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Simple Rules Football - The Official Rules for American Football

The various positions and how to select men for them—Team, work and signals—The rules

Football is usually played in the fall of the year because the exercise that it involves is so violent that to attempt it at any other time would probably result in injury to the players. The cool, frosty days of October and November make baseball out of season, and such weather is ideal for football.

So much has been said and written about the dangers of football as a sport that many parents have strong objections to permitting their sons to play. There is no question that it is a hard game and not suited to weaklings, but a strong, healthy boy can play football under proper conditions and with proper training quite as safely as he can do many other things to which parents raise no objections, such as wrestling, climbing trees, playing hockey, or even performing difficult feats of gymnastics or acrobatics in a gymnasium. Every year there are a number of serious accidents from football, but there are also injuries from other games, and people are injured who play no games at all, so it simply is a question whether we are willing to take the chances of a sprained ankle or broken bone for the love of one of the best of outdoor sports.

The lineup The lineup

The recent changes in rules have made football a much safer game than it was in the early nineties, when such plays as the "flying wedge" and line bucking were practically all there was to the game. To any one who does not understand football it seems as though it were played with practically no science and with but few rules. As a matter of fact a well-coached college team will sometimes have sixty or seventy separate plays each of which has been carefully practised and which requires each man on the team to do something to help make the play successful, while on the other hand each man on the opposing team is doing his best to cause the play to fail. The result to any one not understanding the game is simply a confused mass of struggling men and a final tumble with a pile of legs and arms flying about.

The American game of football called Rugby is a development of the English game, but the present game is very different from the English game of soccer or association football, in which kicking predominates and where a round ball is used instead of the oval-shaped American football.

Numerous efforts have been made to introduce the game of soccer into this country, but the long popularity of the American game and the strong support that has been given to it by the colleges have prevented soccer from gaining much of a foothold.

Football is played by two opposing teams of eleven men each. The positions are right and left end, right and left tackle, right and left guard, centre rush, quarter-back, right and left half-backs and full-back.

The manner in which they line up is shown in the accompanying diagram.

Diagram of football lineup

The weight and size of the men on a football team largely govern the positions where they play. The centre rush and the two guards are usually the heaviest men on the team, as extra weight in the centre of the line is important to prevent what is called "bucking the centre." The two tackles should be strong, stocky players, not too tall, but still with sufficient weight to enable them to keep their feet in a mass play and to offer strong resistance to a united attack on their position. They should also be quick and agile and be able to advance the ball by rushing when called upon. The two ends must be fleet of foot and quick, sure tacklers. With the constant changes in football rules the position of end has become more and more important, until now a team with weak, slow ends is almost like a baseball team with a poor pitcher.

Many people regard the position of quarter-back as the most important on the team. He is virtually the field captain. A good quarter-back must be an all around player of the highest order. He must first of all have a good head and be able to run off the plays of his team without confusion. He must keep his head under the most trying circumstances. He must watch for weak places in the opposing team and direct the play of his men against them. He must offer encouragement to his own team and be always on the alert to capture a fumbled ball, stop a runner who has eluded the tacklers or to catch a punt that may come within his reach. In nearly all the big college games the quarter-back is one of the star players. The nature of his many duties is such that he is forced to be a grand-stand player and to be conspicuous even though he may not desire to. In running back punts the quarter-back will often be used because he is sure in catching them, which is a matter of the greatest importance. And all of this work is required of a man who is usually the smallest, lightest man on the team and who alongside of the giant guards and centre sometimes looks like a pigmy. There is no higher honour in football than to be a good all around quarter-back.

The half-backs are chosen because of their speed and their ability to advance the ball and to elude the tackling of the opposing team. They come in for a very large share of the work and must be boys of superior strength and agility.

Next to the quarter-back the player of the greatest importance is full-back. His duty first of all is to attend to the kicking end of the game. For that reason he must practise constantly both with punts and drop kicks and be able to put the ball between the goal-posts from all angles and distances within reason. A great many games are won by a good drop kicker making a field goal at a critical time, and such a man is of the highest value to a team. As drop kicking, like pitching in baseball, comes largely from practice, the captain or manager of a team should see to it that any member of his team who shows any ability at all in this department should be given every opportunity and encouragement to develop his skill. A good drop kicker can be used temporarily from almost any position in the line, whether he be guard, tackle or end. As a rule, however, the full-back is the player who does most of the kicking. He must also be a good line bucker and be able to gain the required distance when called upon.

