Throwback Thursday: When Harvard Helped Invent Football

In 1875, Harvard first played Yale, and it suggested some rule changes.


This weekend Harvard’s football team will face Yale as spectators watch one of the oldest American sports rivalries play out. While the actual quality of football being played by these schools has long been eclipsed by bigger programs, Americans do owe this Harvard-Yale game, and the 19th century Harvard bros who thought it up, some serious credit.

Back in 1875, collegiate men were trying out a few different versions of a game that looked a bit like rugby, a bit like soccer, and a lot like extreme violence. (Yale banned the annual freshman-sophomore game in 1857 because it was too rough on the players.) In Yale: A History, Brooks Mather Kelley writes:

“The football Yale played in the beginning was more nearly what we now call soccer … Yale’s first rules specifically prohibit pitching, throwing, or carrying the ball on any part of the field, though it could be batted with the hand.”

Harvard, though, was creating a game that came closer to rugby. When the two schools met for their first intercollegiate contest, this is the game they played.

In November 1875 Yale met Harvard in New Haven in a special game under Rugby rules but with some changes requested by Yale. Harvard won that first “concessionary game,” as it was called, but Yale so liked the Harvard game that it took up the new sport. In 1876 Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton met at the call of Princeton to form the Intercollegiate Football Association. They adopted, in modified form, the Rugby Union rules.

But the game still didn’t quite look like the sport we think of as football today. Over the years, it would continue to evolve away from rugby. It would remain incredibly violent, though. The Game of 1894, played at Hampden Park in Springfield, was known as the “Hampden Park Bloodbath.”

These days, the quality of football these two schools will play at Harvard Stadium is certainly not the best in the nation. This year’s Harvard squad is 9-0, Yale is 8-1, and so the rivalry will be in full force. And it being nearly Thanksgiving, we have to be grateful to Harvard for even thinking up this game and shopping it around to other schools.