The Football Huddle: When Was It First Used?

Football team in huddle

The football huddle came about during the 1890s. This was about 25 years after intercollegiate football began being played in the United States.

From the beginning, the game was popular at colleges. As its popularity grew, some of the rules and practices evolved to fit the game as it was being played.

The game was also frequently played at schools for the hearing impaired as it was a great team sport for bonding and for leadership.

The use of the football huddle came about at one of these schools.

The Need for a Football Huddle

In its formative years, football was a more casual game. Teammates would make their strategy known through a quick conversation on the field. For the most part, teams could be far enough away from each other that there was little risk that an opposing team member would pick up on what was being said.

grainy photograph of the Gallaudet football team.
The Gallaudet football team, 1895.

A different situation arose at schools for the deaf where sign language was used.  Because both teams were often from schools for the hearing impaired, everyone who could see the quarterback’s moving hands understood most of what was being said.

In the mid-1890s, Paul D. Hubbard (1871-1946) was the quarterback for the Gallaudet University football team. (Gallaudet University, founded in 1864 in Washington, D.C., was the first school to offer higher education for the deaf.)  In the midst of a game, Hubbard noticed a change in attention that came over everyone on the field when he was communicating upcoming plays to his teammates.

Hubbard came up with a solution. Before any communication over play, he gathered his team around him in a huddle. In this way, his hand movements could not be seen by the other team.

Hubbard played as part of the Gallaudet team from 1892-95. He was team captain in 1893, so one would assume that the earliest use of the huddle was in that year.

Graduates from Gallaudet who wanted to teach usually had to accept jobs that were far from Gallaudet. There were not many specialty schools and colleges, so most future teachers would have moved to other states for employment. For that reason, the use of the football huddle probably spread nationally more quickly than it might have if it had begun at a school whose graduates could get jobs nearby.

Verifying the Claim

There is no written documentation that verifies Hubbard’s invention

football huddle
Paul Hubbard, quarterback

of the football huddle, but when one examines other reports, the huddle still comes back to Hubbard and Gallaudet. In Dr. I.H. Baker’s encyclopedic book, Football: Facts and Figures (1945), Baker traces the first use of the football huddle to 1896 at the University of Georgia. Schools for the deaf might have been easily overlooked by someone writing a general book about football. The facts still reveal then that Hubbard’s huddle was first.

Hubbard and the Football Huddle

Hubbard was to have graduated from Gallaudet in 1896, but for some reason he left before his final year. A native of Kansas, he returned to his home state, and he was soon hired by his alma mater, the Kansas State School for the Deaf in Olathe, Kansas.

In 1899, he started a football program at Kansas State, and no doubt taught the team the huddle. He spent his career teaching and coaching at Kansas State. Forty-three years later, upon the occasion of his retirement, the school named the athletic field in his honor.

Tracing the Story

He and his Gallaudet teammates stayed in touch. Several wrote to congratulate him on his retirement and the naming honor.  In a letter from classmate Herbert C. Merrill that is quoted in Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America by Jack Gannon, Merrill references a news story:

“The item ascribes the origin of the football ‘huddle’ to you. It must have been during the time that the College had that scrub team that made all the teams around Washington, including the Naval Academy, look silly.” [Letter dated March 6, 1942; Museum at Kansas School for the Deaf, Olathe, KS.]

So Paul Hubbard, a quarterback from Gallaudet University, found a solution to a problem that doesn’t go away—the opposing team wanting to know what the offensive team is going to try.

Think of Hubbard and Gallaudet next time you see players in a football huddle. Think of him, too, when the coaches put their clipboards in front of their mouths every time they are about to say anything.

In football, the unexpected can make all the difference.  A football huddle helps maintain a team’s element of surprise.

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2 thoughts on “The Football Huddle: When Was It First Used?”

  1. Pingback: Alice Cogswell: Bright Child Who Inspired Education for Deaf in U.S. - America Comes Alive

  2. Pingback: TIL The huddle formation in American football was first used in the 1890s by quarterback Paul Hubbard,who was deaf. Hubbard was concerned the other team could interpret his hand signals, so he brought his teammates into a round formation to call plays. -

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