The First Football Game

The first football game was played in 1869 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. But the rules of the game back then would be unrecognizable today. Learn more about the origins of the sport we know and love.

When was the first football game played?

The first football game was played on November 6, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey). Rutgers beat Princeton by a score of 6 to 4 in the first of two games that year between the schools. The game was played at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

What were the rules of the first football game?

The first football game was played with rules that would be unrecognizable compared to modern day American football. The rules of the first football game more closely resembled the rules of soccer and rugby. Each team had 25 players and neither team was allowed to throw or carry the ball. Teams could only advance the ball by kicking it. The game was played with a round ball, like a soccer ball, and the objective was to kick the ball into the opponent’s goal.

Gameplay was broken down into ten “games,” where the game ended when one of the teams scored. Rutgers beating Princeton 6 to 4 means Rutgers won 6 of the 10 games.

Harvard vs Tufts 1875

While Rutgers vs Princeton is widely recognized as the first football game, it was played under rules that hardly resemble modern American football. This has caused some controversy and other claims to the mantle of the “first football game.”

The most credible claim is Harvard vs Tufts in June of 1875. The key differences between the 1869 Rutgers vs Princeton game and the 1875 Harvard vs Tufts game are that the 1875 game included foundational elements of modern day football that weren’t present at Rutgers in 1869:

  • 11 players on each team
  • Running the ball to advance it (though, kicking the ball to advance it was still allowed)
  • Non-continuous play—where tackling the ball-carrier stopped play

Impact of the first football game

Despite various claims, both the 1869 Rutgers vs New Jersey game, and the 1875 Harvard vs Tufts game, have had lasting impacts on modern American football. Rutgers and Princeton kicked off the inaugural college football season, and the Harvard and Tufts game introduced elements that became staples of modern gridiron football.

Football began as a physical blend between soccer and rugby in New Jersey in 1869. In Boston in 1875 the ability to pick up the ball and run was adopted. Over the next two decades, Walter Camp would write many of the formal rules of football, including inventing the line of scrimmage, the system of downs, the quarterback position, and much more.

Eventually, in 1906, the forward pass was legalized—the most influential rule change in the history of sports. While the first football game hardly resembled modern football, it sparked the evolution of the sport into what it has become today.

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