In general, then, we choose the three centre men because of their weight, the tackles and ends for speed and ability in tackling, the quarter-back for his all around ability and his generalship, the half-backs because of their skill in rushing the ball, and the full-back for the kicking department. Any man on the team may be chosen captain. As his work is largely done in practice and in perfecting plays, unless a team is in the hands of a coach it is better not to add the duties of captain to the already overburdened quarter-back. Otherwise he is the logical and ideal man for the position.

A football gridiron

A football gridiron

There is no game in which team work is more important than in football. Eleven boys of moderate ability and comparative light weight who can execute their plays with skill and precision can beat a team of heavier boys or superior players who may lack their skill and organization. In the case of a school team it is almost always possible to secure the services of a coach from among the graduates. If such a one has had experience on a college team so much the better.

A football field is 330 feet long by 160 feet wide. At each end are goal posts set 18 feet 6 inches apart, with a crossbar 10 feet above the ground. The field is marked off in chalk lines similar to a tennis court, these lines being 5 yards apart. The centre of the field where the play starts is 55 yards from either end. It is usually customary to run lines parallel to the sides of the field, also 5 yards apart, but as a field is but 160 feet wide the first and last of these lines are but 5 feet from the side lines instead of 5 yards. The lines on a football field make a checkerboard effect and have given to the field the name of "gridiron."

Football is a game where eleven men try to force the ball back of the opposing players' goal line by various efforts in running with it or in kicking, while the opposing team meanwhile, by throwing the runner or by pushing him back, try to prevent any gain being made. Each team is allowed a certain number of attempts to make a certain distance and, if they fail to do this the ball becomes the property of the other team to make a similar attempt. Each of these attempts is called a "down," and, according to the rules, after three attempts, if the runners have failed to gain the required distance, the ball is given to their opponents. In practice it is customary for a team to kick the ball on its last down and thus to surrender it just as far from its own goal line as possible. The distance that must be made in three downs according to the present rules is ten yards. Sometimes a team will not kick on its last down because the distance remaining to be gained is so little that the quarter-back feels sure that one of his men can make it, but this is an exception. When ten or more yards are gained the ball becomes at first down again and the team has three more attempts to make another ten yards figured from where the ball was finally downed.

The ultimate object of "rushing the ball," as this play is called, is to place it on the ground behind the enemy's goal line, which is called a "touchdown." Sometimes a team will succeed in getting the ball almost over the goal line and then because of the superior resistance of its opponents will find that it can advance it no further. It is then customary for one of the players who has had practice in drop kicking to attempt to kick what is called a "goal from the field" or "field goal." This play counts less than a touchdown in the score, counting but three points, while a touchdown counts five, but many a game has been won by a field goal.

Football scores between evenly matched teams who play scientifically are usually low, one or two scores in a game being all that are made. It frequently happens that neither side will score, but, unlike baseball, the game does not continue after the time limit has expired, but simply becomes a tie game. The game is divided into four periods of fifteen minutes each. There are resting periods of three minutes each between the first and second and third and fourth periods, and fifteen minutes between the second and third periods.

At the beginning of the game the two opposing captains toss up a coin and the winner of the toss has the choice of goals or of the ball. His decision will be governed by the position of the sun and the wind conditions, two very important things in football. After each score the sides change goals, however; so the choice is not so important unless the game happens to be scoreless.

At the first play the ball is placed in the centre of the field and is kicked off, a man on the opposing team trying to catch it and to run back as far as possible before he is tackled and the ball "downed." The next lineup takes place at this point and the game proceeds until a score is made. After each score the ball is put in play just as at the beginning of the game.

The quarter-back calls out a series of numbers and letters called "signals" before the ball is put into play. These signals will tell his team what the play is to be, whether a run around end, a kick, or a mass play on centre, for example. The matter of thorough coaching in signals is very important and must be practised by the team until it can tell in an instant just what the play is to be when the play starts. The centre stoops low and holds the ball in an upright position on the ground between his feet. The quarter-back is directly behind him with outstretched hands ready to receive it. After the signal is given the team must be ready to execute the play, but must not by look or motion permit its opponents know what the play is to be. At a touch or word from the quarter-back, the full-back snaps the ball back and the play starts.

The position of the men on a team is generally as the diagram shows but for various plays other formations are used, provided that they do not violate the rules, which specify just how many men must be in the lineup and how many are permitted behind the line.

The first requirement of signals is to have them simple. In the heat and stress of a game the players will have but little time to figure out what the play is to be, even though it may all have seemed very simple on paper.

