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How Touch and Flag Football Were Born
I had not given the history of touch football a moment's thought until I came across a reference to it while researching the history of spring football. After stumbling upon the topic, I found that few others have written about the topic, most placing touch football's origins in the 1930s. But my research shows touch football originated as a direct result of football's safety crisis and the rule changes that occurred between 1906 and 1912.
The game made dramatic rule changes entering the 1906 season and hobbled through several more seasons before a reported thirty players died during the 1909 season. Public pressure to remedy the game's continued ills forced the rule-makers to consider substantive changes once again. One attempt to design a safer game in 1910 came from rules committee member and University of Chicago coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, who spent a few weeks in Arkansas testing various rule changes. Hugo Bezdek, a former fullback at Chicago, was Arkansas' head coach, and he and Stagg used the Arkansas team to experiment with rule combinations, trying to concoct a safer game. Following the tests, the committee considered Stagg's findings before releasing their new rules in May, two months later than usual.
The new rules' delay was a problem for some teams, such as Missouri, which completed their spring practice before the big announcement. While every school was under pressure to rethink football's rules, the pressure was particularly intense at Missouri because its university president believed colleges should drop football and play rugby instead. Genuine concern existed that Missouri and others in the Missouri Valley Conference might not play football in 1910. To make matters worse, Missouri's coach during their undefeated 1909 season, Bill Roper, left town to return to Princeton, where he would lead them to three national championships, besides the one he'd already earned there. Meanwhile, Mizzou's new coach, Bill Hollenback, was not yet on campus.
So it was that James A. Gibson, a Lecturer in Chemistry and Assistant Football Coach at Mizzou, devised a new version of football the Tigers played during spring practice. The game had two significant differences from the 1909 football rules. First, the 1909 rules required passers to be five yards right or left of center before legally throwing the ball, making the quick passing game nonexistent. Gibson's game allowed passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Second and more critical, Gibson's game eliminated tackling. The ball carrier was down by the simple touch of an opposing player. The touch rule virtually eliminated inside runs, forcing teams to rely on sweeps. The combination of liberalized passing and sweeps created a more open game with fewer opportunities for injury.
While Gibson invented the first known version of "touch football," there was no further word of it at Mizzou following spring practice, but it popped up at Kansas' Emporia State, then a Normal school, in 1912. Emporia's Athletic Director, Clair K. Turner, created a "touch football" league among grade-schoolers at the Normal School and nearby towns. It is unclear whether Turner adapted Missouri's game or developed his version independently, but Turner's game also made the ball carrier down by touch or contact. His interest was not a safer version of varsity football, but a game suitable for teaching football skills in primary schools.
References to "touch football" remained isolated to the Emporia area the next few years before appearing in France in 1917 as a game played by doughboys, then appearing at the Naval Aviation Ground Training School at M.I.T. in 1918. It is difficult to know whether touch football emerged at multiple locations naturally or spread through the network of physical training and athletics personnel at military camps during WWI, positions universally held by college coaches and athletic personnel. (Walter Camp controlled all athletic training in the U.S. Navy during WWI.)
One way or another, word got around. Though touch football was isolated to Kansas and California in the late 1910s and early 1920s, it exploded in the mid-1920s as an intramural sport at East Coast and Midwestern colleges. By the 1930s, touch football was common at the primary, secondary, and college levels across the country. Nevertheless, touch football had its demons. The game's main selling point was player safety, but the lack of clarity on whether the defender touched the runner led some defenders to strike runners rather than touch them, sending opponents flying and leading to retaliatory strikes. It could be a rough game, and the level of injuries led schools such as Kentucky to eliminate it in 1940. Also, the inability to run the ball inside led to an overemphasis on passing, much to the football purists' chagrin, who wanted young players to develop broader football skills.
Then came WWII. A number of sites tell the tale that flag football arose at Fort Meade during the war. Seeking to reduce touch football's injuries, they had their soldier-players wear flags that, when pulled, marked the runner as down. Fort Meade has long been home to many intelligence and related disciplines, so perhaps flag football originated there as part of a classified project because I have yet to find a credible, period reference connecting Fort Meade and flag football. Neither have I found a different origin story, so I have no idea where flag football was born.
The first appearance of "flag football" I find is a March 1947 article detailing the game's popularity at Texas A&M, where multiple leagues competed in the sport. In the Aggies' game, the runner was downed by an opponent pulling a three-feet by twenty-eight-inch piece of cloth hanging from the back of the runner's pants. Pulling the cloth provided the clarity missing from touch football, allowing for less contact in the game.
The large piece of cloth used by the Aggies was flag-shaped, and may be why it's called flag football. The folks in Chico, California, used handkerchiefs, and the game appeared in multiple locations across the country later that year, so it seems unlikely it was invented at A&M in 1947. It must have started earlier, but where?. Regardless of its origin, flag football in the 1940s lacked consistent flag types and methods of attaching the flags, with some flags being easier to grasp and pull than others. That problem led two Tucson-area teachers, Porter Wilson and Norm Adams, to develop a standardized belt and flag system. Their tinkering began in the early 1950s, and their Flag-A-Tag system with three-inch by fourteen-inch flags became the template for the long, narrow flags used today. Though others created similar belt and flag systems, Wilson and Adams devised flag football as we know it, and their Flag-A-Tag remains a dominant brand in the flag world today.
Touch and flag football have endless variations today, with differences in the number of players per team, field size, and contact level among the many rules adapted for local conditions. Perhaps the games' variations and backyard nature reflect the difficulty of identifying flag football's originator. Maybe we will never identify the first individual or group to play flag football, but anyone with information on the topic is encouraged to comment below.
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