2011 Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, left, and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. The much hyped US Super Bowl is one of America's greatest games. but the US game came about thanks to Canadian rules.
Photo Credit: Getty Images- via CBC

History- May 14, 1874 How Canada created American football


Though American websites seldom, if ever, mention it, and American sportscasters probably don’t know it either, the origins of another of their greatest professional sports had come from Canada.

While Canadian James Naismith invented basketball, American style “football” also came  from Canada, after Americans played a game developed in Canada.

American sports history often cites an 1869 game between Rutgers University and Princeton as the origin of their game of “football”, but that was a rather different style of game which bore little resemblance to what we call football today, including for example, having 25 players per side. Its only real claim to fame is the start of intercollegiate sports.In the latter part of the 1800’s both the US and Canadian universities were playing a soccer-like rugby brought over from England. However the sport had evolved somewhat in the new world, and also evolved rather differently in the two countries.

What is now known as one of the Americans greatest professional sports, thus came about as a result of American exposure to the Canadian version of the sport.

In 1874, the American Harvard University team was seeking to play against another university team and invited McGill University in Montreal to play against them. However, by this time the American and Canadian versions of rugby-football were substantially different.

Alleged to be a photo of one of the two games between Harvard and McGill, which became the start of the US style of football. © Notman photo- Archives McGill

Thus the decision was made to have the teams play two games, one by Harvard’s American rules, and one game played by Canadian rulews.

On May 13 and 14, in 1874 two games were played in the US. The first was played using Harvard’s rules, which was a game more like soccer and using a round ball, the second was played using McGill rules, with an oblong ball.

The Harvard game was a soccer variation known as the “Boston Game.” This allowed a player to pick up the ball and run with it if he were chased, but if the persuer stopped he would yell to the ball-holder who then had to throw or kick the ball.

As it turned out the Americans won the first game 3-0, while the second game with Canadian rules was a scoreless tie.

However, much more importantly for the US and today’s extravangas like the Super Bowl, and all the others. the Harvard squad enjoyed the Canadian game better.

The Canadian team could also only field 11 players at the match, whereas the Americans usually played with 15 members (or more) on the field. Even today, American football only puts 11 members per team on the field.

They Harvard team liked the Canadian innovations to the game such as running with the ball, downs, forward passing, goal posts for a try, or touchdown, and tackling.  They adopted the Canadian rules and they then introduced them into a match with Yale the following year.

American sources tend to cite this all US game as the start of American football, ignoring the fact that Canada was the source of the Harvard game.

It also marked the first time admission was charged to a college sporting event, with a 50 cent fee for spectators, which apparently would be used post game for “entertaining” the visiting Canadian team.   American college football now generates well over a billion of dollars in revenue every year.

In 1876 a formalized rulebook was created by US colleges as the new sport took a much different route from the sports of soccer and rugger (rugby), but one which had been very much influenced by the Canadian innovations.

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10 comments on “History- May 14, 1874 How Canada created American football
  1. Avatar Bill says:

    Harvard didn’t have a rugby sized field played on at McGill U. but the smaller field firleld is now the standard size for NCAA and NFL.

  2. Avatar Deacon says:

    The forward pass was instituted later, with the help of President Roosevelt.

  3. Avatar nim says:

    when did it start

  4. Avatar Jeff Hammond says:

    Almost always typical of Americans to take credit for something they did not create. They tend to not pay much attention to countries other than their own.

  5. Avatar James says:

    Who invented it? What was their name?

  6. Your version of this story perpetuates a popular misconception. The term “football” actually refers to two different sports.

    The term “football” that is used in England (and most of the world outside of North America) refers to “Association Football”, which is commonly known as “soccer” in North America.

    The term “football” that is used in North America, originated from rugby-football, a game played with an oval ball that can either be picked up and run with, as well as passed or kicked.

    The 1869 game between Princeton and Rutgers was “Association Football”, or soccer, a kicking game played with a round ball. Running with the ball and passing the ball is not permitted. It is not “football” as we know the term in North America.

    In 1874, the three games played between McGill and Harvard (two in May, one in October) were rugby-football, which involved kicking, throwing (laterals) and running with the ball.

    If you are in England and talk to someone about “football”, they think you are referring to “soccer”. If you are in North America and use the tern “football”, it is not “soccer”.

    Similarly with the term “hockey”. When using that term outside of North America, it is generally assumed to be “field hockey”. But when used in North America, especially in Canada, the term is generally assumed to be referring to ice hockey.

    You state in this article that: “In the latter part of the 1800’s both the US and Canadian universities were playing a soccer-like rugby brought over from England.”

    This statement is a contradiction because there is no such thing as “soccer-like rugby”. Soccer is the kicking game played with a round ball. Rugby is the passing, kicking, rushing game played with the oval ball. both are known as football, depending upon which country you are in.

    • Marc Montgomery Marc Montgomery says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      You are correct about the 1869 game, however some American sources list this as the first “football” game, perhaps from their own misconception about the term football (Association football=soccer) in England and Europe and what constitutes “football” in North America.

      I said “soccer-like football” in this later event, as the Americans from what I found in limited research due to extreme time restraints available to write the story- is that the Americans were playing a version of rugby that did not quite resemble British rugby, (which itself seems to have developed only a short time earlier) and in which they used a round soccer ball and so more kicking was done, like soccer.

      At the time Harvard were playing according to “Boston” rules, while other US universities were playing a game with still different rules and as many as 25 players on a side.

      If you look at the Notman photo, it does appear to be a more rugby-style scrimmage. There unfortunately is no indication of which of the two 1874 games this was, ie, playing by American or Canadian rules. The fact remains that the Americans in 1874 adopted some of the Canadian rules and from that evolved the present American sport.

    • Avatar Kathleen says:

      I found this very interesting, and like the other comment I read was clear about what you were talking about. I’m not a big sports watcher, however I like my history. Thank you.