It’s fall in North America, which means two things: foliage and football. We’ve covered foliage season, so it’s time to delve into the autumn ritual that involves colliding shoulder pads and barbecue-scented tailgate parties. It’s time for a road trip into the history of American football.
I’ve outlined an itinerary here that enables you to sample a great deal of the game’s history. From Massachusetts to Wisconsin, it takes you to classic stadiums, historic sites and halls of fame. You could no doubt plan another interesting journey through some of the football hotbeds that stretch across Texas and the southeastern United States, but if you want to get in touch with the history and roots of American football then this is the road trip for you.
The driving time is about 30 hours, but it will likely take at least two weeks to do the trip. That would enable you to visit the sites, take in most of the tours and see a few select football games. If you want to see games at more venues, you’ll have to stretch out the trip to include more weekends. And, of course, do a lot of advance planning for tickets.
We’re going to begin the tour in Boston, because if the goal is to explore the history of football then we might as well begin at Harvard.
You see, the game now known as American football has its roots in both rugby and soccer, but in the mid-19th century a hybrid known as the “Boston game” emerged and Harvard was one of the first schools to play the sport. Then, in 1903, Harvard built the country’s first permanent concrete football stadium. Still in use today, Harvard Stadium is a National Historic Landmark. Located just across the Charles River from Harvard’s campus, you can take in a game there or at least wander by the structure, which was considered an engineering marvel when it was built and is known for its Greek architectural style.
When you’re done with that bit of history, you can enjoy a more contemporary glimpse into the sport about 30 miles down the road in Foxborough, which has been home to the New England Patriots since 1971. The Patriots were the most successful NFL team of the past decade and Gillette Stadium is a state of the art facility. Even if you can’t get game tickets, it’s worth visiting Patriot Place, which houses a Hall of Fame for New England football and numerous interactive exhibits.
New York and Connecticut
From Boston you’ll head to the New York area, but on the way you should stop in New Haven to see the Yale Bowl. Another stadium that is a National Historic Landmark (the others are the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Coliseum), this was the first bowl-shaped football stadium. Yale’s facility was therefore the inspiration for many future fields, not to mention the naming of college football’s “bowl games.”
Just outside of Manhattan – in East Rutherford, New Jersey – is the New Meadowlands Stadium, which opened in 2010 and is the only facility that hosts two NFL teams. The Giants and Jets have some of the most passionate fans in the country so if you can snag a game ticket you’ll surely enjoy the experience. The stadium also offers public tours on certain days, including a visit to the Legacy Club that serves as the Giants Hall of Fame and highlights a club history that dates to 1925.
Pennsylvanians take their football seriously. In Philadelphia, you’ll find diehard fans rooting for their beloved Eagles, who date their franchise history to 1933. Lucky visitors can get a taste of this passion during a game at Lincoln Financial Field. Or you can take a tour of the stadium.
While you’re in Philadelphia, you should also see Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin Field was built in 1895 and is the oldest NCAA football facility. It was also the site of the country’s first scoreboard and first football radio broadcast. The Eagles competed here from 1958 to 1970, and won the 1960 NFL title on this field when they defeated the Green Bay Packers and handed Vince Lombardi the only playoff loss of his career.
It’s about five hours from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, but if you throw in a little detour to State College you can sample some of the ardor that grips followers of Penn State football. Beaver Stadium is one of the largest and most raucous stadiums in the country, with seating for 107,000 Nittany Lions fans. You can explore the team’s storied history at the Penn State Sports Museum.
Then, in western Pennsylvania, you’ll arrive in Steeler country. The Pittsburgh Steelers were founded in 1933 and are one of the most successful NFL franchises of all time. They play at Heinz Field, which is also home to the college Pittsburgh Panthers. The stadium sits near the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers and offers views of the Pittsburgh skyline. Heinz Field has public tours, which include a visit to the Great Hall – 40,000-square-feet of memorabilia dedicated not only to the Steelers and Panthers, but also to the bountiful history of football throughout western Pennsylvania. In fact, the first fully professional football game was played in 1895 in Latrobe, not far from Pittsburgh.
If professional football was born in Pennsylvania, though, it grew up in Ohio. The Ohio League was an early 20th century association of teams that is considered the direct predecessor to today’s National Football League. The NFL was formed in Canton, Ohio, as the American Professional Football Association in 1920.
One of the first professional franchises was located in Cleveland and that city on the shores of Lake Erie is still home to a zealous fan base. Browns Stadium is a classic site for enjoying a football game, especially when spectators in the Dawg Pound get excited. But if you can’t see a game you can always join a stadium tour.
Just an hour south of Cleveland is a must-see stop for all football fans: the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The NFL was founded at a car dealership in Canton and now this central Ohio city plays host to 200,000 football fans a year. The Hall has 83,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to the history of football and to the enshrinement of hundreds of the game’s greatest players.
After indulging your love of pro football, it’s time to veer back to the college game. It’ll take you about eight hours of driving in three states, but you can visit three of the most fervent college football towns in the country. The first one is south of Canton at the Columbus home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. The horseshoe-shaped Ohio Stadium, which opened in 1922, has seating for 102,000 fans and is listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Public tours of this renowned stadium are available year-round.
Michigan and Indiana
Continue your homage to college football in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Football-crazed fans at the University of Michigan attend games at the country’s largest arena, as Michigan Stadium has a capacity of just under 110,000. Stadium tours are available but must be scheduled in advance.
Three hours west of Ann Arbor is South Bend, Indiana, which has two football attractions that are worthy of a visit. The first, of course, is the University of Notre Dame. Good luck getting a game ticket, but if you’re fortunate then you’ll be treated to an iconic spectacle. But even without attending a game, you can wander the campus, get a look at the “Touchdown Jesus” mural at Hesburgh Library, or tip a pint at the Legends of Notre Dame Alehouse. And, although you can’t tour Notre Dame Stadium, what you can do on Fridays during football season is tour the tunnel that Fighting Irish players emerge from on game days.
Also in South Bend is the College Football Hall of Fame. Here, you can explore artifacts from the history of the college game, see a Heisman Trophy, participate in interactive exhibits, and learn about the more than 300 inductees into the College Hall of Fame.
Illinois and Wisconsin
Our tour of American football history ends on the shores of Lake Michigan at the homes of two of the oldest and most storied NFL franchises: the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.
The Bears (who were originally known as the Decatur Staleys before moving to Chicago in 1921) have won nine professional football titles and have more Hall of Famers than any other team. They play at historic Soldier Field, which opened in 1924. Public tours of the stadium include the playing field and the visitors’ locker room.
Finally, three-and-a-half hours north of Chicago is the home of the Green Bay Packers. The Packers’ history dates to 1921 and the team has won 12 league titles. Lambeau Field is one of the most venerated stadiums in the league and public tours take you through the stadium and the players’ tunnel. Also on-site is the Packers Hall of Fame, which has 25,000-square feet of exhibits, including the team’s Super Bowl trophies and a re-creation of the office of famed coach Vince Lombardi. It’s an appropriate conclusion to this nine-state tour of some of the most famous sites in American football.
Map and directions
Here is a map of this road trip. If you click on the “football road trip” link, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information about the journey.
View Football road trip in a larger map