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Four Hundred Years Of American Football

The deep history of American Football. Ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII, 400 years of pain and glory.

The inaugural collegiate football team at the University of Notre Dame in 1887. (Courtesy Notre Dame Archives)

The inaugural collegiate football team at the University of Notre Dame in 1887. (Courtesy Notre Dame Archives)

Super Bowl XLVIII  is bearing down on us now like a 300-pound linebacker plus Bruno Mars.  But my guest today, Susan Reyburn, is looking way past the Seahawks and Broncos, the trash talk and Bud Light commercials, to 400 years of American football history.  Yes, you heard right – 400 years.  They played football on the beach at Jamestown, she says.  Brought in the rules after the Civil War.  Saw two dozen players die on the field in 1909.  Integrated before baseball.  Blew up in the age of television.  This hour On Point:  400 years of American football history.

– Tom Ashbrook


Susan Reyburn, writer and editor for the Library of Congress. Author of “Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Game.” Also co-author of “Baseball Americana,” “The Library of Congress World War II Companion” and author of “Women Who Dare: Amelia Earthart.”

Armen Keteyian, CBS News correspondent and lead correspondent for Showtime’s “60 Minutes Sports.” Co-author of “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football.” (@armenketeyian)

From Tom’s Reading List

ESPN: Unionization may fail but not a failure — “To succeed in the formation of a union, the players must convince the National Labor Relations Board that they are employees. It will not be easy. In addition to the numerous courts that have ruled that injured athletes are not eligible for medical benefits automatically available to employees, the players will face assertions from Northwestern and the NCAA that they are ‘student-athletes,’ a category invented to avoid any suggestion of employment.”

Wall Street Journal: 11 Minutes Of Action — “In other words, if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there’s barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays. ”

International Business Times: Bonuses, Trademark Rights And Brand Value: What’s Really At Stake For The Players And The NFL?  – “The Super Bowl is nothing if not a game of superlatives. It’s often the most-watched television broadcast in any given year. It generates more tweets and it commands higher ad revenue than any other sporting event in the world. Calculating the average revenue from sponsorships, tickets and licensed merchandise, Forbes magazine in 2012 estimated the Super Bowl brand to be worth $470 million; no other game comes close.”

Read An Excerpt From “Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Game” by Susan Reyburn

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  • HonestDebate1

    I lived in Miami in the 60′s when the Dolphins came to town. We got season tickets which were cheap back then. I remember Flipper in a tank in the end zone, that was cool. I remember sitting in the nosebleed section watching the George Wilson coached team getting pummeled by KC. We stayed until the last play. I remember going to Super Bowl III and watching Joe Namath beat Johnny Unitas. Those were the days.

    • northeaster17

      I was a kid. My father was a big NY Giants fan. We rooted for Baltimore. It was quiet around the house that night.

      • HonestDebate1

        I was only 9 and I remember the halftime show most. As Dolphin fans we were rooting for the AFL so we were happy. And then we got Don Shula from the Colts.

  • Ms. Spider

    The first paragraph of your excerpt from “Football Nation” gave me shivers. Just say the name “Gale Sayers” and you’re reminded of what the pinnacle of the sport looks like. Graceful poetry in motion, written inside of a reckless maelstrom.

  • skelly74

    The most violent game in professional sports. On average, a game has about 15 minutes of real action. The injuries sustained within this 15 minute window are mind boggling. Offensive and defensive lineman as well as offensive backs see the most “work” within the 15 minute window of action. Interesting if you are a sports agent.

    Also, I would love to see Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr perform with radio communications in their helmets as well as rules favoring a non-resistant passing attack.

    Exciting game.

    • skelly74

      When did quarterbacks start using radio communications in their helmets?

    • valedjad

      Football is like chess in many ways, be this player to player, coach to coach, etc. Would you declare that an hour long chess game between experts has only 15 minutes of real action? My point is that you’re
      missing major aspects of what takes place: observation & assessment; strategy; and counter-strategy.

      • skelly74

        No, you missed my point. Players are not in physical harm while the time is ticking away and the strategy is being played out.

        I believe you are referring to prize fighting. They “strategize” in motion; assessing their opponent while not actually fighting…boxing.

