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Genealogy of American Football: Evolution of goal posts

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.

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.

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.

Baltimore’s Ray Berry is in perfect stride to take Shaw’s 24
Baltimore’s Ray Berry is in perfect stride to take Shaw’s 24 yard end zone pass. He scored in the second period. Em Tunnell (45) can’t stop him. New York Giants Vs. Baltimore Colts
Photo by Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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.

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.

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%.

Invention of the sling-shot goal posts

Joel Rottman was a magazine and newspaper distributor. He was also an inventor.

He was having lunch at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada. At one point he was not involved in the conversion about football of his two guests and began staring at his fork. It was then that he realized that if you took out the middle two prongs, it would make an improved goal post.

Green Bay Packers vs Seattle Seahawks - November 27, 2006

Rottman then designed a center curved stanchion similar to antique street lamp posts he had seen. This bend would allow the single post to be six feet inside the end zone instead of on the goal line. Plus, the single post allowed one less obstacle on the field and would be safer for players, and also less interfering with the play.

He contacted a company called ALCAN to build a display out of aluminum. He then set up the display at the Worlds Fair in Montreal. The University of Miami bought a set and had them installed on October 21, 1966 in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.

When he approached then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, he told Rottman that the league had wanted to address changing the goal posts in some fashion and the idea had been in committee for three years. But the design photo Rottman had brought showed the standard 10 foot uprights and Rozelle wanted to see a much taller version at 20 feet. Rottman then airbrushed in the extra 10 feet for Rozelle to provide to the owners.

The league loved his idea and on opening day of 1967, all 16 NFL clubs had the bright yellow sling-shot goal posts ready for play.

At the end of 1971, the sling-shot goal post had been installed in 600 college stadiums for $1,775 each. Another goal post company, AAE Sports, offers an NFL-style sling-shot goal post with 35 foot uprights for $16,950.

At the same time, Rottman and former football coach Jim Trimble invented the four-inch wind ribbons on top of the uprights which were installed on each sling-shot goal post.

Rule changes via controversy

A pass which hit either the crossbar or uprights had different rulings over time.

The 1945 NFL Championship Game between the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Rams was played in bitter cold conditions. Washington QB Sammy Baugh dropped back in his own end zone and passed left which hit the upright. The ruling at the time was a safety. Washington would lose to the Rams by one point. That rule was later changed to any pass that strikes the crossbar or uprights is an incomplete pass.

The 1965 Western Division playoff between the Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers saw a last-second kick by the Packers Don Chandler sail over the top of the upright for a good field goal. The Colts argued that the ball did not align inside the vertical lines of the extension of the uprights, but to no avail. The NFL then added another 10 feet to the top of the uprights to extend to 20 feet.

Then there is the “Phil Dawson Rule.”

In November of 2007, Dawson lined up for the game tying 51-yard kick against the Baltimore Ravens. The kick was long enough and skimmed off the left upright, went into the center of the goal to which it hit the gooseneck attachment, or stanchion portion, then bounced out into the field. The kick was ruled no good. After a discussion, the referees decided that since the stanchion is located inside the goal posts, the kick must be good.

At the time, the play was not reviewable although the referees had a pow-wow to discuss it and changed their initial ruling. The following year the league passed the rule which now allows the refs the opportunity to review a field goal that bounces around.

In 2012, Baltimore hosted the New England Patriots. With seconds remaining, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker lined up for a game winning field goal from the nine-yard line. The kick was high and traveled about three feet above the upright and ruled good. The Patriots, however, said the ball went directly over the yellow upright, which would have been ruled no good.

There is a referee stationed underneath both uprights whose job is to determine if the ball goes through the goal posts or is outside.

There were numerous discussions about what to do next to prevent this from happening again. One idea was to have lasers installed just like tennis. Another thought was to implant a chip inside a special kicking ball while another was to install a digital grid for field goal attempts similar to what baseball has for a pitcher’s strike zone.

In 2014, “the Tucker Rule” was enacted through the league’s competition committee. The final idea was to raise the uprights another 15 feet. But transportation of something 45 in length plus manufacturing costs resulted in the uprights being raised from 30 feet to 35 feet tall.

For 2015, a new rule prohibited players from dunking the ball over the crossbar. Also in this year, the NFL experimented with a narrower opening in goal posts in the Pro Bowl.

How goal posts are made

There are only a few companies that make football goal posts. One is Sportsfield Specialties out of Delhi, New York.

The most used goal posts are called AdjustRight. This system allows a football goal post to be lowered and removed from any athletic field in just minutes.

Most venues and stadiums are used for other things besides football such as concerts, soccer matches, track meets, tractor pulls, Monster truck races and many more non-sports related events. The goal posts need to be removed, stored and then re-installed.

This hydraulic hinged system is able to lower the goal posts for disassembly or for carting off as a complete unit. Beforehand, the task was to take the thing apart using ladders and a whole lot of man-power.

Six-inch schedule 40, 6061 aluminum is used to make the goal posts. The gooseneck stanchion section is schedule 40, 6063 aluminum pipe. The aluminum crossbar is saw cut to fit the NFL size of 18 feet, six inches.

Next, an aluminum gooseneck coupler is gas metal arc welded into place at the direct center of the crossbar. This hollow aluminum pipe has high heat temperature issues, so to prevent any distortion two convex crossbar positioning fixtures were invented. This fixture solved the problem of curvatures that just weren’t accurate. Two crossbars can be worked on at the same time. The material is then pre-loaded to allow for distortion from the heat, which preemptively corrects potential bending.

Goal posts for football and soccer

Then on each end, holes are milled out on the top of the crossbar to which a rotating sleeve is inserted. A stub is then welded into the sleeve. From there an aluminum cap is welded which closes each end. Finally, an integrated wind directional flag clip is welded.

Today, a lot of goal posts for colleges, high schools and rec leagues are designed with a football upright and a soccer net below.

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