How the Greeks Invented Football

“Except the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origin.”

–Sir Henry Sumner Maine

Homeric Greece, Cradle of Western Civilization, The Iliad and the Odyssey

Sir Henry Sumner Maine 1822-1888, author of Ancient Law (London, 1st ed. 1866). 

I. Harpastum

Harpastum was ancient football/rugby played by the Ancient Greeks, passed to the Romans, then passed by the Romans to the British Isles, and in turn to America, which derived American Football from it. There is little doubt it is Greek in origin.


“Harpastum, also known as harpustum, was a form of ball game played in the Roman Empire. The Romans also referred to it as the small ball game. The ball used was small (not as large as a follis, paganica, or football-sized ball) and hard, probably about the size and solidity of a softball. The word harpastum is the latinisation of the Greek ἁρπαστόν (harpaston),[1] the neuter of ἁρπαστός (harpastos), “carried away”,[2] from the verb ἁρπάζω (harpazo), “to seize, to snatch”.[3]

This game was apparently a romanized version of a Greek game called phaininda (Greek: φαινίνδα[4]), or of another Greek game called ἐπίσκυρος (episkyros).[5][6][7][8][9][10] It involved considerable speed, agility and physical exertion.
Little is known about the exact rules of the game, but sources indicate the game was a violent one with players often ending up on the ground. In Greece, a spectator (of the Greek form of the game) once had his leg broken when he got caught in the middle of play.” (citations omitted)

There is little doubt it is the same violent game we know today as football or rugby based on contemporary accounts, and why not?  The Greeks and Romans loved sports, and they had huge stadiums!

Harpastum, or Football Very Old School

“Athenaeus[11] writes:

“Harpastum, which used to be called phaininda, is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, ‘Damn it, what a pain in the neck I’ve got.’ He describes the game thus: ‘He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of Out of bounds, Too far, Right beside him, Over his head, On the ground, Up in the air, Too short, Pass it back in the scrum.'”

Galen, in On Exercise with the Small Ball,[12] describes harpastum as:

“better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing.”; it was “profitable training in strategy”, and could be “played with varying degrees of strenuousness.” Galen adds, “When, for example, people face each other, vigorously attempting to prevent each other from taking the space between, this exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one, involving much use of the hold by the neck, and many wrestling holds.”

An anonymous poet[13] praises the ball skills of Piso:

“No less is your nimbleness, if it is your pleasure to return the flying ball, or recover it when falling to the ground, and by a surprising movement get it within bounds again in its flight. To watch such play the populace remains stockstill, and the whole crowd suddenly abandons its own games.”

Julius Pollux[14] includes harpastum and phaininda in a list of ball games:

“Phaininda takes its name from Phaenides, who first invented it, or from phenakizein (to deceive),[15] because they show the ball to one man and then throw to another, contrary to expectation. It is likely that this is the same as the game with the small ball, which takes its name from harpazein (to snatch);[16] and perhaps one would call the game with the soft ball by the same name.”

Sidonius Apollinaris describes a ball game in one of his letters:[17]

“And now the illustrious Filimatius sturdily flung himself into the squadrons of the players, like Virgil’s hero, ‘daring to set his hand to the task of youth’; he had been a splendid player himself in his youth. But over and over again, he was forced from his position among the stationary players by the shock of some runner from the middle, and driven into the midfield, where the ball flew past him, or was thrown over his head; and he failed to intercept or parry it. More than once he fell prone, and had to pick himself up from such collapses as best he could; naturally he was the first to withdraw from the stress of the game.”

The general impression from these descriptions is of a game quite similar to rugby. Additional descriptions suggest a line was drawn in the dirt, and that the teams would endeavor to keep the ball behind their side of the line and prevent the opponents from reaching it. This seems rather like an “inverted” form of football. If the opponents had the ball on their side of the line, the objective would seem to be to get in and “pass” it to another player, or somehow get it back over the line. The ancient accounts of the game are not precise enough to enable the reconstruction the rules in any detail.

In an epigram, Martial makes reference to the dusty game of harpasta in reference to Atticus’ preference for running as exercise:[18] “No hand-ball (pila), no bladder-ball (follis), no feather-stuffed ball (paganica) makes you ready for the warm bath, nor the blunted sword-stroke upon the unarmed stump; nor do you stretch forth squared arms besmeared with oil, nor, darting to and fro, snatch the dusty scrimmage-ball (harpasta), but you run only by the clear Virgin water (the Aqua Virgo aqueduct).”
(citations omitted)

II.  How Chuck Drulis a Greek American Football Coach Invented the Safety Blitz

Who was Chuck Drulis?  He was a Temple Grad who played for the Bears and a year for the Packets from 1942-50.  He was a two way player, an Offensive Guard and Defensive LB, in the era of Iron Man Football.  He was was 5 ft 10 but a solid 216.

Chuck Drulis as Player and as Coach – Old School!  Temple/Bears/Packers/Cards etc. 

Inventor of the Blitz with HOF Safety Larry Wilson, 1960 Cardinals

Later, Drulis would coach.