        Football players stand around quite a bit considering a 60 minute game clock. They don’t box.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    I much prefer Rugby Union. Which is the older form of rugby – Rugby League has 6 downs, which is the precursor to the 4 downs of American football.

    Wouldn’t the immigrants at Jamestown have been playing the precursor to what we Americans refer to as soccer?

    • Ms. Spider

      Tom, would be helpful to have your guest put the history in the context of the development of both rugby and European “soccer”.

    • TFRX

      If you follow Canadian Football (as I do) you might be interested in the number of rugby-style rules in the game North of the Border.

      Such as: You can kick a loose ball forward at any time and if you recover it, it’s yours. The last team to touch a fumble (or onside kick) before it goes out of bounds is awarded possession. And if you punt the ball, or line up behind the ball when punted, you can go down and get it and it’s yours.

      (PS There’s no fair catch in the CFL–another drawing card for some of us. You just have to be 5 yards away from the returner when they catch the ball.)

      • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

        Some of those are similar to rugby.

        Another aspect of rugby that would really benefit American football is the yellow card that sends a player(s) to the Sin Bin for 10 minutes and their team plays on without them; and the red card where the player is ejected and their team plays the rest of the game without them.

        The referee is “god” and only the team captains can address him/her.

  • Paul Meade

    The modern football is an “oblate spheroid”, a la Tom Lehrer’s “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” Lyrics:

    “Fight fiercely, Harvard,

    Fight, fight, fight!

    Demonstrate to them our skill.

    Albeit they possess the might,

    Nonetheless we have the will.

    How we shall celebrate our victory,

    We shall invite the whole team up for tea

    How jolly!

    Hurl that oblate spheroid down the field, and

    Fight, fight, fight!”

    • Don_B1

      Actually the football is a “prolate spheroid” as that may be formed by rotating an ellipse about its major axis, not its minor (shorter) axis, which is the case for the Earth, an oblate spheroid, where the rotational axis (connecting the poles) is shorter than the equatorial axis (any line connecting points on the equator through the center of the Earth).

      That is why the top of a mountain in Chile is further away from the Earth’s center than the top of Mt. Everest.

  • pauljg

    An Iowa State University player, Jack Trice who was African-American was beaten so badly during a game with the University of Minnesota that he died from the injuries. The Cyclones now play in Jack Trice Stadium.

  • JKMcKeown


  • nj_v2

    Didn’t hear the program today. Had to work, but probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.

    Whatever the history, modern football has become an ugly, violent, bourgeois, escapist amusement, just a few steps short of gladiators in a lion pit.

    Peddled by powerful, monied interests, it glamorizes and glorifies violence, appealing to base, primal urges of people yearning—in lieu of any real sense of community—to “belong” to and identify with some imaged tribe.

    People’s lives are ruined, public monies get abused to pay for new stadiums, and, with television, drugs, and other forms of sedation, the dulled masses are kept addled and distracted while the corporatocracy amasses its profits.

    Modern, “professional” sports just becomes another ugly aspect of the self-immolation of the society.

    F*** football. F*** the Stupor Bowl.


    League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis

  • nj_v2


    The Super Bowl of Subsidies

    Kristen Steele, ISEC, United States

    What comes to mind when you think of the Super Bowl? The Bronco’s stunning offense? The glitzy halftime show? Chicken wings and Clydesdales? Call me a spoil sport, but I can’t help thinking subsidies. That’s because even though the NFL (National Football League) generates $51 million a year in ticket sales, $2.1 billion in merchandising revenue, and an estimated $2.8 billion a year for television rights, they also receive about $1 billion each year in state and federal subsidies to cover their capital costs. Many teams also take a page from the playbook of the biggest global corporations by blackmailing local governments: unless taxpayers pony up for a new stadium or major improvements to the old one, the team will simply pack up and head elsewhere. The NFL also gets a tax break through a convenient loop-hole that deems it a non-profit organization [1].


  • chad

    Trash talking players with arena football uniforms win the Super Bowl and Bob Dylan shilling Chryslers during half time. The times they are a changin’ indeed.

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