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If you're mad at your kid, you can either raise him to be a nose tackle or send him out to play on the freeway.  It's about the same." Bob Golic

Modern American football has its origins in various games, all known as "football", played at public schools in England in the mid-19th century. By the 1840s, students at Rugby School in England were playing a game in which players were able to pick up the ball and run with it, a sport later known as Rugby football. The game was taken to Canada by British soldiers stationed there and was soon being played at Canadian colleges. The first football game played between teams representing American colleges was an unfamiliar ancestor of today's college football, as it was played under soccer-style Association rules.[1] The game between teams from Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) took place on November 6, 1869 at College Field (now the site of the College Avenue Gymnasium at Rutgers University) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers won by a score of 6 "runs" to Princeton's 4.[2][3][4] The 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton is important in that it is the first documented game of any sport called "football" (which also encompasses the game of Association Football) between two American colleges. It is also notable in that it came a full-two years before a codified rugby game would be played in England. The Princeton/Rutgers game was undoubtedly different from what we today know as American football. Nonetheless it was the forerunner of what evolved into American football. Another similar game took place between Rutgers and Columbia University in 1870 and the popularity of intercollegiate competition in football would spread throughout the country.

The American experience with the rugby-style game that led directly to present-day college football continued in 1874 at a meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between Harvard University and Montreal's McGill University. The McGill team played a rugby union-style game, while Harvard played under a set of rules that allowed greater handling of the ball than soccer. The teams agreed to play under compromise rules. The Harvard students took to the rugby rules and adopted them as their own.[5]

The first game of intercollegiate football in America between two American colleges that most resembles the game of today was between Tufts University and Harvard on June 4, 1875 at Jarvis Field in Cambridge, Mass., won by Tufts 1-0.[6] A report of the outcome of this game appeared in the Boston Daily Globe of June 5, 1875. Jarvis Field was at the time a patch of land at the northern point of the Harvard campus, bordered by Everett and Jarvis Sts. to the north and south, and Oxford St. and Massachusetts Avenue to the east and west. In the Tufts/Harvard game participants were allowed to pick up the ball and run with it, each side fielded eleven men, the ball carrier was stopped by knocking him down or 'tackling' him, and the inflated ball was egg-shaped - the combination of which marks this game as the first game of American Football. A photograph of the 1875 Tufts team commemorating this milestone hangs in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana. Harvard and Yale also began play in 1875 though under rules that made their game, as well as the aforementioned Princeton/Rutgers game, significantly different from what we know as American Football compared to the Tufts/Harvard contest which is more closely the antecedent to American Football than these other games. The longest running rivalry and most played game between two American colleges is between Lafayette College and Lehigh University.

Walter Camp, known as the "Father of American Football", is credited with changing the game from a variation of rugby into a unique sport. Camp is responsible for pioneering the play from scrimmage (earlier games featured a rugby scrum), most of the modern elements of scoring, the eleven-man team, and the traditional offensive setup of the seven-man line and the four-man backfield. Camp also had a hand in popularizing the game. He published numerous articles in publications such as Collier's Weekly and Harper's Weekly, and he chose the first College Football All-America Team.

College football increased in popularity through the remainder of the 19th century. It also became increasingly violent. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport following a series of player deaths from injuries suffered during games. The response to this was the formation of what became the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which set rules governing the sport. The rules committee considered widening the playing field to "open up" the game, but Harvard Stadium (the first large permanent football stadium) had recently been built at great expense; it would be rendered useless by a wider field. The rules committee legalized the forward pass instead. The first legal pass was thrown by Bradbury Robinson on September 5, 1906, playing for coach Eddie Cochems, who developed an early but sophisticated passing offense at St. Louis University. Another rule change banned "mass momentum" plays (many of which, like the infamous "flying wedge", were sometimes literally deadly).

Even after the emergence of the NFL, college football remained extremely popular throughout the U.S.[7] Although the college game has a much larger margin for talent than its pro counterpart, the sheer number of fans following major colleges provides a financial equalizer for the game, with Division I programs — the highest level — playing in huge stadiums (four of which have seating capacity exceeding 100,000). In many cases, the college stadiums employ bench-style seating (as opposed to individual seats with backs and arm rests). This allows them to seat more fans in a given amount of space than the typical professional stadium, which tends to be a bit more luxurious. Overall, college football draws greatly more attendees than its professional counterpart.[8][9]

College athletes, unlike professionals, are not permitted by the NCAA to be paid salaries. Many do receive scholarships and financial assistance from the university.

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