It was 1881, and there were no football rules established to mandate the amount of gained yards required for a team to renew their offensive set of ‘downs’ in an effort to reach the goal. In fact, the word ‘down’ was not used in collegiate or professional football the way it is interpreted today. The ball carrier would announce ‘Down’ to effectively stop play which is similar to the terms ‘Held’ and ‘Have it Down’ in 19th Century rugby.
In that same year, Yale played Princeton in a match that is known as “The Block Game”. The matched earned this name because during the entire first half, Princeton possessed the ball without an attempt at scoring. The second half was owned entirely by Yale which effectively did the same thing.
“The Block Game” inspired the rule change that required the offensive team to attempt to gain at least 5 yards in 3 tries or ‘downs’ or consequently, give up the ball!
Credit: Sports Know it All by Andrew Postman and Larry Stone.