To begin a code of signals each position on the team is given a letter. The eleven positions will require eleven letters and no two must be alike. It would be possible of course to simply start with the letter "a" and go to "k," but this system would be too simple and easily understood by your opponents. A better way is to take a word easily remembered in which no letter occurs twice, such as "B-l-a-c-k-h-o-r-s-e-x" or any other combination. "Buy and trade" "importance," "formidable," and many others are used. The same principle is used by tradesmen in putting private price marks on their goods.

Take the words "buy and trade" for example. Their positions right and left end, abbreviated (r.e. and l.e.), right and left tackle (r.t. and l.t.), right and left guard (r.g. and l.g.), centre (c.), quarter-back (q.), right and left half-backs (r.h. and l.h.), and full-back (f.b.), would be assigned letters as follows:

Diagram showing letters mapped to football positions

The letters denote not only players but holes in the line, as the spaces between the players are called. The quarter-back always adds to his signal a number of other letters or figures which have no meaning, simply to confuse the opposing players. For example the signal given is "24-E-N-72-X." The figures 24 and 72 mean nothing, nor does the "X." The signal says "E will take the ball and go through N," or right half-back through right guard. Any number of other plays can be denoted by letters or numbers, for example all punts by figures which are a multiple of ten, as 10-20, 150-300, and so on.

The beginner in football should first of all be provided with a suitable uniform; there is no game in which this is more important. The game is rough and many and harsh are the jolts we receive; consequently we must use whatever padding and guards we can to provide against injury.

The custom is to wear a tight jersey with elbow pads, a tight-fitting canvas jacket and well-padded canvas khaki or moleskin trousers. The appearance of our uniform is of little consequence, as football players are not noted for the beauty of their costumes. Heavy woollen stockings and football shoes complete the outfit. The shoes are the most important part of the uniform. They should lace with eyelets and be well provided with leather cleats to prevent slipping.

Football shoes Football shoes

A beginner at football can gain a lot of valuable points by carefully watching the practice of his team from the side lines. He is then in a position when called upon to fill a given position which he may be trying for, without obliging the coach or captain to give him instruction in many rudiments which he can just as well learn from observation. He must also be thoroughly familiar with the rules and their interpretation. A violation of the rules in football carries with it a severe penalty for the team, provided of course that the referee sees it, consequently, a beginner must be especially careful not to permit his anxiety to make a good showing to result in being offside when the ball is put in play, interfering with a man about to make a fair catch or in doing many other things which the excitement of the game may occasion.

The moment of putting the ball into play is called a "scrimmage" and the scrimmage continues until the ball is downed. A ball is "down" when the runner is brought to a standstill or when he touches the ground with any part of his body except his hands or feet. At this point the referee will blow his whistle and a lineup for a new scrimmage will take place.

The football uniform The football uniform

When the ball is kicked, a member of the opposing team who raises his hand and stands in one spot is entitled to make a catch without interference, which if successful gives his team a free kick. In a free kick his opponents may not come within ten yards of where the ball was caught and some member of his team may kick either a drop kick, punt or place kick as he sees fit. After a touchdown, which counts five, a place kick for goal is attempted. If the ball goes between the goal-posts and above the crossbar it counts one point additional for the team making the touchdown, or six in all. A score of one alone cannot be made in football, as the attempt for goal cannot be made until after a touchdown. This of course does not apply to a field goal, which may be attempted at any time while the ball is in possession of the team and which counts three.

The smallest score is from a "safety," which results when a member of a team is forced to touch the ball down behind his own goal or is downed there by the opposing team. This play counts two for his opponents and is an evidence of weakness of the team. It has the advantage, however, of permitting the ball to be brought out twenty-five yards to be put into play.

The rules of football were practically unchanged for a number of years, but the game developed so many dangerous features that nearly all the colleges recently agreed to certain important changes especially directed to abolishing mass play and line bucking. For that reason the rules for the present game may be changed considerably within a few years. A boy taking up football should therefore acquaint himself with the latest rules governing the sport.

Football requires careful training, but the best training will come from actual play itself. In the beginning of the season a period of ten minutes' hard play is all that a boy should be called upon to do, unless he is in excellent physical shape. After that the time of practice should be lengthened until a candidate can go through a game of two full halves without being exhausted. One reason for many football injuries is that the players become so completely winded that the ordinary power of resistance is lost.

Besides actual play the best training is in taking long runs to improve the wind, one of the most essential things in football. In the colleges training for nearly all athletic events is done in this way and a candidate who cannot go out with his squad and run four or five miles at a stiff dog trot will have but little chance of making his team.

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