Walter Camp And His Gridiron Game

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His aim from the start was to bring order and strategy into the confused, often clumsy extemporizing of Rugby-style play. In 1880 he got the teams limited to eleven men (down from fifteen), a number that had been found more wieldy when a touring team from Eton visited Yale in 1873 and happened to be short four players. While Princeton and Harvard experimented with their line-ups, Camp immediately deployed his in the pattern—seven linemen, a “quarterback” (Camp’s term), two halfbacks, a fullback—that prevailed until relatively recent years, when the T formation revolutionized the game again.

Also in 1880, Camp introduced—and put through—American football’s most radical and far-reaching departure from Rugby. He got the tangled “scrum” replaced by an orderly, artful “scrimmage,” where one team was given possession of the ball to start with and could run off set plays until it fumbled, kicked, or had a pass intercepted (only laterals allowed). In a scrum the ball was (and in Rugby still is) rolled in by an official under the feet of the close-ranked opposing rush lines, who then wrestled to get the ball out to their running backs. Camp’s scrimmage provided an orderly and honorable outlet from the struggling mass by putting the grounded, motionless ball into play by the offensive “snapper-back” (center), who toed it or touched it with his foot and then handed it to the “quarter-back,” who then had to pass or hand the ball to another back before moving forward himself.

It was soon found that a weak team, if it never kicked, passed, or fumbled, could hoard the ball indefinitely from a strong team, and thus obtain a dull, scoreless tie. After Princeton did this to Yale in ’80 and ’81 in what became notorious as the “blocked games,” Camp in 1882 invented the yards-and-downs system. Now a team had to yield the ball if it did not gain five yards, or lose ten, in three plays from scrimmage. In case of ties, touchbacks behind the goal line for “safety” (to retain the ball and bring it out to the 25-yard line) would count against a team resorting to them.

When this radical plan was debated in the rules committee, a historic colloquy is supposed to have taken place.

CABOT OF HARVARD: How, Walter, do you propose to tell when five yards have been made?

CAMP: We shall have to rule off the field with horizontal chalked lines every five yards.

PEACE OF PRINCETON: Gracious! The field will look like a gridiron!

CAMP: Precisely.

Up to now scores had been tallied by “goals.” Four touchdowns equalled one goal, but in case of a tie a kicked goal took precedence; or that team won which resorted to the fewest “safeties.” This was so confusing that in 1883 Camp got a point-scoring scale adopted. A goal kicked from afield was five points. Reflecting the new emphasis on running plays from scrimmage, a goal kicked after touchdown was awarded four points, and the touchdown itself counted two. A safety counted one point, for the opponents. This scale would be rejiggered over the years, but the basic idea remained. It was one more first for Camp.

In 1879, Princeton had begun sending runners ahead of the ball carrier as “interference.” This violated the old “offside” rule basic to both soccer and Rugby, which forbade offensive players going ahead of the ball. But Princeton’s trick was promptly imitated instead of challenged. In 1884 when Princeton came up with its murderous wedge—the whole team massed as a V with the ball carrier inside its apex—this too was copied at once. In 1885 Camp tried to curb such ponderous, bruising maneuvers by putting through the first penalty rule—a loss of five yards for crossing the scrimmage line before the ball was snapped. But this was evaded, and wedging got worse instead of better, and in his next attempt at policing the game Camp unwittingly made matters worse yet.

Until this time the ball carrier could be tackled only at the waist or above. Usually, he was grabbed right around the neck and, finally, dragged to earth. Camp thought play would be cleaner if tackling were legalized down to the knees. He put through such a rule in 1888, but its effect was precisely opposite to what he had intended.

Now the ball was given, not to the burliest carriers, but to fast, light, shifty men like “Snake” Ames of Princeton, around whom wedges were formed and interlocked more tightly than ever. To break them up, linemen like Yale’s one-man juggernaut, “Pudge” Heffelfinger, devised the gentle art of broad jumping high at the wedge’s apex, cleats first. And in 1893 Harvard unveiled a flying wedge, which added momentum to mass. Members of the offensive team lined up in a V formation extending far behind the line of scrimmage. As the ball was snapped, they converged and ran full steam ahead. The “ugly and uncouth” type of play which Camp had always deplored now became even more brutal as other teams, particularly Pennsylvania’s, shot off their wedges like thunderbolts.