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Terminology... Drop Kick, Place Kick, Punt, Goal from Field, Field Goal, Goal from Touchdown, Placer, and Holder
This is article #4 in a series covering the origins of football’s terminology. All are available under the Terminology tab above. My book, Hut! Hut! Hike! describes the emergence of more than 400 football terms.
Football's original rules of 1876 copied rugby's rules virtually word for word so kicking the ball was a central part of the game early on. In fact, football's first three rules defined its three kicks:
Rule 1: A drop kick, or drop, is made by letting the ball fall from the hands and kicking it the very instant it rises.
Rule 2: A place kick, or place, is made by kicking the ball after it has been placed in a nick made in the ground for the purpose of keeping it at rest.
Rule 3: A punt is made by letting the ball fall from the hands and kicking it before it hits the ground.
Rule 6 stated that a goal could be scored by any type of kick other than a punt, meaning goals could be scored by either a drop kick or place kick.
The next rule, Rule 7, seems odd to us today but reflects the fact that football did not yet assign points to the various types of scores. The team that won the game was the one that scored the most touchdowns. At the same time, a goal was worth four touchdowns, meaning football valued kicking a goal four times more than scoring a touchdown. Given the difference in values, why would teams bother scoring touchdowns? Why not focus on kicking field goals? The explanation lies in the fact that there were two ways to score goals. The first was the goal from field, or a kick on a scrimmage play, which almost immediately became known as a field goal. Since the field goal was a scrimmage kick, the defense could contest it, which initially forced teams to attempt field goals using the less accurate but faster drop kicks.
The second way to score a goal came following a touchdown when teams gained the opportunity to kick a goal from touchdown. While the goal from touchdown (aka extra point) counts as one point today and a field goal counts as three, early on, a goal was a goal, regardless of how it was scored. Critically, however, the goal from touchdown was a free kick, meaning the defense faced restraints in trying to block the kick.
Here's how it worked.
After scoring a touchdown, the runner took the ball from where he crossed the goal line, walked perpendicularly onto the field, and chose the distance from which to attempt the place kick. The kicker could create a "tee" or divot in the ground with his heel, but most teams had the ball carrier hold the ball for the kicker. Since it was a free kick, the defense had to remain behind the goal line until the ball carrier placed the ball on the ground, which started the play. The remaining offensive players stood behind the spot of the kick, often standing ten or more yards behind the kicker.
The ball carrier, meanwhile, laid on his stomach, extending his arms and holding the ball upright between his fingertips (aka the “over-under technique.”)
When the kicker was ready, he signaled to the ball carrier who pulled his lower hand from under the ball, placing it on the ground as the kicker approached the ball. The defense could legally charge the kicker once the ball touched the ground.
Before 1898, the rule book referred to the player who placed the ball on the ground as the placer, and placer appeared in newspaper articles as well. In 1898, however, the rule book swapped "placer" for holder, which became the most common name for the role.
Goals from touchdown were executed in this manner until 1922, but the terminology change from placer to holder likely relates to a technique that revolutionized field goal kicking in 1896 and 1897. Recall that centers initially snapped the ball with their feet on scrimmage plays, including field goals. To execute a field goal, the quarterback stood immediately behind the center, received the snap, and tossed it back to the fullback who attempted the drop kick. They used the same approach after snapping with the hands became legal in 1892.
The field goal revolution began in 1896 when two brothers who played for Otterbein developed a new technique in which the center snapped the ball to a teammate who squatted like a shortstop or sat on the ground several yards behind the center, waiting for the snap. Once received, he placed the ball on the ground and held it for the kicker. Princeton adopted the technique in 1897, and given its greater visibility versus Otterbein, the method became known as the Princeton Placekick.
Although some teams continued using the squatting technique, most switched to having the holder positioned on one knee, the universal method today.
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