This is article #16 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.
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.
The first documented instance of a kicker using a tee occurred when Ewing Freeland, Vanderbilt's left tackle, did so in their 1910 game with Sewanee.
After Ewing, Auburn's Moon Ducote upped the ante by using his flimsy leather helmet as a tee in 1916, leading to a 1917 rule that made artificial tees illegal. Teams then stretched the definition of artificiality by using baked clay tees, leading to the banning of tees in 1924. However, tees returned to college football in 1944 and have been allowed or forbidden at times on kickoffs, field goals, and extra points.
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