Leave it to a clockmaker named Walter Camp to turn a chaotic excuse for a brawl into a game of precision and time limits. We now know it as football.
Camp starred in football for Yale just as the game came back into fashion in the 1870s. His real contribution to football, though, was in setting the rules over 15 years of meetings with collegiate athletic directors at a Springfield, Mass., hotel.
Walter Camp was born in New Britain, Conn., on April 7, 1859, into the family that owned the New Haven Clock Company. Chauncey Jerome founded the company in 1817 and made a fortune by selling cheap clocks with brass works. A devastating fire and Jerome’s own mistakes allowed his nephew, Hiram Camp, to take over the company. By the time Walter was born, the New Haven Clock Co. was the world’s largest clockmaker.
When Walter Camp was a year old, the sport that would become football was banned by Yale, and a year later Harvard would follow.
It was then known by different names, but it resembled the medieval European sport of mob football. The game had unlimited players, and one of its few rules disallowed manslaughter and murder as methods of moving the ball to the goal.
By the 19th century, mob football moved to college campuses as an intramural sport. Each college played by its own rules. A Harvard tradition known as Bloody Monday started in 1827, when the freshman class played the sophomore class. Winslow Homer illustrated the game in an engraving called Class Day at Harvard University in 1858.
But the game evolved into an excuse for a brawl that usually ended with injuries. Under pressure from the surrounding towns, college administrators banned it.
At that point another version was becoming popular at East Coast prep schools. Called the Boston game, it used the round, inflatable ball introduced in 1855. Graduates of Boston’s elite prep schools played it. They called themselves the Oneida Football Club, which some consider the first organized football club.
The Oneidas played pickup teams from 1862-65 on Boston Common. In 1925, surviving members of the club dedicated a small stone monument on the Common. It claims the Oneidas never allowed a point. The inscription reads,
On this field the Oneida Football Club of Boston, the first organized football club in the United States, played against all comers from 1862 to 1865. The Oneida goal was never crossed.
Football Returns to College
By 1873, football returned to college campuses. On October 20 of that year, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City. They intended to agree on the first set of collegiate rules.
Harvard refused to participate because the soccer-based rule conflicted with the Boston game, to which Harvard was committed. The new rules spread quickly, though, to college and high school campuses throughout the country.
Such was the state of affairs when Walter Camp entered Yale in 1876. Football was again becoming popular and the rules were just starting to be codified. Camp was a star athlete who played halfback for the football team as an undergraduate and later as a medical student. He was named captain, a position equivalent to head coach at the time. He also became a member of the Intercollegiate Football Association, formed during his freshman year.
Three years after the Intercollegiate Football Association met in New York, the Massasoit House hotel in Springfield, Mass., hosted representatives from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia to adapt rules based on rugby rather than soccer. That decision was just one step in the evolution of football that Walter Camp would so greatly influence.
Camp would become a fixture at Massasoit House, bringing a technocratic approach that perfected the game step by step, year after year. The same kind of Yankee inventiveness that revolutionized clock-making went into 15 years of refinements that resulted in America’s most popular sport.
As a senior at Yale, Camp prevailed at Massasoit House and cut the number of players to 11 from 15. That year he also came up with the idea for a static line of scrimmage. In 1882, the Yale-Princeton game ended in a scoreless tie, and Camp revised the rule to require the offense to gain five yards in three attempts or give up the ball. He also added measuring lines to the field. The next year, he revised the scoring system.
In 1883, Camp’s medical studies were interrupted, and he ended up working for the family clock-manufacturing business. He did maintain his interest in the workings of the human body and later developed a set of exercises for the U.S. military called the Daily Dozen.
A Football Powerhouse
From 1888 to 1892, Camp was unpaid head coach at Yale while working for the family business. As an engineer he understood the advantages of planning and specialization. Each Yale player trained for a specific role including quarterback, which Camp invented, along with offensive signal calling. He borrowed mass-production techniques from the clock company to shape the team’s drills. From 1885 to the end of 1899, Yale won 46 straight games and outscored its opponents by 2018 to 29.
For years, Camp and journalist Caspar Whitney selected the annual All-American team, known as Walter Camp’s All-American team. For 42 years he edited the yearly college football guide, and he wrote and spoke prolifically about the sport. By 1892, he had created the game we now know as football. At the age of 33, Walter Camp was called the ‘Father of American Football.’
Camp had his critics. As Yale’s head coach, athletic director and spokesman, some viewed him as a self-promoter who compiled questionable statistics to support his views. He hoarded gate receipts for the football program at the expense of minor sports like wrestling and swimming. And he used an alumni-funded slush fund of $100,000 to pay for gifts and vacations for his star players.
Hall of Fame
None of that could stem the rising popularity of football. Rivalries sprang up all over the country, usually culminating in the Thanksgiving Day game we watch today. As far back as 1887, Boston Latin High School and the English High School of Boston faced each other on Thanksgiving – and they’re still doing it every year.
By the time he died in 1925, Camp had written 30 books and 250 magazine articles creating the myth of football players’ manliness and courage. His foundation has awarded the Walter Camp Player of the Year award since 1967. No player from Yale has won the award.
Walter Camp died on March 14, 1925. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1951.
This story was updated in 2023. If you enjoyed this story, you might also want to read about the improbable beginnings of the New England Patriots here.