The Boston Game: Origins of Football

The rules of the Boston game in 1874 made some of the most important evolutions in the history of football, and created several of the rules that made American football distinct from rugby and soccer.

What was the “Boston Game”?

The Boston game was a variation of early American football. Rules of the Boston game allowed players to pick up the football and carry it, and established the 11-man team. The Boston game rules came about in 1874.

The first football game ever played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton was, in essence, soccer. It was played with 25-man teams; players could only kick the ball to advance it, and the objective was to kick the ball into the opposing team’s goal.

The first football game in 1869 hardly resembled football as we know it today. But after the first game, which marked the first college football season, the sport began to evolve quickly. In 1874, McGill University in Montreal invited Harvard to play them in football with new rules that appealed to the Harvard players. These rules formed the basis for the “Boston game.”

What were the rules of the Boston game?

The rules of the Boston game called for smaller teams, allowed players to pick up the ball and run to advance it, and introduced non-continuous play. It also allowed scoring by “tries” (which later became known as the “touchdown”), where teams could score by moving the football past the other team’s goal line.1 Players in the Boston game could still kick the ball to advance it; however, the idea that a player could carry the ball and run with it to move down the field was brand new and caught on quickly.

When the player carrying the ball was tackled, play was stopped (non-continuous gameplay). A rugby-like scrum would then ensue where either team could gain possession of the ball. These rules came to dominate football until 1881 when Walter Camp invented the line of scrimmage. The line of scrimmage got rid of the rugby-like scrum when the ball carrier was tackled, and guaranteed the offense possession of the football after they were tackled.

1875 Harvard vs Tufts College Football Game

The first college football game to play with the rules of the Boston game was between Harvard and Tufts in 1875. This is the first instance in American football where two colleges played with 11-man teams, and allowed players to carry and run with the ball. It is also the first instance in college football of teams being able to score by moving the football past the other team’s goal line (scoring a “try”).

Tufts has claimed that this was the actual first football game ever played.2 Their claim is based on the fact that the 1869 Rutgers vs Princeton game more closely resembled soccer. Tufts has argued that the 1875 Harvard vs Tufts football game was the first instance when American football took on a distinct form away from rugby and soccer due to the drastic rules changes it introduced.

What is the lasting impact of the Boston game?

The Boston game laid the groundwork for the evolution of football into a distinct sport from soccer and rugby. The idea that a player could pick up the ball and advance it was new in the 1870s. The concept of the modern day touchdown and the rule defining the 11-man team in football developed from the Boston game. And the Boston game pioneered the concept of stopping play. Before then, football was played continuously like soccer, with no stoppage of play. These concepts have all become central to modern American football, and all live on to this day.

Sources Cited:

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_history_of_American_football#Harvard%E2%80%93McGill_(1874)

2https://ase.tufts.edu/athletics/old/menFootball/press/2004-2005/firstgamebuzz.html

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