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Geneology of American Football: Evolution of goal posts Part 1

A field standard, this invention has gone through some transformations 

The Cleveland Browns Lou “The Toe” Groza, Pete Gogolak of the Buffalo Bills and Pat Summerall of the New York Football Giants were the most famous field goal kickers in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Each player brought forth many game winning kicks that before the general public did not see the need for a good kicker and just how important going for three points would become.

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns
Lou “The Toe” Groza
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Then gradually other kickers became prominent reminders of how valuable the position ultimately became such as Morten Andersen, Jan Stenerud, Tom Dempsey, Adam Vinatieri, and Justin Tucker.

The goalposts in American Football have certainly gone through an evolution.

Soccer is the grandfather of American Football whereas Rugby is the father of the sport. This new recreation simply adopted a lot of its predecessor’s rules, equipment, terminology and field markings.

Items such as punts, goalpost, kickoffs, tackles, flags, referee, off-sides, holding, halftime, football, interception, turnover, linesman, penalty and overtime, to name a few, all came from either soccer or rugby - or both.

All three sports have goals. Soccer uses a goal complete with a net which has a horizontal crossbar and vertical uprights plus a goal line. Rugby has penalty and drop kick goals which go through a goal post with a horizontal crossbar and vertical uprights plus a goal line.

Saracens v Northampton Saints - LV= Cup: Semi Final
Look familiar? Rugby goal post
Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

These rugby goal posts are “H” shaped. The crossbar is 3.0 meters high, or roughly 10 feet off the ground. The width is 5.5 meters (18.1 feet) and the uprights are 16 meters (52.5 feet) high.

The origins of the goal posts in American Football were a crossbar of 10 feet high (3.05 meters) off the ground, 18.5 feet wide (5.64 meters) and 10 feet tall (4.572 meters).

So basically, American Football took the rugby goal and shortened the height of the uprights and adopted their goal posts as their own sport’s goal posts. Padding was added, but the origins were makeshift.

American Football field of play

The origins of field goals in American Football is that each kick was worth five points. This was changed in 1904 to four points and five years later to the standard three points.

Rules regarding goal posts were different from college football to the professional ranks.

Originally, the American Football field was devoid of any end zones. When the forward pass was legalized in 1906, few passes were attempted. A touchdown was scored only when a player crossed the goal line while still in control of the ball. And there were a lot of restrictions regarding the forward pass. Without end zones, one rule was that if a pass was completed beyond the goal line, it was called out-of-bounds and ruled incomplete.

So a player had to catch the pass in the field of play, and then run across the goal line while still holding the ball.

As the passing game increased, so did the need for other passing and receiving rules.

Beginning in 1910, it was suggested to add end zones to each end of the field. Rugby had 25-yard end zones with certain rules that govern that space of play so the idea of end zones wasn’t anything new. In 1912, it was decided to add end zones to the American Football field of play.

Originally, 12-yard end zones were decided upon and added to each end of the field.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium

Since college football was one of two sports adorned as the King of Sports (pro baseball was the other), it was determined that a certain percentage of stadiums and fields used for college football would have to have altered end zones; that being rounded corners or even dog-eared outer corners. The reason was that most fields or stadiums used had a running track around the grass field area that before had been used for soccer. There just wasn’t enough room for an additional 50-yards or even 24-yards.

The solution was to shorten the end zones to 10-yards deep. To accommodate this extra 20 yards, the field of play for American Football was shortened from 110-yards, which resembled more the size of a rugby field, to 100 yards.

It was decided that the back line of the end zone would be considered out-of-bounds.

Origins of the goal posts

The goal posts are one of the most recognizable features of an American Football field.

The new sport of American Football was different from rugby in that there was a system of downs that enabled one team to retain possession, a certain amount of yardage had to be achieved before a new set of downs could be obtained, there were offensive and defensive units, teams advanced using planned plays, players used more padding, and the forward pass was legal.

Other than that, in its infancy, American Football remained a very close cousin visually to rugby.

What American Football used from soccer was playing 11-a side, the use of red and yellow flags, kickoffs, punts, the term tackle and interception, plus other assorted terminology.

Rugby used an “H” goal post painted white for kicking points. This contraption had a hollow space underneath, but that was only because the two vertical uprights needed support. Points scored went through the uprights and not under the crossbar.

American Football did the same thing with one exception: the uprights were shortened from 52 feet tall to just 10 feet above the crossbar.

The first goal posts were made of wood and installed on the goal line.

In 1927, college football moved the goal posts back to the end zone end line. And because college did, the NFL did the same. In 1933, the NFL wanted to promote more scoring and also hopefully decrease the number of tie games. The goal posts were then relocated back to the goal line.

In the 1940’s and into the 1950’s, a new design was installed at several NFL stadiums. This placed the crossbar parallel to the goal line, but instead of the standard “H” design, there was a setback section which installed both goal post legs deeper into the end zone. This cleared way of the goal line.

The invention of the sling-shot goal post was first used by the University of Miami in 1966. In 1967, every NFL stadium had this type of goal post now with 20 foot uprights and a new paint scheme now bright yellow. All NFL goal posts are sulfur yellow, and the color is applied by powder coat instead of paint which tends to chip and fade. College football retained white goal posts.

Why yellow? Bright yellow not only provided good visibility for kickers but also for officials who needed to determine if the ball sailed through the uprights.

There were several issues with the goal posts being on the goal line. For one, player safety running into them – not just one post, but two. For another, savvy receivers would use the post as a pick or shield to gain an offensive advantage. The posts were used as an extra blocker on short-yardage runs near the posts.

Another reason for the goal post move was because of the invention of the soccer-style kick. More and more field goals were being made each year and from longer distances with added accuracy.

In 1973, a record 543 field goals were converted which accounted for 23% of all scoring. The NFL owners wanted to see touchdowns scored instead of kickers trotting out effortlessly and nail yet another three-pointer. In an effort to make this more difficult instead of seemingly automatic, the goal posts were moved back to the end line in 1974 with the uprights raised to 30 feet. That year the kicker scoring decreased to 15%.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association