Today’s Tidbit… 1876 IFA Rule #12 Ball Handling
This is #12 in a series covering football’s original 61 rules adopted by the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876. We review one rule each Friday.
One element of early gridiron football that seems odd to modern eyes is the stand-up stance used by forwards (aka linemen) before the 1890s. The stand-up stance was used in rugby at the time and should remind us that gridiron football evolved from rugby as played in the 1870s, not the modern game, so early elements of the gridiron game reflect those origins.
Like Rule 11, the IFA modified rugby's Rule 12 only by changing scrummage to scrimmage.
Rule 12: A player may take up the ball whenever it is rolling or bounding except in a scrimmage.
In the 1870s, football and rugby were umbrella terms for games whose rules varied by location. Despite the Association (aka soccer) and Rugby Football Union rules in the United Kingdom formalizing both games’ rules, not everyone followed them, or they interpreted the rules differently.
For example, under the Rugby Football Union rules, teams had twenty (or fifteen) players per side, and the scrum was the primary means of moving the ball. The scrum began after the player tackled on the previous play stood up and had fifteen or sixteen players per side form in-depth around him. He then yelled, "Down," dropped the ball to his feet, and the players, standing upright, pushed one another and kicked the ball toward the opponent's goal.
Those in the scrum were not allowed to pick up the ball, and the number and depth of the players in the scrum meant the ball seldom popped out of the scrum. Moreover, heeling the ball back to a teammate, which later became a defining feature of rugby, was looked down upon. So, rugby amounted to a standup shoving and kicking contest until the ball rolled or bounced out of the scrum. Only then could it be picked up, passed, and carried or handled. So, open play was not a core part of rugby in the 1870s.
From a North American perspective, that began to change when Harvard played an All-Canada team in 1876. Since rugby’s rules were not explicit about whether the forwards had to stand up or where they had to align, Harvard chose not to form into the usual tight scrum. Instead, Harvard spread their forwards along a line and focused on heeling the ball back to a teammate. That player picked it up and passed it to a teammate who ran with the ball. As a result, when the IFA formulated its rules that year, Harvard's more open style became the template, despite the rest of the world playing rugby using the closed style.
Like football, rugby continued morphing, splitting into rugby league and rugby union, while the folks down went another direction, leading to Australian football. Canadian rugby followed several regional paths as well, while the IFA dominated the American game, largely setting the game’s rules until 1905 or 1906.
Snapping with the hands became legal in 1892, and it was during that period that other linemen began bending over at the line of scrimmage in American football.
For previous stories in the series, click Intro | Rules #1 Drop Kick | #2 Place Kick | #3 Punt | #4 Goal Posts | #5 Goal | #6 Goal ≠ Punt | #7: Scoring | #8: Dead Ball | #9: Touchdown | #10: Tackle | #11: Scrimmage
Subscribe for free and never miss a story. If you are a regular reader, consider a paid subscription to support my work.