“Charles John Drulis (March 8, 1918 – August 23, 1972) was an American football player and coach born in Girardville, Pennsylvania. He attended Temple University and played seven seasons in the National Football League.[1] Drulis, along with his brothers Joe and Albert, who also played in the NFL, was elected into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.  Drulis made his professional debut in the NFL in 1942 with the Chicago Bears but spent the next two-and-a-half seasons in military service during World War II. He returned to the Bears in 1945 and played there until 1949. Drulis spent his final season with the Green Bay Packers….”

(citations omitted)

Chuck Drulis and Old School Football Playing/Coaching

It was in 1960 that Drulis, then a secondary coach with the woeful St. Louis Cardinals, would invent a play that would change football forever.

That play was the Blitz.

But it would take more than just the brilliance of Chuck Drulis.

He also needed a secondary guy who was fast enough to rush the QB from the corner or safety position and get to the QB in time; guys were slow back then.  

And then came Larry Wilson, Hall of Fame Safety.

Larry Wilson, HOF Safety, St Louis Cardinals, 1960-72.  HOF.  Co-inventor of the Safety Blitz with Chuck Drulis.  One of the top Ten Safeties ever to play in the NFL.  

So basically, it took a Greek, and a HOF athletic freak (of nature) to pull off the safety blitz;

“During his tenure as secondary coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, Drulis devised a play that called for one of the safeties to take part in a blitz, code-named “Wildcat.” He believed this would result in severe pressure on the quarterback, since a blitz by a defensive back is not usually anticipated. However, at first he didn’t think he had a player with the athleticism to run the play. That changed during training camp in 1960, when the Cardinals signed a cornerback from Utah named Larry Wilson. Drulis believed he’d found the player he needed for his scheme, and persuaded the Cardinals to convert Wilson to free safety. Largely due to the play, Wilson blossomed into one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, and became so identified with it that “Wildcat” became his nickname.”

(citations omitted)

The rest, as they say, is history.  The Safety Blitz is run on nearly every passing/long yardage defensive down now in the NFL–but a Greek American coach invented the play!

III. How a Greek American LB on the Chicago Bears Invented the Middle Linebacker Position

Bill George was a tremendous LB for George Halas’ Chicago Bears from 1952-1965, helping the Bears to the 1963 NFL Championship and achieving the NFL HOF.

Bill George, Glory of the 1950s-60s Papa Bear Chicago Bears.  Inventor of MLB position & 4-3 Defense, 1954-55.  Greatest Greek-American Football Player Ever. 

Bill George didnt just play LB.  He also played offensive Guard, was a Defensive Tackle at Wake Forest (first ever All American in Football from Wake Forest at that position), played DT for the Bears, and started out playing Nose Tackle for the Bears.

Why?  Because in 1952, most offenses ran the ball, so most defenses aligned in a 5-2-2-2 or 5-2-4 defense, with 5 down defensive linemen, with two defensive ends, two defensive tackles and a nose guard or middle guard opposite the center.

When Cleveland and San Francisco came into the NFL in 1950, more passing arrived.  Bill George began to notice something playing nose guard or middle guard–that many passes throwb over the middle were hitting him in the head or helmet as he rushed.

Why not drop back as a linebacker and cover those over the middle passes, he reasoned? he talked it over with Papa Bear Halas, and together, they invented the Middle Linebacker position around 1954-55.  

This revolutionized football forever, and made the Bears the dominant defensive team for the next ten years.

“George is credited as the first true middle linebacker in football history and, inadvertently, the creator of the 4–3 defense….Noting during a 1954 game with the Philadelphia Eagles that his tendency to hit the center right after the snap led to the quarterback passing right over his head, he began to drop back from the line, not only enabling him to intercept and otherwise disrupt several passes from that game forward but also creating the familiar 4–3 setup (four linemen and three linebackers)….”

(citations omitted)

In addition to his 18 career interceptions, George also recovered 19 fumbles, and in 1954 scored 25 points on 13 PATs and four field goals. In 1963, he led the Bears defense when they won the NFL Championship.[2]

“George was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. The Bears retired his uniform number 61. In a 1989 article, in which he named his choices for the best athletes ever to wear each uniform number from 0 to 99, Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly not only chose George for number 61, but called him “the meanest Bear ever,” no small thing considering the franchise’s long history and reputation for toughness. In 1999, he was ranked number 49 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. George was killed in an automobile accident in Rockford, Illinois on September 30, 1982….” (citations omitted) Id. 

“Its true the late Bill George gets forgotten now a bit because of Dick Butkus, but if I was picking my alltime Bears team, I’d put George in the middle and Butkus on the outside.”

–anonymous NFL source

Bill George, Hall of Famer.  Chicago Bear.  His Number #61 has been forever retired by the Chicago Bears. 

IV. Summary 

Football itself.  The Safety Blitz.  The Middle Linebacker and the 4-3 Defense.  The 1963 Chicago Bears NFL Title Team.  Chuck Drulis, Bill George & Larry Wilson.  True Stories of the NFL.  How Greeks and Greek Americans invented football.  

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s