.

“Ten Yard penalty for illegal formation”

“What, we had 11 on the field?”

“Ah, 11.  I think you’ll find Law 56, Sub Section 7.3 states that on 3rd downs in the opposition half, you must only have 10 players on Offence.”

As Camp and other innovators introduced more and more rules, the game moved further and further away from rugby.  However, the elongated ball remains to this day.  So, next time your team recovers a fumble after a lucky bounce or a punt stops near the goal line thanks to a sideways role, say a quick thank you to Rugby School.

Next Week:  How the game progressed from college fun to national obsession…

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