Hut! Hut! Hike!: Tee
— The Hut! Hut! Hike! series examines the origins of football terminology and how the game's evolution drove changes in its vocabulary. The full article (#15 in the series) is available to paid subscribers. —
Early gridiron football used a rugby ball. Fatter and more rounded on the ends than today's ball, a succession of modifications made the ball thinner, pointier, and more aerodynamic, making them easier to carry and throw.
While the impact of the reshaped ball on the forward pass is commonly understood, consider the impact of the reshaped ball on place kicks. A soccer ball set on the ground does not roll over because it is round, and early footballs, being closer to round, were also less prone to roll over. That allowed kickers to place the ball on the ground in a small divot made with the heel knowing the ball would remain standing for a place kick. As footballs became progressively pointer, however, balls required additional support to stay in place, so football borrowed an idea and term from golf.
Golf balls are round and do not fall over, but early golfers found them easier to hit and lift into the air when placed on a small mound of sand. Early golfers took the first stroke on each hole from within a circle, one club length from the last hole. The Scottish Gaelic word for circle is taigh, so the sand mounds became known as tees. Football kickers applied the same thinking and built dirt mounds scraped from grassless patches on the field.
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