With Super Bowl Sunday coming up, this video from the Library of Congress gives us a grainy glimpse at what American football looked like in a different era. This clip, featuring the Princeton and Yale university teams playing in New Haven, Connecticut, is thought to be the oldest surviving footage of college football, which was generally seen as the highest level of the game in those pre-NFL times, when professional play was largely frowned upon.
As you can see, things were a bit different back then.
Forward passing wasn’t yet allowed, and lateral or backward passing had gone out of fashion back in the 1880s, when blocking became acceptable. When a player was carrying the ball, his team-mates’ main priority was to clear a path for him, not to run alongside or behind him and look for a pass.
This is one thing that distinguishes the game we see here from rugby (the sport that American football originated from in the 1870s), in which the blockers would have been offside. Another is that the system of downs and yardage was in place, with the teams having to separate and line up onside after each tackle. But, rather than needing to gain ten yards in four downs as in today’s game, the team in possession needed just five yards from three downs.
These factors all combined to encourage the kind of football we can see in this clip – with most plays apparently consisting of little more than a pile-up. This style of play had its dark side, with not only injuries but even deaths becoming commonplace. Protective gear was in its infancy: players wore little in the way of padding, some wore rudimentary helmets, and some used nose guards.
There would be 18 fatalities and 159 serious injuries recorded in 1905 alone, creating a crisis that soon led to the introduction of forward passing, the neutral zone (a gap between the opposing sets of players at the start of each play) and a requirement to gain ten yards rather than five. Playing styles would still change only slowly – but, gradually, over the next few decades, the game would come to resemble the one we know today.