Walter Camp is recognized as the father of modern football.
But he isn’t the sole inventor of the sport. In fact, the first football game ever played took place when Walter Camp was just 10 years old. But Camp developed several of the foundational rules to modern American football.
Before Camp, American football more closely resembled soccer and rugby. In the first football game ever played in 1869, teams were made up of 25 players—not the 11 of today’s football—and the objective was to kick the ball into the opposing team’s goal. The ball was spherical like a soccer ball. And players were not allowed to pick up the ball and carry it—let alone throw it. The ball could only be advanced by kicking it.
Walter Camp is known as the “father of modern football” for writing down many of the rules that led to the evolution of gridiron football as we know and love it today: the system of downs, the quarterback position, the 11-man team, and many more.
The Rules that Walter Camp Invented: American Football
Camp played college football at a time of great change in the sport. Colleges in the northeast began to adopt the rules of the “Boston game” for American football. The “Boston game” called for 11-man teams, allowing the option to run the ball to advance it, allowing defenses to tackle the ball-carrier, and non-continuous play where the game was stopped when the ball-carrier was tackled.
A rules-making committee was created in Camp’s freshman year at Yale called the Intercollegiate Football Association; it was a governing body made up of college athletics directors and various school representatives in the northeast.4 Representatives from Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia met at the Massasoit House in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the goal of making the rules of American football more aligned with rugby rather than soccer.4 One of its first acts was to make the “touchdown” the primary method of scoring in football, moving away from a kicked goal.5
Walter Camp became a member of the Intercollegiate Football Association. Over the course of 15 years, and numerous meetings at the Massasoit House, Camp proposed and passed many of the rules that began the modern evolution of American Football.4
In Walter Camp’s senior year at Yale, he passed a rule through the Intercollegiate Football Association codifying the 11-man team, a staple of the Boston game.4 He also invented the line of scrimmage in his senior year.4 The line of scrimmage guaranteed the offense the ball after the ball-carrier was tackled, and formalized non-continuous play. Until that point, when the ball-carrier was stopped, a rugby-like scrum would take place where either team could gain possession of the ball.
Camp was further influential in defining the size of the football field: 120 yards by 531/3 yards—the same dimensions used to this day.5
After that, he invented the system of downs in 1882.4 The original system of downs called for the offense to gain 5 yards over 3 tries—or else give the ball up; the rule change by Camp came as a result of a scoreless game between Yale and Princeton that year.4 Camp’s hope was that this rule change would lead to more scoring, but that wasn’t necessarily the case.
In 1883, Camp passed the rules for the amount of points for a touchdown, point-after, field goal, and safety.2 Camp’s scoring method, which has been changed since, was:
- 5 points for field goals,
- 4 points for touchdowns,
- 2 points for safeties,
- 2 points for the point-after kick.5
The safety is the only score that has not evolved since Camp’s definition of the points.
Camp also legalized the concept of blocking (called “interference”). Blocking was a novel concept that was highly illegal in rugby, and made American football even more distinct from European styles of rugby and soccer.5
All the Rules That Walter Camp Formally Created
- The 11-man team
- The line of scrimmage
- The concept of downs (down-and-distance)
- The position of quarterback
- The role of the offensive signal caller
- Blocking (legalizing what they called “interference”)
- The points totals for: touchdowns, field goals, safeties, point-after attempts
- The snap from center 6
Walter Camp also standardized the arrangement of players on offense: 7 players at the line of scrimmage, and 4 players in the backfield. This same arrangement exists in modern football. 7 offensive players must be on the line of scrimmage, or else an illegal formation penalty is called.
Walter Camp’s Contributions to Football
While Walter Camp didn’t solely invent the sport of American football, he is known as the “father of modern football” thanks to the profound impact he made on the sport’s evolution. It is possible that no other person is as responsible for modern football as Walter Camp. Many of the rules he created and passed live on to this day. Camp’s rules distinguished American football as wholly unique from soccer and rugby—and laid the foundation for the game we love today.
- 1 Des Jardins, Julie (2015). Walter Camp: football and the modern man. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 9780199925636.
Nicholas Camp, his earliest known ancestor, came to Massachusetts and settled in Connecticut in 1630.
- 2 https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Camp
- 3 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Intercollegiate-Football-Association
- 4 https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/walter-camp-and-birth-modern-football/
- 6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Camp#Father_of_American_football