Football: The Autumn Sport

Cheers fill the air and school colors brighten the crowd when football brings fans together in the autumn. The sport of football got its start in our nation's colleges. Based on the English game of rugby, American football started in 1879 with rules established by Walter Camp, player and coach at Yale University.

A Rough Sport in the Past

Football is a rough and brutal sport today but it was rougher still in the past. There were few rules to protect the players' safety. Early players wore no protective equipment. There were no helmets. The teams wore "white painter's pants" turned up to the knees. Cotton cloths provided the knee and hip pads. Footwear consisted of old pairs of shoes with leather cleats nailed into the soles. Unfair play and dangerous tactics caused serious injury and even death. At first, some colleges decided not to include football in their athletic programs. Officials finally changed the rules to prevent so much brutality. 

In the Midwest, football had become a part of college athletics by the 1890s. High schools also formed teams when they could get enough players together. Buena Vista College in Storm Lake for example, once included both high school and college students on the football team. At first, there was no regular schedule. Teams just challenged one another. By 1900 strong rivalries had developed between college teams and this rivalry quickly became part of the sport for both players and spectators.

Early Football in Iowa

Early football teams did not always complete on level playing fields. The artificial turf used on some fields today hadn’t yet been invented. In the early 1900s, the playing field at Buena Vista College for example, was not level at all. The 50-yard line was in a valley with a hill at either end. The team with the ball moved downhill toward the center of the field. To score a touchdown they ran the ball uphill. Field equipment included goal posts constructed from six two-by-fours and a sack of lime.

A White Sport

In addition to high school and college teams, there were professional football teams in cities around the country. Iowa had no professional football teams but any Iowa players black or white, could go out of state to play if they were good enough. But in 1933 this changed. In that year, black players were no longer hired for professional play. This continued until 1946, after the close of World War II. 

But even before 1933, black players on Iowa's college teams faced discrimination and often felt that they had to play harder and better than their white teammates in order to justify their place on the team. In 1923, this happened to Jack Trice, an African-American Iowa State University football player. Because of discrimination, Trice believed he must be outstanding when he did get the chance to play in his first game. The young player wrote down his thoughts before a game against Minnesota:

My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life; the honor of my race, family and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will. My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part.

Jack Trice died as a result of injuries he received during that game. The Jack Trice Stadium at Iowa State University in Ames was later named in his honor.

After World War II, racial attitudes began to change but problems of discrimination and fairness continue to challenge athletic teams at all levels. Football remains a popular sport in Iowa as old rivalries are renewed each fall. High school football games bring communities together on Friday nights while college games draw thousands of Iowans to stadiums across the state each weekend.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Autumn Sport,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 1 (September 1982): 12-13.